Eat More, Exercise More, Pay More?

Ponder, if you will, a few phrases:

“Create your deficit with exercise.”

“Train hard, to eat more and lose fat!”

“These fat loss workouts will fuel your metabolic fire so you can eat more food while still dropping the fat!”

“Diets slow down your metabolism! If you want to lose fat you have to eat more food and exercise more!”

I have seen so many phrases like this in various forms. Sounds great on paper, right? You get to eat more food and all you have to do is exercise more at the same time. According to the sayings, you can go from eating less calories to eating more calories while burning more fat! I mean, who wouldn’t sign up on that sales page? I would. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is and it isn’t. Let’s dissect the potential problems and errors of this burning more, eating more, and losing more theory.

What Creates a Deficit?

Every day you have an activity level. No matter what you do (cleaning, training, sleeping, or sexing), you burn calories (energy). You can’t exercise a deficit because it is about the ratio of diet to movement. Do you call laying in bed and not eating exercising a deficit? People need to know and understand that caloric burn isn’t static and anything you do affects it outside of training. In the simplest of terms, diet is not another word for exercise.

If you are apprehensive about me making those statements, I understand. Why shouldn’t you be confused? It is said everywhere from the “trainer tips” on the Biggest Loser to the “real deal no bs guru.” You have dished out hundreds of dollars and trust people who, for better or worse, don’t know what they are talking about.

I can’t just tell you I’m right, so you will have to keep reading and decide for yourself.

The Goal Is to Eat More, Right?

There is an interesting misconception, it’s origin unknown, that someone, somewhere along the way said…

“It is better to be in a deficit at higher calories, than at lower calories, even if the deficit percentage is the same.”

Meaning, if Jane is eating 2,000 calories and burning 3,000 calories per day, she is better off than Sarah who is eating 1,200 calories and burning 2,200 calories per day. By all accounts, it seems like Jane is on a healthier diet and training program. Is this right or wrong? Well, let’s look at some common sense and research based arguments.

Will Higher Calories Ensure Essential Nutrients?

In the Fat Loss Troubleshoot, I discuss essential nutrients, and recently I’ve updated it with the formula for determining the calories and macros you would need in a day. It even takes into account allotting capacity for carbohydrates (which isn’t technically an essential nutrient). The stats were determined by how much intake would be needed to secure essential amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals.

The fatty and amino acid profiles also take into account a higher amount based upon the assumption of training, the female reproductive system, and more. In conclusion, a man who weighs 170 pounds and gets an adequate amount of exercise would be exceeding it at a mere 900 calories per day. It is important to consider the term essential. This is not a discussion about optimizations. When you add other factors, that same person should complete a “health number” at 1,700 calories per day. This is assumed with a moderate activity factor and an argument over what health means.

My point is, with essential caloric recommendations reaching upwards of 4,000-5,000 calories according to some experts, it leaves you wondering where they came up with those numbers. It certainly isn’t the case that people need extremely high caloric amounts without high activity.

More Stress Needs More Repair

When stress increases on the body, so does the need for higher amounts of nutrients. This is why we need more food when we expend more energy. We expend less, we need less; we expend more, we need more. This is why the practice of “do a lot more, take in a lot less” leads to problems. Sadly, driving yourself into the ground is a popular training system.

The standard training plan you come across is usually devised from the following three things:

  1. The author pulled it completely out of thin air.
  2. The basic principles are based off previous research and results with athletes.
  3. It comes from years of research with their own clients and based upon their “in the trenches” work. This may or may not be a good thing.

When I write my programming, I write it based off a mix of mostly #2 and some of #3. If you take something like mobility or foam rolling as an example, all we really have is #3 because there hasn’t been a ton of research done on this topic. The little research that has been done and real world results show recovery and overtraining are very real things. The methods of recovery cause a lot of discussion (e.g. active or passive recovery), and I won’t go into that right now, but what I will say is that most formal testing is done on athletes in maintenance or, at the very least, those in minimal deficits. In those cases, recovery is extremely important in comparison to demand on the body.

I hate to break this to people, but most self-labeled athletes are doing it wrong. Professional athletes aren’t starving themselves for years, doing rigorous training all week, and depriving themselves of carbohydrates. They take part in de-loads, active and passive rests, and maintenance nutrition. With all that, they still deal with overuse, injuries, and health issues.

