Why “Eat Less, Move More” Often Fails

By Susan Kolod, Ph.D.Mountain of fairy bread

If you want to lose weight, the solution is simple: eat less and move more, right? Everyone one knows that. But eating less and moving more is a lot easier for some people than others. It is easiest for people who are in the normal weight range and have perhaps gained a few pounds over the holidays. New research explains why this approach often fails with obese individuals. And why some calories are better than others when seeking to lose weight.

The role of hormones

Feeling full or hungry, energetic or lethargic, can be traced to certain hormones—in particular, leptin and insulin. Normally, when a body’s fat cells are filled with stored fat they release the hormone Leptin, which tells the brain to eat less and move more. However, when a person becomes obese this “signaling” goes awry. Leptin is not longer released and the message to the brain becomes “eat more and move less.” Thus eating more and moving less, thought to cause obesity, may actually be the RESULT of obesity.

Sean Lucan, M.D., M.P.H, Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and James DiNicolatonio, Pharm.D., Mid-America Heart Institute of St. Luke’s Hospital, Kansas City Mo., conduct research on weight loss, obesity and public health issues. They suggest that the culprit in the perpetuation of obesity is refined sugar, rapidly absorbable carbohydrates and the hormone Insulin. Refined sugar and starches cause blood sugar to rise. The rapid elevations in Insulin results in a precipitous drop in blood sugar. This causes food cravings, especially for sweets.

Over time, the overconsumption of refined sugars and starches can result in “Leptin resistance,” which leads to an inability to determine fullness. Thus, the result of a dietheavy on refined sugar and starches is increased appetite and decreased activity—a dangerous cycle, and difficult to reverse. The researchers conclude that it’s not the number of calories consumed that accounts for obesity, but rather the type of food consumed—refined sugars and starches in particular. These foods can make changes to the brain that interfere with the ability to determine fullness and cause lethargy.

The problem with “eat less, move more”

Lucan and DiNicolantonio explain why an approach that advocates eating fewer calories is inadequate and simplistic, “By this thinking, a calorie’s worth of salmon, olive oil, white rice or vodka would each be equivalent and each expected to have the same implications for body weight and body fatness.” In fact, proteins, fats, carbohydrates and alcohol each have different effects on hormones relevant to feeling full. Lucan and DiNicolantonio suggest more nuanced thinking about weight loss. That is, some calories satisfy appetite and promote energy while others promote hunger and energy storage—in other words, not all calories are the same.

In addition, if you simply eat less food and consume fewer calories, you will become more tired and hungry—therefore, less likely to want to move more. The cravings for high-calorie foods increases with deprivation, making it more likely that binge eating will occur.

What foods make you want to eat less and move more?

It is more important to consider the type of food than the number of calories consumed. Some foods make you want to eat less and move more—other foods make you want to eat more and move less.

For example, fat, which is high in calories, can satisfy the appetite and promote activity. Nuts, dairy products, oily fish and olive oil are high in fat and calories. But these foods make you feel full and energetic. This makes is possible to eat less and move more, which leads to sustaining weight loss.

Diets that simply restrict calories and pay no attention to the types of food consumed can backfire especially among obese individuals who have become leptin resistant.

In order to reverse leptin resistance, it is necessary to change the types of food to those that will re-calibrate the signaling to the brain—and will promote a feeling of fullness and energy.

A public health issue

It does very little good to blame over-consuming inactive adolescents for getting fat. The advice to simply consume fewer calories and increase exercise is counter-productive. New research suggests that overconsumption and inactivity are caused by neurohormonal changes related to a diet filled with refined sugar, starches and processed food. Promotion of whole/minimally processed food with plenty of “good” fats such as olive oil, oily fish and nuts address the cause, rather than the effect. And may also address the sense of failure and hopelessness many obese people experience when they are told to simply, “eat less and move more.”