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Welcome to the first installment of BACK TO BASICS, a LL feature that aims at simplifying common fitness and health questions so that everyone, from beginner to expert, can understand them.  This week, I thought I’d address THE most common question I get as a fitness professional:

What’s more important – DIET or EXERCISE?

First off, I think this is a common question because no one really WANTS to hear the answer, let alone put it into practice.  We all kind of know what the answer is in the back of our brains.

Simply put, if you’re looking to lose weight or change your physique, DIET plays a more important role than exercise.  You’ve probably heard the saying, “You can’t out train a bad diet.”  Well, it’s true.  You can’t.  Actually, I suppose that if you were in the gym for 6-7 hours a day, blasting out burpees and deadlifts, you probably could eat most anything you wanted.  But your body would fight back with injuries or sickness.  Not good.

Let’s talk about an average person.  Susie goes to the gym for an hour a day, working hard, burning anywhere from 500-700 calories.  Then she spends the other 23 hours of her day sitting at a desk, laying on the couch or sleeping in her bed.  She burns calories doing those activities, but just enough to function.  Since she goes to the gym, she splurges on a bowl of ice cream most every night, thinking that she “earned it.”  When Susie weighs herself, the scale doesn’t budge.  In fact, Susie’s weight might go up a pound or two every year.  She’s at a loss as to why she cannot lose weight.

The reason she can’t lose weight has very little to do with the one hour she spends in the gym.  It’s the other 23 hours in the day that are most important!

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Maybe you’re Susie.  Or maybe you work out MORE than Susie.  Maybe you starve yourself during the day and binge eat at night.  Whatever you do, you won’t see a REAL and SIGNIFICANT change in your physique until you change the way you eat.

I know first hand.

Back in December, I was eating basically whatever I wanted (Christmas cookies, nachos, daily ice cream, etc) and still working out like a mad woman.  I gained weight.  Not a lot, and in fact, I wrote about it here and expected it to happen.  But I did gain.  As soon as January came and I changed my diet (cut out sugar and processed foods), my body changed drastically.  The workouts I was doing didn’t change.  In fact, I starting working out LESS and I still had amazing results.

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This isn’t some novel idea – it’s been around for quite some time.  One of my favorite authors, Tosca Reno, has a great set of books called, “The Eat-Clean Diet,” where she outlines this principle.

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[source]

As seen above, your food intake makes up approximately 80% of the weight loss equation!!  That’s huge!  And honestly, it’s a bit discouraging.  It’s easier to go work out for an hour than it is to restrict what we put into our mouths.  I recently asked a question on my Facebook page:  What’s harder for you?  DIET or EXERCISE?  And, of course, the vast majority answered DIET.

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The follow-up question to all of this is:  WHAT SHOULD WE BE EATING?!?!

That’s easy.

Whole Foods.  Real foods. 

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole Grains
  • Lean Proteins
  • Healthy Fats
  • …And lots of Water

Our bodes THRIVE off of foods that closely resemble their natural state.  The less processing that takes place, the better.  The less labeled foods, the better. If the food has a TV commercial for it, you probably shouldn’t be eating it.  This whole foods idea goes FAR deeper than weight loss – eating a whole food diet effects your skin, your digestion, your energy level and your vitality.  THAT’S why we should be eating this way.  To FEEL BETTER.  Not just to look better!

Can you out train a poor diet?  NO. 

And maybe you shouldn’t TRY.

QUESTION:  Diet or Exercise – What’s the hardest part for you??

splendid…lindsay

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  2. Kloe says:

    This is such a great post, I love it!
    It provides to much valuable information that so many people just don’t realise and then get disheartened when they’re not seeing the results they want.
    I know I for one sometimes struggle with my diet, food can sometimes definitely get the best of me; but I’ve got to keep in mind just how important diet is.
    as long as we’re all eating whole, natural, unprocessed foods most of the time everyday; and training moderately, we’ll be able to reach out goals :)

    thanks for the grea advice.

    Kloe xx

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  4. Emily says:

    Great post, Lindsay! Diet is for sure harder for me, but I find the harder and more frequently I’m working out, the easier my diet is. Especially if I work out in the morning! I make smarter, more conscious choices all day long knowing I got up early and worked my bum off!

  5. Sarah McBride says:

    I love your back to the basics concept! What an important topic that many people probably haven’t given much though to. Diet is so much harder, because bad choices are everywhere. When you are hungry they can be very hard to avoid. Most people have gotten the point the point that they need to be active, but might be less clear on nutrition issues. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to more of these posts!!

  6. Erika says:

    I love to workout. I eat well enough that my weight has been steady for quite some time now. I am not underweight at all but my doctor has suggested that I might consider putting on some weight as we try to get pregnant. So, do I stop working out (would hate that!) or eat more?

