Eat Less, Move More - Is this really good advice for weight loss?


I am sure you have all heard this saying. Whenever someone is looking to lose weight this saying will always get thrown around. Usually it is also coupled with something along the lines of “weight loss is easy, you just need to eat less and move more”.

But is it really that simple?

No. Once you break it down it really isn’t that simple. There are so many more nuances to weight loss that this saying honestly needs to be forgotten and a new one needs to be created. Also keep in mind that the context around this statement is usually aimed at general weight loss as opposed to someone after body-recomposition.

But why do I believe this is a bad saying? Here are some of the reasoning why I believe it is a bad saying for weight loss.

  • Previous dieting history

  • Previous exercise history

  • Current Energy Intake

  • Current Energy Expenditure

  • Current General Activity Levels

  • Metabolic Adaptation

  • Reported caloric intake vs actual caloric intake

  • Reported caloric expenditure vs actual caloric expenditure

  • Physiological conditions (menstrual cycle, menopause, stress, depression etc.)

  • Medications if any

As you can see now by the above it all of a sudden isn’t as simple as “eat less, move more”. Now in a perfect world it would be as simple as eating less and moving more. But the world is never perfect and we as individuals are all different. I’ll expand further on my dot points to help further illustrate just how nuanced and complex it can get.

Previous Dieting History

Previous dieting history can be vitally important. This can help gauge if someone has a “damaged metabolism” (for note, I really hate using the term of a damaged metabolism. If your metabolism was damaged you would be in a very very very bad way very quickly!). What I mean by this is if you have a past of Yo-Yo dieting where you are constantly in a deficit and then surplus in quick succession. This can affect things like your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) (see my other blog on dieting terminology https://www.ultimatefitnessqld.net/post/dieting-terminology). Extended periods of Yo-Yo dieting can cause your BMR and TDEE to be severely reduced compared to where it should in theory be at. So in essence, if this were true and you were just trying to eat less then you still may actually not be in a caloric deficit still.



Previous Training History


Previous training history is useful in understanding what someone’s daily energy expenditure might be. For example, someone who has been quite active in the past might actually need to create more energy expenditure compared to someone who has next to no previous exercise history. So for someone who used to exercise frequently they might actually need to move quite a lot more than someone who didn’t in order to create enough energy expenditure to put them into a caloric deficit to illicit weight loss.


Current Energy Intake


What is your current energy intake? Is it 1000 kCal? 1500 kCal? 2000 kCal? This is a must know. In order to lose weight we need to be in a caloric deficit (calories in < calories out). So if we are currently eating 1500 calories a day then in theory we would need to eat less than that each day.


Current Energy Expenditure


Similar to Energy Intake, what is your current expenditure? There is a small caveat here. It is quite hard to accurately measure your current expenditure. Firstly, all those Fitbit everyone wears. They are grossly inaccurate when it comes to measuring calories burned [1], [2], [3]. But in terms of tracking expenditure we would look at it in a more literal sense. If you are currently getting let’s say 5000 steps / day then we can easily increase that. If you are also doing 3 resistance training sessions we would have to look at modifying them in a way to get more expenditure, whether that be through an extra session or changing the programming.


Current General Activity Levels


This refers to how active is your lifestyle. Do you walk or drive everywhere? What do you do for work? Are you behind a desk in your job or are you moving pallets of stock around? Factors like this all factor into “moving more”. Someone who is out back in a warehouse shifting stock all day is going to have to do a lot more to increase their daily energy expenditure compared to someone who is behind a desk all day.


Metabolic Adaptation


Ever wondered how people start eating more food and then start losing weight? Well the good news is it’s not magic or a gimmick, its actual science.

I am sure you have heard of a term when dieting called “Starvation” mode. What people mean when they mention this is essentially a weight-loss plateau. The theory behind “Starvation mode” is that if you bring your calories too low your body refuses to lose any more weight as it needs what’s left to survive and not die.


Now this isn’t 100% wrong, there is some truth buried in there. If you bring your calories to quite a low (relative) amount over an extended period of time then yes, your body will fight you in losing bodyweight. However, this is not because your body is fighting starvation.


What is happening here is a process called Metabolic Adaptation. What metabolic adaptation is, is the process of your metabolism adapting to the amount of calories coming in each day, essentially becoming super-efficient at what it does. What this process does is down regulates things like your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) and NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis).

“Basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy per unit of time that a person needs to keep the body functioning at rest. Some of those processes are breathing, blood circulation, controlling body temperature, cell growth, brain and nerve function, and contraction of muscles
“NEAT is the energy required for your body to perform functions like breathing, walking etc. Actions which require no thinking about that you automatically do. Essentially your body becomes stupidly effective and thus requires LESS energy to perform all these actions.”

Because your body becomes so efficient here this means that what you previously thought was a caloric deficit may no longer be, hence your weight-loss plateau. In theory you could just keep eating less and less and keep losing weight, HOWEVER there are some diminishing returns with this. At this sort of low point you will find that you struggle to have enough energy to even get off the couch, let alone exercise.


Reported Caloric Intake/Expenditure vs Actual Intake/Expenditure


Reported vs Actual intake/expenditure. This is probably the biggest factor on this list. At no fault of their own, people will quite often under report what they are actually consuming, while at the same time over estimating what their expenditure is [4]. In that study the test subjects were to self-report their energy intake and energy expenditure. There were two groups, group one consisting of nine women and one man with a history of diet resistance. The second group consisted of 67 women and 13 men with no history of diet resistance. Group One reported their daily intake was 1028±148 kCal, (± Denotes the range of values that a measured quantity may have; for example, 10 ± 2 denotes an unknown value that lies between 8 and 12) while their actual intake was 2018±522 kCal per day. Group Two did not fare much better as their reported daily intake was 1694±364 compared to their actual intake of 2386±775. As you can see above, it’s very easy to misreport your intake. But coming back to the topic at hand. For these people, they would have had to eat significantly less in order to lose weight. Only eating slightly less like you would generally do when trying to diet wouldn’t have achieved anything. The opposite happened for energy expenditure with the two groups in the study. Instead of under-estimating they were over-estimating. Group one had a reported 1022±185 per day, where as their actual expenditure was 771±264 per day. Group two did not fare better either with their reported expenditure of 1006±265 while their actual expenditure was 877±421. Now while the reported expenditure was not as big a margin compared to intake, it is still significant enough to matter.


Physiological conditions (menstrual cycle, menopause, stress, depression etc.)


I am going to be straight up about this one. I honestly do not know enough about this to accurately talk about the effects of your BMR, RMR and TDEE along with the possible coincidental effects of increased caloric intake during the menstrual cycle. I do have some very rough knowledge that there is some change, but I would much prefer to say that I do not know rather than give out incorrect advice. My best suggestion would be if you have any real concerns about this when trying to lose weight, would be to seek out a Registered Dietician. The same is with stress, depression or other similar physiological conditions. I am aware that there is some effects that take place to alter your body chemistry but am not qualified enough to accurately discuss this in.

Article written by Timothy Steward

· UFQ Strength & Conditioning Coach

· UFQ Sports Nutritionist





[1] Feehan L, Geldman J, Sayre E, Park C, Ezzat A, Yoo J, Hamilton C, Li L Accuracy of Fitbit Devices: Systematic Review and Narrative Syntheses of Quantitative Data JMIR Mhealth Uhealth 2018;6(8):e10527 URL: https://mhealth.jmir.org/2018/8/e10527 DOI: 10.2196/10527 https://mhealth.jmir.org/2018/8/e10527/?fbclid=IwAR3h0YPAyt9NxmIks3nrR8qJtQphcwH0YqzjLEDdjTiANfwLfFF3b11LTxk&utm_campaign=JMIR_TrendMD_0&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=TrendMD

[2] Case MA, Burwick HA, Volpp KG, Patel MS. Accuracy of Smartphone Applications and Wearable Devices for Tracking Physical Activity Data. JAMA. 2015;313(6):625–626. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.17841 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2108876

[3] Jeffer Eidi Sasaki, Amanda Hickey, Marianna Mavilia, Jacquelynne Tedesco, Dinesh John, Sarah Kozey Keadle, and Patty S. Freedson DOI: https://doi.org/10.1123/jpah.2012-0495 https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jpah/12/2/article-p149.xml

[4] Steven W. Lichtman, Ed.D., Krystyna Pisarska, M.S., Ellen Raynes Berman, Psy.D., Michele Pestone, M.S., Hillary Dowling, Ph.D., Esther Offenbacher, Ed.D., Hope Weisel, M.S., R.D., Stanley Heshka, Ph.D., Dwight E. Matthews, Ph.D., and Steven B. Heymsfield, M.D. Discrepancy between Self-Reported and Actual Caloric Intake and Exercise in Obese Subjects December 31, 1992 N Engl J Med 1992; 327:1893-1898 DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199212313272701 https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejm199212313272701

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