Of all the weight loss tips I’ve seen over the years, ‘eat less, move more’ is probably one of the worst.
I’ve fought with countless people online about this phrase, mostly because it’s often tossed around as some sort of careless, tone-deaf advice to fat people.
The gross oversimplification of a complex issue by telling someone that to lose weight, they just need to close their mouth and move their ass, is both physiologically, and psychologically offensive.
Nobody is denying that calories play a part in weight. Eat too many, you’ll gain. Eat fewer, you’ll lose. But that’s not what this post is about.
It’s about the clueless and often passive aggressive way that the world treats people who are overweight. It’s also about how so many of us don’t understand how hurtful these words can be, to someone whose struggles we can’t necessarily see.
Just eat less and move more.
It makes me sad how many of my followers have told me that their doctors have suggested this very thing for weight loss, as if all that matters is body size, not overall physical AND emotional health. So disappointing that someone we should be able to trust, who knows our life situation, would fail to take it into account before making these recommendations.
Just eat less and move more. Sounds easy. But to someone who is on the receiving end of this comment, it can mean this:
Can’t. you. just. do. these. two. simple. things.
You have no willpower. You’re weak.
You’re not motivated enough to make changes.
You’re lazy and gluttonous.
The longer we believe that weight is all about people not wanting to make these ‘easy’ choices, the longer we feed the diet industry while simultaneously insinuating that fat people are just damaged and lazy.
Let me explain.
When you tell someone to eat less and move more, you’re making the following assumptions.
Assumption #1: Their weight is due to them stuffing their face all day long.
Physically, weight is determined by a lot of things, most importantly genetics. Hormones, musculature and body composition also play a part. Medications that a person is taking can also be a huge factor in what someone weighs.
You see a person’s body size, but there’s a lot you don’t see. Please keep that in mind.
Assumption #2: Physical activity is the answer to fatness.
I can assure you that there are plenty of very active fat people living healthily and happily.
‘Moving more,’ as vague as that sounds, can increase muscle mass, but as I wrote in my post Everything You Need to Know About Metabolism, a pound of muscle burns only 4 more calories at rest than a pound of fat. Even if you gain 20 pounds of muscle, that’s 80 more calories a day.
Not exactly a game-changer, but anyhow.
What’s more, recent research on metabolism by Herman Pontzer, scientist and author of Burn, suggests that our bodies compensate for increased activity.
I wrote in detail about this metabolism study here, but the TL;DR is that when we increase our activity level, the body compensates by burning fewer calories. It’s all about avoiding starvation, y’all. That’s the body’s constant job.
We already knew that exercise only burns a small number of calories per day, compared to other things like BMR and NEAT.
We also already knew that the more exercise you do, the more our bodies want to compensate for it. You get hungrier. You may be more sedentary for the rest of the day. You may have a feeling of permissiveness because you were more active, so you feel like you can eat more.
All of this can lead to eating more than you would otherwise.
Exercise has lots of benefits, but weight loss probably isn’t high on the list.
And no, I’m not telling you not to exercise.
Assumption #3: Everyone has time and money to eat ‘clean’ and exercise regularly.
It completely disregards the social determinants of health and complexities of weight.
Social determinants of health include income, support networks, literacy, food insecurity, disability, employment, physical environment, health services, race, gender, and education.
When you’re working two jobs just to keep food in the fridge and a roof over your head, it can be really tough to prioritize diet and exercise. This is something I talk a lot about, because social determinants of health can directly impact a person’s food choices and weight.
Mark Hyman is the best example of this sort of tone-deafness. One of his recent posts suggests that ‘junk food’ should be taxed like cigarettes, because it’s the reason why so many people are sick.
But what Hyman refuses to acknowledge – and he’s a repeat offender for this sort of elitist garbage – is that some people don’t have a lot of control over what they get to eat, or don’t have the energy to think about it all that much.
They get their food at food banks, and/or can’t afford the sort of foods he tells everyone to eat. They’re busy trying to SURVIVE. Does this inability to eat the way Hyman and his buddies say we all should, mean that those people are automatically screwed for life? Are they lesser? Do they not count?
Whether it’s a popular doctor or just some random bro on Twitter telling people who to eat, when someone is in a place of privilege, it’s easy to go online and make proclamations about how everyone should eat, and at the same time, not offer any solutions on how ALL people can achieve that goal.
Assumption #4: We should all look at food solely as fuel.
While eating less may result in weight loss, telling someone to cut calories often means ‘go on a restrictive diet.’ This feeds the monster that is the diet industry, and doesn’t really solve a person’s issues around food and eating.
Nobody I’ve ever met has decided to be fat because they thought it would be fun. Most often, people are overweight not because they love food, but because they eat for reasons other than hunger.
It’s like telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking, already. That it’s so easy.
We eat for a variety of reasons. Food is culture. It’s community. It’s memories, love, family, flavour.
A person’s core beliefs drive their choices around food. I talk a lot about core beliefs in my book Good Food, Bad Diet, but the gist of it is that negative core beliefs around food and eating can negatively impact our relationship with those things.
Sometimes people eat because food makes them feel safe. If a person grew up in a food-insecure household, they may overeat as an adult because as a child, they learned to eat whenever they could. They never knew where their next meal was coming from (or if it was going to be there at all), so they learned to overcompensate when food was plentiful.
People who are going through a loss, or who have depression and anxiety often eat because they’re trying to bring back the happy memories that they associate with certain foods. Someone who has a mood disorder may try to self-medicate with food that they feel will put them into a different headspace.
There are also instances where a person will overeat because they’re in a binge-starve cycle from dieting. They diet until their bodies can’t sustain that level of caloric restriction. The result is rebound overeating, which is not because they have ‘no willpower,’ it’s because of the body’s innate drive to prevent starvation.
Note: The concept of ‘willpower’ around dieting is complete BS. It’s degrading and victim-blaming. It also ignores the hormonal response to starvation that the body launches when we diet, essentially making food irresistible in order to bring our calories consumption back up.
Would you tell these people to just eat less?
I hope not. You’d tell them to get help for their underlying condition, because that’s what is driving their eating in the first place.
This is what a lot of people don’t get: it’s belittling AF to assume that a person is fat because they just love cake. It can go so much deeper than that.
But people don’t seem to have time or the motivation to understand others. They just want to offer their lame weight loss tips like ‘eat less, move more,’ because this doesn’t involve feeling empathy for others.