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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PIZZA5152 7/17/2021
Thanks Report
CHERYLHURT 4/24/2021
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DIVAGLOW 4/5/2021
Thanks for this. Report
EVIE4NOW 9/30/2020
Thanks for letting me to some thinking. Report
KATHYJO56 8/30/2020
very interesting Report
Enlightening information! Report
Great information. Report
Thanks Report
Everyone is an individual so it follows that each method is also individual. No one way for everyone. Report
Exercise boosts the metabolism and just plain makes you feel good and peaceful. Very important to exercise. My favourite exercise is simply a walk outdoors. Report
It's not just the calories, it's the nutritional balance of the food. Report
I think losing weight is an absolute science where everyone is different so there is not a specific equation to follow. Report
Thanks Report
cutting calories isn't a good idea really Report
I agree. So many miss the point of the crossover effect. Exercise starts a cascade of great choices. You can only cut so many calories! Cutting calories works great for the truly fat, but for those of us close to our goal, we need to be strategic. Report
Tysm Chris, this makes so much more sense than the 80/20 rule! Report
Thanks for sharing Report
I really needed to read this today. I've been so anxious about the Covid-19 viral outbreak, and I've become kind of 'frozen'. My usual desire to exercise just evaporated, and my usual steady diet plans have been hijacked by cravings for carbs mostly. Thanks for reposting this 2017 blog from Spark Guy giving me really important reasons to get past my blocks and do those small bits of exercise.
I love Spark! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Report
These bodies of ours are so complex! So much more than a simple equation, or 80/20%. And then each of us is unique! Report
I found out that the basis for any successful journey is to find what works for you and DO THAT. There is no one size fits all in weight loss. Unless you find or create a program that you can live with, ultimately, you will not succeed. The weight loss journey is only the beginning. You must find something that works for you, not just to lose, but to live. Report
Yep, you are right. So glad I found SP Report
thanks Report
Thanks for the insights. Report
Great idea! Report
Allowing myself to see the whole picture instead of just my calorie intake and output has changed my attitude about my weight loss goals. I'm human and doing my best to take care of this body while I have it. Report
I only know this: I have always exercised, it is a part of my life that I never neglect because I truly enjoy it. But it DOESN'T keep my weight down. Only diet does that (and I struggle with that, because I have to always be a little bit hungry to manage my weight - ALWAYS!) In fact, when I ramp up my exercise, like training for a race, or doing some extra hard routines in the gym, I tend to gain a few pounds. When I dial back on the exercise, like when I'm traveling, sick, or temporarily too busy, I drop a few pounds. I'm not saying exercise isn't good for me, but it does NOT keep my weight down. And no, I'm not trying out-exercise a "bad diet," I eat a healthy diet - no junk, no sweets, no sugary drinks ever. Maybe I eat more, even of healthy foods, after hard exercise revs up my appetite, which is the only explanation I can come up with. Report
Consistent exercise does make everything else fall into place for me. Just diet makes me feel sluggish and deprived. Definitely mind over matter for me! Report
Interesting but it still mostly comes down to eating less & choosing healthier options like fresh produce & minimally processed foods. Diet is way more crucial than exercise. The other things help but aren't the basic foundation. Report
thanks Report
Great info! Thanks! Report
Good information! Report
Excellent share...and definitely something to think about - the body changes over time. Report
This was a great article! Report
good info Report
I think this is doable for most: be aware about food not controlled. I think all people can exercise : sitting /lying lifting legs and eventually weights is great start-After injuries and surgeries I came back lifting a "Butter Knife-to a-Can of Tuna" working arms and legs. Exercise: It can be done. Report
Thank you for writing this! I 100% agree. That 80/20 rule always stressed me out, and I never figured out why until I read this blog. Report
Good info Report
Thank you for this great article! Report
Great article Report
thanks for article and for this website. Having read a lot of articles here, most of this is just a summary of what I've learned. everything we do is important and related. Report
very interesting Report
thanks for sharing Report
For some people, exercise can be more important. I already eat healthy most of the time. Low starch/sugar. High vegetables. If I vary from this, I gain weight.

If I eat less calories, my body shuts down. If I exercise more, my metabolism excellerates. If I exercise less, I feel less capable of choosing good food choices. If I exercise more, I feel better - the boost in mood, balancing hormones and metabolism means food works out better on all counts.

I disagree with the 80/20 rule for me. I get that it probably works for a lot of people. That doesn't mean it works for all people.
Have been a Spark member for several years. I track every day, trying to stay within a certain calorie range. I am also in the habit of walking and circuit training most days. The exercise means I'm in much better health, but unless I keep within my diet goals, I will re-gain. Nine weeks ago, broke my leg, and while the doctors and therapists have said my exercise history is a big part of my easy recovery, have not been able to do any cardio exercise. Still have lost eight pounds! Report
Do you see how the 80 percent diet and 20 percent fitness way of thinking can actually be dangerous?
NOPE. I really don't. And I think it's more like 90/10. We cannot exercise out of a bad diet and exercise stresses my body out.
Also, I get "enough" sleep, but deep sleep cannot be controlled and apparently that's what I'm missing. And yet, by controlling my diet/food intake and eating at certain times, I'm able to lose weight. Report
Thanks for the information, it gave me a lot to think about Report
It is if you've been a gym rat for decades. And yes, I change up workouts....for me, it was ALL about diet. I can't out exercise a bad diet. That really helps me to BE mindful of the other issues of sleep, intake and emotional or boredom eating. Report
It is if you've been a gym rat for decades. And yes, I change up workouts....for me, it was ALL about diet. I can't out exercise a bad diet. Report
Great perspective! Report