  7. Bek @ Crave says:

    Diet is definitely harder because I’m so passionate about exercise it’s no issue. Diet’s hard cause I have a sweet tooth although I eat fairly well. My biggest issue is probably not eating enough or being too ‘rigid’ because of a past ED.

  8. Carly @ Snack Therapy says:

    I’m in love with this Back to Basics series. For me, both diet AND exercise can be tough, but they usually go hand-in-hand. When I’m exercising, I want to eat healthy! And when I’m eating healthy, I have so much energy that I want to exercise!

    But… When I’m NOT making healthy choices, I feel too lazy and sluggish to exercise. So I want to eat more. So I want to exercise less. So I want to… Yeah, pretty vicious cycle!

  9. Suzie says:

    I totally needed to read this today. I have been struggling so much lately with this. I had my first child 18 months ago, lost a lot of weight while nursing him, then when I stopped in August, from then until now, I have gained 13 lbs! I feel like I starve myself during the day, try to exercise 40 minutes every day, but by the time night rolls around, I am so hungry and just don’t care anymore. In any case, this was a good pick me up for me. Thanks! :)

  10. Lauren @ Oatmeal after Spinning says:

    DIET. By far. And for me- it’s not about “what” you eat- it’s about how much. Almost everything I eat is “healthy” (organic, low fat, low sugar, mostly veggies, etc.) but my battle has always been “how much.”
    There was a point in my life when I exercised every day for almost three hours. And I still gained weight. I wasn’t eating 5,000 calories or anything- maybe 2,000 max, ever. But yeah, I still work out a lot (nowhere near what I used to) and it takes me almost a month to lose a pound. It’s just how my body is- and I’m always trying to find that perfect balance and exactly what/how much to eat. It’s tough!
    AND YES. Genetics definitely plays a part in it!

  11. Lisa says:

    Excellent post Lindsay! I think most of us know that diet is the most important, but it’s hard to put it into practice, especially with all the additives in foods now a days that makes it extremely addictive, and honestly hard to “get off” eating them daily. Processed sugar is addictive and we’re going to crave it like crazy if we go from eating it everyday to not eating it. But, it does get MUCH easier with time and effort, and keeping goals in mind. It also becomes hard for people when they see “vegan is the best, paleo is the best, gluten free is the best”. I think people get confused when there are SO many different “best diets”. When really it’s about quality of food and ingredients.

  12. GiGi Eats Celebrities says:

    HEY 20 pack! I have some laundry to do over here, mind if I use your washboard? Oh thanks! ;)

    And I COMPLETELY and UTTERLY AGREE and I have said it all along!!!! 80 % diet, 10 % exercise, 10 % genetics!!! Seriously. Eat the cleanest diet on the face of the planet and get 6 pack abs!! Exercise until the cows come home but nosh on donuts… Yeah, you will still have a donut around your ass!! LOL

  13. Annette@FitnessPerks says:

    To be honest, and I don’t mean to be annoying, but neither one is hard for me, at least RIGHT now in my life. I feel pretty blessed. But the eating part was definitely hard when I was anorexic and then in my disordered eating stage (and recovery stages). But now?? I LOVE to work out (and teach fitness) so I fuel right to do that well. It’s a nice combo for me right now!

  14. Emily [Fit and Free with Emily] says:

    LOVE this post!

    First off, can we talk about your ABS?! Dang, girl! ;)

    Okay. Moving on. I’m saving this post and re-reading it every time I think “oh, this extra piece won’t matter,” when really that extra piece just negated the last 45 minutes I spent busting my butt in the gym.

  15. Kelly says:

    I think food easier for me. I feel instantly bad when I go several days of eating crap food. But if I am eating healthy foods and not exercising then I still feel fine. I workout because I know it is good for me but I also know that if I don’t get up and do my workout first thing in the morning it aint gonna happen! ha! :)

  16. Lindsay says:

    Food is actually easy for me because I LOVE healthy foods and eat clean probably 95% of the time. However, what is not so easy for me is alcohol!! Due to work dinners, happy hour with the girls, new boyfriend, weekend sporting events, etc. I end up having way more wine and beer than I probably should. I’m not slamming drinks or anything, but for me even one glass of wine can throw me off. It’s a vicious cycle..if I’m out having drinks I want a snack when I get home (a healthy one but it’s too late to be eating), I sleep poorly, I’m not as efficient with my workout the next morning…ugh! I know all the “mocktail” tricks and what not, which I do sometimes, but it’s not the same. Do you drink alcohol at all? Any tips on regulating this???

