KBW | Why you can't outwork a bad diet: and what to do instead for fat loss

Feb 11, 2020


Exercise is unbelievably important for health and wellness ….but it can’t overcome a bad diet.

pinned post-it note that says change your bad habits

Exercise increases your BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor), which helps regenerate your brain, it increases your memory and even helps stave off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. (1) Exercise also releases key neurotransmitters and has been proven to reduce depression and anxiety and help you sleep. (2) All of these benefits will help you live better, which is a good thing because exercise also helps you live LONGER. The list goes on and on. To read more benefits of strength training in particular, check out this guest post by personal trainer Elizabeth Hills. The short version on the importance of exercise is this: 

You should absolutely exercise, but doing it solely to lose weight is a fool's errand.

The old “calories in, calories out” diet paradigm is dead. Pretty much every Dr tells their overweight patients “eating a little less and working out a little more” will help them lose weight, but if that were true, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic on our hands now would we?! Mark Hyman does an excellent job explaining it here, and I highly recommend you take a moment to read it. Our bodies are incredibly complex supercomputers, not simple 1+1=2-worthy calculators. Calories in and calories out is a simple math equation that fails to take into account metabolism, hormones, microbiome, genetics, nutrient absorption, utilization, and so much more. 

lady running on a treadmill

So now that I’ve crushed all your dreams that running on the treadmill and eating Twinkies cancels each other out, what are you supposed to do to maintain a healthy weight? To be honest, there are MANY things (you know, like addressing everything I just listed), and it takes me months of working with clients to work through them all,  so I don't want to mislead you into thinking this is a one size fits all magic trick, but this is going to be a REALLY helpful step one for you. In fact, if you do this "step one," you're on your way to addressing several things at once! 


So what is this magical first step?: Become fat adapted

You need to switch your body into “fat-burning” mode rather than “sugar-burning” mode. 

fat sign being burned

Your body has two main sources of energy, one is fat which is used in ketone body form for energy, and the other is carbs/sugar, which your body uses in glucose form for energy. Our liver and muscle cells can only hold so much glucose until they are full and will not allow more to enter. Think of it like a bouncer for your cells that doesn’t let too many people into that popular, crowded nightclub. When the bouncer turns the glucose away from the liver, it goes to the muscles. When it’s turned away from the muscles, the only place left for it to go is the fat cells for safekeeping. This cycle also increases your insulin resistance. The fat cells have no bouncer like the liver and muscles do, and the fat cells don’t care how many crowded people are shoved into their club. This is because fat cells can actually expand. When you gain weight, it’s not actually new fat cells. It’s your original cells that have expanded in size.

Rather than thinking of your metabolism’s ability to use these as black and white, one or the other, think of it as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the average American eating the SAD (Standard American Diet). This person must consume carbohydrates consistently throughout the day to maintain their energy, or they get hangry, cranky, dizzy, and more. This cycle typically leads to insulin resistance. This means the body must produce more and more insulin to handle the glucose. Insulin resistance can lead to hormonal disruptions (remember how I told you that fixing this one thing can help fix other things? Hormones are one of the top ones!).

On the other end of the spectrum is a ketogenic diet, this person consumes almost no carbohydrates daily, and their body runs entirely on ketone bodies, using exogenous (consumed) and endogenous (its own) fat sources for fuel. This person is extremely insulin sensitive, which is the complete opposite of insulin resistance. 

When the SAD eater consumes even a fraction more carbs than the body can utilize, it is stored as fat because the body has a limited ability to handle glucose, as we just discussed, due to insulin resistance. When the Keto eater (who, mind you, doesn’t eat carbs) eats extra fat, it doesn’t have the same massive impact. The body is adapted to burn fat and is sensitive to insulin. 


Want to learn more about Keto? What this video from my YouTube channel! 

 In the middle of these two extremes is the magical fat-adapted zone. This is when your body does not NEED sugar to survive and is fully capable of running off of ketones, yet it is also fully capable of metabolizing a bit of glucose without freaking out and shoving it into your fat cells because it is insulin sensitive in this state, and not insulin resistant. In this case, the bouncers will let the sugar in, and it will be later utilized for fuel (instead of being stored as fat).

Now that we’ve established that too much glucose in your body causes weight gain, and we’ve established that we want to have a flexible, fat-adapted metabolism that can handle a bit of glucose yet can also run seamlessly on fat without needing glucose….how do we get there? 

How do we become fat-adapted?

list of foods with carbs adding up

For starters, counting calories will NOT get you there. My post on “Why Health Coaches Don’t Count Calories – And What They Do Count” explains that a bit further.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, becoming fat-adapted is an incredibly complex topic and includes considering issues such as past metabolic damage, genetics, hormones like cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin, food sensitivities, and much much more. To get started, though, you need to work to find your body’s optimal macronutrient breakdowns.

Macronutrients are fat, carbohydrates, and protein. I do not care nearly as much about calories (and if you want to know why make sure you check out Mark Hyman’s blog post on it linked above!). For some people, optimal macros mean you’ll need to maintain a very low-carb diet of under 50 grams a day to stay in that zone, and for others, you may be able to have up to 150 grams a day and stay in the zone. 

The key is to begin to PAY ATTENTION to your macros and see how your body responds to them.

plate of low-carb food choices

You want to get to a place where you don’t NEED to eat every few hours to keep from feeling shaky and tired (this signifies blood sugar stability).

You want to get to a place where you don’t gain weight just from looking at a slice of bread (this signifies your insulin sensitivity has been restored to its normal function from a previously damaged state of insulin resistance).

You’ll want to feel like you have good solid energy throughout the day (this signifies that your body is utilizing the energy sources you are providing it, whether it is fat or glucose from sugar or carbs)

This is a huge part of what I do with clients on an individual basis. I work to help them find their ideal macro breakdown, troubleshoot how to get the most nutrient density out of their diet, and find what might be holding back their metabolism and fix it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get started on your own right now, though. Download the My Fitness Pal app and start keeping track of your macro breakdown and start tweaking it to make it work for your body.

Keep working out. It is amazing for you, but don’t rely on it for weight loss. Only a well-regulated metabolism that is fat-adapted can truly help you burn off those fat stores you’re holding on to, hoping to “run” off. 



1. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2013/10/how-exercise-beefs-brain

2. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-02/ps-pay020812.php


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