Why Weight Loss Is Not 80% Diet and 20% Fitness

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Ask 100 people for their number one weight-loss rule and you'll likely hear 100 different answers, but there's one answer that seems to pop up time and time again: Weight loss is 80 percent diet and 20 percent fitness. The reasons behind this widely accepted truth include the idea that we burn fewer calories than expected during a workout and that it's easy to eat the equivalent amount of calories we burn during a workout directly after said workout. On the other hand, with food choices, it is easier to directly cut your calories and have a higher degree of certainty that those cut calories will lead to weight loss.
Don't get me wrong, this calorie equation makes sense—your calories from food are incredibly important in losing weight. Switching to healthier food choices in your appropriate calorie range, especially, will lead you to making a sustainable healthy lifestyle change that eventually doesn't even feel like a diet. Those changes include learning that healthy foods really can taste better than bad-for-you foods when you find proteins, fruits, vegetables, spices and recipes you genuinely love.
But guess what? You aren’t a calorie equation. 
You have a life that gets messy and challenging with setbacks due to stresses and demands on your time. By "you," I of course mean "all of us," myself included." We're all in the same boat trying to reach our various goals.
I often see SparkPeople members talking about this topic in our community as a reason to put most of their focus on food, which is why I want to counter this "80/20" way of thinking.
The underlying program I used to reach my goals and eventually build SparkPeople integrates the best of health and fitness with the best of goal setting, motivation, leadership and behavioral psychology. This is called the SparkPeople Fuel for Improvement System. Thanks to the support of SparkPeople members, my book, "The Spark," which discusses this program, even became a New York Times Bestseller!
As I work to build a Small Goals Commitment Challenge based upon the fundamentals laid out in my book, one of the top concepts I'm focusing on is called Crisscross Effects. Put simply, all areas of life have an impact on other areas of life and once you come to this realization, you are more likely to use many different ways to reach your weight-loss goals or any other life goals you may set for yourself.  
The journey to weight loss is a road filled with pot holes, hills and ditches, making the ability to adapt and embrace a flexible mindset crucial if you want to find success. To further demonstrate the point that the 80-percent-diet-20-percent-fitness concept is not without its flaws, consider a few real-life situations that shed light on goals in the big picture of life as they relate to Crisscross Effects.

Life—and Weight Loss—Is More Complex Than 80/20

Drinking Water and Eating Vegetables
People who consistently exercise often report that they find it easier for them to drink water and eat vegetables, which makes sense since the body needs rehydration after losing water to sweat. When you drink more water, it becomes easier to give up consuming sugared drinks like soda. As you can see from this simple example, exercise can result in consuming more water and vegetables, and less soda, important nutrition results that would not have been as likely without your sweat session.

Emotional Eating
In our early days at SparkPeople, we learned that emotional eating was the top issue facing our members. The topic is mentioned nearly every day in the SparkPeople Community Feed when someone mentions working to recover from a round of emotional eating. In other words, what is going on in your head can be just as, if not more important as what goes in your mouth.
Here again, exercise comes into play, as it is physiologically proven to lower stress levels. Positive support and relationships, as well as other stress management and mindfulness techniques, can also help to lower stress. Because much of our emotional eating results from a tension and anxiety due to overbooked schedules, pressure at work, emotional situations with family or friends, or any number of stressful situations, the ability to lower stress levels through exercise or other means can reduce the odds of emotional eating getting in the way of your goals. I love boxer Mike Tyson’s quote that says, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” When some type of stressor punches you in the face, you need ways to handle it in a way that doesn't lead you back to food.

How do you feel when you are really tired? Are you more likely to eat the closest items available? Are you more likely to eat sugary foods to get a quick energy fix? Are you more likely to drink extra caffeine beyond the moderate amount that is generally okay to consume? Are you less likely to take the time to prepare or choose healthy foods? All of this shows the importance of quality sleep on your nutrition choices.

Goals and Core Values
In my Small Goals Commitment Challenge, the very first activity I ask participants to think about is why they want to be healthy and fit. When you connect what goes into your mouth to what is most important to you in life—and realize that good health and fitness will help you reach your most important goals in life—then you are more likely to make better food choices. Here again, you can see how your goals can positively influence your daily nutrition choices.

In a quote posted on my Small Goals Commitment Challenge, SparkPeople member MORAVIANSTAR perfectly illustrates my argument against the hard-and-fast "80/20" philosophy:

“It struck me this morning when thinking about all your posts related to this 'challenge' that, overall, the focus is going away from diet and becoming much broader. When I have tried to lose weight in the past, my entire focus has been on food, which leads me to obsess about food, which leads me to think about eating all the time, which leads to eating too much (even if it's healthy stuff), which leads to very little weight loss! This new focus has me thinking about coming up with a mantra I can use—maybe something like, 'Is this decision (about whatever) going to further my good health plan.' This new 'challenge' has me starting to think in different ways about this entire issue."
Do you see how the 80 percent diet and 20 percent fitness way of thinking can actually be dangerous? Each of these other areas of life—fitness, sleep, stress management—have their own amazing benefits, but they also have Crisscross Effects that directly help people make better food choices. So even if food is the primary way to lose weight, this is a vastly better way to increase your odds of making better food choices. This is the real world of what happens to people every day, not simply a scientific measurement of calories.
If you are interested in learning more about this, visit my challenge. As of this writing, I have published eight activities and lessons for the challenge with many more to come.