So knowing all of that, do you really think it is the best idea to push yourself to the max while trying to maintain a large deficit (even if it is higher calories)?

Are You Even Hitting the Numbers Anyway?

A quick point I want to highlight is that most people aren’t even hitting the high burn anyway, they just think they are. Do you realize how hard you have to workout to achieve even a 500 calorie burn in one session? Also, if you can actually train that hard it means your conditioning is higher, thus making reaching that number even harder because of efficiency. My point is, for a woman of 140 pounds and average conditioning, it would involve staying at nearly 9 kcal burned per minute to obtain a 500 calorie burn. That is a minimum of 8-8.5 of RPE effort for 60 minutes straight. If you have a sedentary job, it would take two full hours of that level of training to be lucky to hit a 3,000 calorie burn per day.

If you are pushing your body to that level, don’t you think you are going to need all the calories you can get? Screw a deficit, you need every drop.

Final Points

As you can see, there might even be an argument against the “burn more to eat more” method. At least at the lower numbers you aren’t as likely to be creating as much physical need for repair. Still, I don’t want to come across as completely paranoid. If you take part in smart exercise and nutrition manipulation you can push things pretty close to the edge. All you need to know is what to do and how to pull back. I just find it ironic that most of the systems that advocate this form of dieting do so with restriction of carbohydrates and rest days. Shame.

While you think you are doing good for your body, you are actually breaking it down. The model that makes the most sense is a moderate deficit (no greater than 30%) with moderate training. This is looking at it strictly from a health benefit; it does not take into account various macro manipulations or psychological effects. No one model is perfect for everyone.

For people who achieve a higher caloric burn naturally with little effort and also take part in general training, it makes sense for your deficit numbers to be higher. However, overly stressing your system isn’t needed to eat a few hundred more calories per day, especially considering your body may require more for repair than you are giving it.

My Final Point to Convince You…

I see the biggest lack of linear fat loss progress in people who try to follow that model (next to those who hit hard and don’t eat at all). Most people aren’t ready for that model. Please make sure you aren’t one of them and that you know what you are getting into.



Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Intakes for Individuals, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies, 2004,, retrieved 2009-06-09

WHO Press. – page 150

Fürst P, Stehle P (1 June 2004). “What are the essential elements needed for the determination of amino acid requirements in humans?”. J. Nutr. 134 (6 Suppl): 1558S–1565S. PMID 15173430.

Whitney Ellie and Rolfes SR Understanding Nutrition 11th Ed, California, Thomson Wadsworth, 2008 p.154
Kruger MC, Horrobin DF (September 1997). “Calcium metabolism, osteoporosis and essential fatty acids: a review”. Progress in Lipid Research 36 (2-3): 131–51. doi:10.1016/S0163-7827(97)00007-6. PMID 9624425.

“National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Elements”. US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library and National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. October 2009.

“National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Guidance: DRI Tables”. US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library and National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. October 2009.

Andersson, H., et al. Neuromuscular fatigue and recovery in elite female soccer: Effects of active recovery. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. 40(2):372-80, 2008


  1. Christy Inma
    May 7, 2010 at 3:31 am

    Leigh you put “If you take part in smart exercise and nutrition manipulation you can push things pretty close to the edge. All you need to know what to do and how to pull back.” Any chance to get an article on that or do we just need to become one of your clients? How would I do that?

    This had a bunch of light bulb moments for me. First time poster too.

    • Leigh Peele
      May 7, 2010 at 8:52 pm

      I was planning on going in a little more detail at some point for members, but to a degree you need to know what you are doing or, if possible, someone to take an objective look at your situation.

      I am taking on people for consults and program design. If you want more information let me know.

  2. Syra
    May 7, 2010 at 3:33 am

    Is it sad that I still really want to believe “Diets slow down your metabolism! If you want to lose fat you have to eat more food and exercise more!” ?

    I think it is crazy that we will convince ourselves that the most un-logical things can be logical.

    Thanks for another sadly enlightening post.

    • Leigh Peele
      May 7, 2010 at 8:55 pm

      The real issue is it isn’t so black and white. I think we have to be careful of catch phrases, no matter how fun they are. I, myself, can be guilty of that at times. There is a line between having to explain everything you say and trying to do the best you can to have clarity in what you are discussing.