  17. Lindsay says:

    A completely balanced diet is a tough thing to master. I set aside Sunday to shop for all the food I know I SHOULD be eating and make sure I can come up with ways to cook it to make it taste great (and still be healthy). I try to think of it as a challenge. Sometimes I’m successful, and then sometimes I get sticky fingers from too many handfuls of trail mix ;)

  18. Maria says:

    Sad but true, right? :)

    The good news for me is that exercise LEADS to better eating. I sometimes have to drag myself to workout, so you can bet that I’m not going to waste it by what I put in my mouth. Easier said than done, but for the most part, on days when I workout , I naturally eat better.

  19. Nicole C says:

    Diet/clean eating. I have the worst anxiety at that thought of eating veggies. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a huge struggle and I just can’t get past it.

  20. Brittany says:

    LOVE this post Lindsay! I agree with everything you said. I find it pretty easy to eat healthy but portion control is the biggest issue for me. It’s something that I have to continue working on each and every day.

  21. Sara @ fitcupcaker says:

    Ive always known that “abs are made in the kitchen” but I still stress about taking more than 2 days away from the gym lol… I still eat pretty healthy though but I def know that if you want your body to look a certain way you have to eat right!

  22. Christin@christinjoyful says:

    Diet was and is definitely harder for me than exercise…I am a chocoholic! But right now i’m doing Fitmixer’s bootcamp, and i’m work SO HARD on my diet…it’s becoming easier as the healthier habits are starting to take hold :)

  23. Kammie @ Sensual Appeal says:

    Yeah I contributed to your conversation on your FB and for me, diet is more difficult as well. I love food. I wish it was different but it’s not. Especially when you sit for long periods of time… or when you’re bored. What would you think of? Food. (I’m talking about me, not you lol I don’t know why I keep using “you” in this lol) Sigh. Trying!

  24. Amanda N says:

    Great post! I think a lot of people think they can choose between diet and exercise and don’t realize they go hand in hand.While I like exercising, it’s certainly the harder of the two for me.

  25. Alissa says:

    I love this post! I 100% agree with you that it’s Diet and that 80/20 works for a good amount of people. I have to say that exercise is hard for me if I don’t have my equipment. I use to be a HUGE gym rat when I lived in Florida and 5 of us joined a gym together. Once I moved and knew no one I didn’t like going to the gym without my friends as much. It’s silly I know because most of the time we went even doing the same thing, it was just knowing they were there pushed me. I got TurboFire from BeachBody last summer and it changed my life, I love it! We just moved again and I want to get back to the gym, but for now it’s Les Mills Body Combat for me.

  26. Katie @ KatiEenPursuit says:

    This is such an awesome post Lindsay, so many people do not believe it’s diet that makes the largest effect! It is probably the toughest for me, I just try to focus on how I “feel” after eating a healthy & balanced diet rather than saying “I can” or “Can’t” have something. Really looking forward to this series :)

  27. Natalie @ Free Range Human says:

    I suppose I would have to say diet, but, honestly, I feel like I do pretty well in that area. I eat healthy, I don’t eat a ton, and I work out like a maniac and I still don’t see the results I want on the scale. Have no idea what the problem is!

    • Katherine says:

      I have a lot of clients in your boat and typically the issue is they are actually eating too little! Eating too little is just as dangerous as eating too much.

  28. Sara @ Nourish and Flourish says:

    Fantastic post, Lindsay! The diet vs. exercise conundrum really resonates with me, as I spent YEARS trying to out-exercise a bad diet. Did it work? Heck no! Did I spend hours in the gym each day and end up with injuries? You bet. It wasn’t until I cleaned up my diet that things began to stabilize. I think many people have a misunderstanding about the fitness/food equation because our society teaches that hard workouts deserve rewards (in the form of a sweet treat or indulgent meal). I hear my friends say it all the time: “I went to the gym…I deserve this cake!” I prefer the approach that we all “deserve” cake, whether we work out or not. The key–whether you’re a fitness fanatic or not–is keeping portions in check, and making indulgences “special,” rather than every day occurrences.

    Happy Tuesday!

  29. Bonnie says:

    So true. Diet trumps exercise every.single.time…so tough to do (obviously, that’s the hard part for me; I love movement and it’s not often I dread a workout!). I’m so aware of this fact but I still seem to struggle in the kitchen. I know life isn’t all about numbers, and I’m fairly good at not worrying/obsessing about it, but at the same time I was looking over some numbers and noticed I’ve gained 3% body fat (lbs don’t matter as much as muscle/fat to me!). In the process I gained some muscle, but then it’s gone down again and I know the fat is the main thing I’ve gained. I think I just enjoy life a little too much to worry about those extra lbs, yet when I see it I’m discouraged. Funny how that happens. It comes down to how much you want to see change – I must not want to see it bad enough right now!