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if you are making reference to a member... that person should have his or her page available... the whole point is to get encouraged by their progress... right? Report
It's all about the food choices and portion sizes. Report
It is all about the food you eat. Report
Great article as always Sparkguy! Report
Informative! Report
Great information! Report
Good article. Report
Great explanation of the crisscross effects. I just finished reading The Spark and found it very helpful. Highly recommend reading for those who have not. I look forward to each new lesson and activity you publish for the Small Goals Commitment Challenge. Thank you. Report
A careful reading of this article will show that nowhere does he propose that: "exercise will work off the pounds." THAT is the falsehood that keeps people on the weight loss merry-go-round. Yes, exercise makes you drink more water (possibly), may make you sleep better, and keeps you occupied and out of the kitchen, but it also makes you hungrier, makes you believe you "deserve" that treat, that you can "work it off" in the gym later. I think exercise (or movement) makes us all *feel* better, but if you want to lose weight -- it IS about your food choices and portion sizes. After all, how many of the same overweight people do you regularly see at your gym month after month? If going to the gym was the key, a fat person would walk in, and turn into a fit person within 8 months. Please don't think of The Biggest Loser as proof. Report
I agree that our bodies are not a simple equation. If weight loss were as simple as an equation, we could accurately calculate our weight loss each week. Each component interacts with each other and then our uniqueness comes into play. Sleep, stress, activity level, as well as exercise and diet all come into play. Report
Great! Report
Great article!!! Report
helpful Report
This fine line is hard to keep. Its different for all of us. Report
I think of this every time I put food in my mouth and it definitely have me rethinking my strategy. Even my workout has to be thought through with the question of furthering my good health plan. Good information. Report
This is great ! I always ask myself, Is this going to get me to where I want to be. I love reading others take on this. Thanks for sharing a great article ! Report
Love this!! Report
GREAT Report
I concur that we are each different and there is no one solution. Thanks for sharing this information. Report
I agree. Not everyone is the same , even the way we metabolize food is different that the way that "calories" are measured (if I recall correctly the fond calories are ACTUALLY Kilocalories 1000 cals) .There are a lot of variables in play so to give a one size fits all formula is rather misleading. I still maintain when I was really active in high school/college (pre car days) I was eating way more and was thin. Report
The 80/20 thing seems pretty accurate in my experience Report
I agree! Weight loss is definitely not formulaic! Report
You are so right Chris that there are so many things to consider. When I thought I needed to track better, I found a new problem crop up .... sleep needed improvement as a lack of it effects everything. Energy is necessary to get to the gym and no amount of scolding myself could make me put as much into it ... if I even made it period. The whole picture is kind of like the spokes on a bike. If one is broken, it effects them all. Fix the broken one so they can all work together and come into harmony. Good blog as always! Report
I get your point that having success in one area like exercise helps mentally influence your feelings on another area of your life that may not be going your way. However, weightloss is 100% diet. You can literally lay in a comma on a bed and lose weight if you are eating less calories then you are burning. We are an equation and people need to know that. Report
I believe fitness routines are very important and I have become better at including fitness since coming on SP. I remember when I first joined I read something by Sparkguy that mentioned keeping an exercise streak going. I've been riding my bike, doing exercise videos, and walking since January. But I think nutrition is equally important. That's why I like SP. You can track, discuss, and encourage both. I Was going to say instead of quoting mike Tyson, you could use the quote, "If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans." but that was a woody Allen quote so not much better. I guess everyone has their baggage. Report
Good info. I know I need to check my diet more. Report
Great blog, Chris, thanks. As someone who has been using the Four Cornerstones since you floated it back in ?November 2015 - this month I have the Fitness Cornerstone as my focus. I have a mind-map - on it there is: exercise, nutrition, habits, sleep, stress management. Setting it out in this way helps me to visualize some of the cross-over effects. I would say that learning to 'control' my eating has been key to my weight loss - so I'd still say it's nutrition first. However, I also know that if I stop running, the weight comes back on more easily. I now try to pay attention to all areas of the system. Thanks to you! Report
Super great blog! Thank you! Report
Have to agree that life is more complex than diet and exercise. However, of the two, diet has had far more impact on my health and well-being than exercise has. These are only two factors. It's been a holistic process for me ... stress management, adequate sleep, adequate hydration. appropriate nutrition (for me ... learned through nutrition tracking and trial and error), and activity/exercise.

I do see how this thinking can be dangerous. It is very easy to fall into either/or thinking which does not support our efforts. For me, not managing stress can easily lead to the unraveling of the other things I mentioned above and I know that walking helps promote stress reduction for me. It was, in fact, unbearable stress that launched my journey and a commitment to walking. Weight loss and improved health were simply side effects ... or should I say ... Chris-cross effects?

Thanks for this blog, Chris! Report
Interesting thoughts Report
Definitely food for thought (no pun intended!) Each facet of our life is intertwined, so for me, focusing on one aspect or another isn't as effective as asking that very question you posed -- or rather MORAVIANSTAR -- "is decision/choice going to further my good health plan." THAT is the question that needs to be asked!

Thank you so much for this article!!! Report
Thank you for a very informative article...I'll definitely check out the challenge! :) Report