    Whoa – lots of musings from Bon this morning! Feeling a little discouraged by that (especially after those abs – wahoo!) but know that it will come down to how strict I am in the kitchen. Bring it on! Or enjoy a little more softness. ;)

    Thanks for some good food/fitness truth this morning!

  30. Jana @ Happy Wife Healthy Life says:

    Diet is definitely hardest for me! I still struggle with finding that balance of diet/exercise. In college, I definitely struggled with working out too much in hopes that it would negate the things I was eating and I never saw a significant body change no matter how hard I worked! Reading posts like yours reminds me why!

  31. misszippy says:

    This is a cold hard truth that I know, but hate! I love exercise and can do it until the cows come home. I eat a very clean diet, but at 47, I am definitely learning that I have to eat less if I don’t want to gain weight. It’s no fun, but it’s reality.

    You are rocking the clean eating!

  32. Brittany @ GOtheXtraMile says:

    Love this post! It’s so true that you can’t out train a bad diet. I think diet is definitely the hardest for most people, especially since there is so many things out there that contradict each other. It would be SO much easier to workout and eat whatever and how ever much you wanted!

  33. Gabby @ Gabby's Gluten-Free says:

    Love, love, love! Ever since I’ve been doing my Whole30 challenge, I’ve noticed how MUCH my diet affects my training. I’m the leanest & strongest I’ve ever been and also eating the MOST & the CLEANEST I’ve ever eaten. You really can’t out train a bad diet.

  34. Katie @ Talk Less, Say More says:

    Great post Lindsay! Diet is HUGE and while I’ve been lucky enough to not have to worry TOO much about weight loss, for me it’s been all about maintaining my weight and improving my fitness level and my diet has played a huge part of that. And in fact, changing my diet improved SO many other “issues” like reducing the severity of headaches, my gut issues, etc.

  35. De @ Cooking for the Other Half says:

    This is an awesome post, and such an important topic!

    For me, it depends on the time of year, which may seem weird. In the summer, exercise is so easy- I love being outdoors, so I often just exercise by accident, whether it’s going for a really long walk, hiking, etc. It’s so much harder to motivate myself to work out in the winter, when all I want to do is sleep in, stay in comfy clothes, and curl up on the couch with coffee and a book. I like to think I eat well most of the time, and I genuinely enjoy “healthy” foods, so that helps. I feel better when I’m eating whole foods and lots of fruits & veggies.

  36. beccalou says:

    Thank you for posting this, Lindsay. Why something so simple is so difficult to put into practice on a day by day, choice by choice basis, I don’t know. What I do know is that after a 21 day Daniel fast, my taste buds and cravings have been awakened to the beauty of real food. Whole Foods. Things that make my mind and body function closer to how God intended it.
    old habits die hard, however, and I still struggle with evening binge eating… day by day and 1 step at a time, I am learning how to overcome over exercising and overeating in order to be a good steward of this body.
    The inspiration of your honesty about your struggles in all of that has played no small part… Thank you.

  37. Danielle says:

    Great post Lindsay and I couldn’t agree with you more! When I was overexercising, I actually lost weight when I cut back on the exercise but really cleaned up my diet. I love the saying if it has a commercial for it don’t eat it! So true! I also love your balanced approach to nutrition and would love to hear more about how you balance everyday life with eating healthy.

  38. Michelle @ Eat Move Balance says:

    I’m like you, and LOVE to exercise! It’s not a hassle for me….it’s actually my favorite time of day! So, I guess diet is where I could stand to pull in the reins a bit. But overall, I’m happy with the balance I have of both aspects, and balancing my diet to be healthy and enjoyable. :)

  39. Sarah @ The Smart Kitchen says:

    I commented on Heather’s blog yesterday that I could empathize with the ‘I overindulged on fried food and now I feel sluggish and blah’ feeling. Consuming too much processed foods makes such a change in how my body feels that I honestly don’t find it too hard to say ‘no’ to them. [This is not always the case, as there are some chip attacks on occasion.] Once you’ve made the food-body connection, it makes it a lot easier to say, “That will make my body feel bad.” [Not just weight control.]

    I don’t think either are particularly ‘easy.’ I can get really absorbed in what I’m eating, for better or for worse. I like the stress relief benefits of working out, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t like the feeling post-running of true hunger and satiation.

    Anyways…we obviously need to start filming commercials for vegetables.

  40. mary @ minutes per mile says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is a really good reminder — I wonder how 80% was calculated? I’d like to see more data on how that figure was determined, but I do believe diet is responsible for the majority of your health/appearance/weight loss goals.

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