      Technically this statement ““Diets slow down your metabolism! If you want to lose fat you have to eat more food and exercise more!” isn’t a lie. It’s what it implies and the caveats it doesn’t come with that are the reasons I write these articles.

  3. Fat Loss Guy
    May 7, 2010 at 3:53 am

    Eating the right food and doing the right exercise is more important to burn the extra fat. The right dieting program will help you to enhance metabolism, not all diets will slow down your metabolism.

    • Fitfinch
      May 7, 2010 at 10:12 am

      And what is the “right food” and “right exercise” ?

      Their isn’t really anything specific that will help you lose weight besides a deficit.

  4. Clement
    May 7, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Hi Leigh, I think you’re referring to John Berardi’s G-flux principles here. He basically states that you actually can do body recomposition successfuly if you increase both your caloric intake and output. It wouldn’t surprise me that you have misgivings about this principle; after all, it does sound counter-intuitive. Do you have any opinions on the G-flux and the kinds if people it would work and not work for? Perhaps you could address my question on that delightful fitcast podcast you frequently co-host. Cheers!

    • Leigh Peele
      May 7, 2010 at 9:12 pm

      I was not speaking about John’s protocols directly. If I remember correctly (it has been a while) John doesn’t promote extreme deficits or the same percentage of deficit that I was talking about. He believes (I think) more in a trading of muscle/fat high energy output partitioning system. While I question the numbers John gets, to some degree that system, and think in general they are too high for the general population, they may be just right for the people he is personally working with. To say otherwise would be calling John a liar to some degree, and I have no idea what he does day in and day out, nor would I speculate on such a thing (especially with my current knowledge).

      What I do know is for the people I have worked with and the research which looks at caloric burn, stress, and recovery, it is general best to operate on a focus of one system at a time (unless you are talking about slight/newbie gains even with a deficit due to overload stimulus). It is also a very individual thing.

      My article, isn’t about that topic completely. My article is more about creating large deficits with training, even if eating at higher calories. Small differences, but there.

      The overall question you asked though can be answered by stating, it depends. Recovery is a very individual thing and depends on many factors (how long you have been dieting down, level of training experience, genetics, body fat levels, etc).

      I think you would find it isn’t going to work as well with newbies or those who fiddle in the gym and with their nutrition. I also think you will find it isn’t going to work as well with extreme type A, drive myself into the ground personalities because they will like the balance. So, as you can see, that doesn’t leave a lot 😉

        May 9, 2010 at 1:38 am

        Leigh said: “it isn’t going to work as well with extreme type A, drive myself into the ground personalities because they will like the balance.”
        What do you mean by “they will like the balance?”

        thanks, Etana

  5. Gráinne
    May 7, 2010 at 5:41 am

    It’s terrible, isn’t it? I really wanted to believe the idea that you needed to eat more as well…. Damn Leigh and her compulsion to tell the truth!

  6. Daniel
    May 7, 2010 at 6:03 am

    I think I have wasted a lot of time believing in the g-flux principle. I could have reached my goal already. Because I believed in this, I could come up with many excuses.

    “I can’t lose fat, I don’t have money to buy enough food.”
    This one sounds funny.

    “I can’t do fat loss training, because I have a neck hernia.”

  7. Annette Wright
    May 7, 2010 at 7:28 am

    A very timely article for me, thank you. I was just thinking yesterday that I need to get my GWF back on and get my caloric burn back up, yet whenever I do a bit too much exercise I mess myself up. Thanks again for reminding me to get the diet in gear (exercise seems so much easier though.)

  8. Jeff
    May 7, 2010 at 8:58 am

    I don’t see the point of attacking Beradi for your stupid article If people are weak that is there problem.

    • Leigh Peele
      May 7, 2010 at 9:15 pm

      You obviously don’t read well because John would likely say “I don’t recommend what Leigh is talking about.” Learn to read both parties and then come back and play again.

    • Robert
      May 7, 2010 at 10:06 pm

      This was an attack?

  9. Tricia Cramer
    May 7, 2010 at 9:08 am

    New subscriber here and jumping right in. (which is against ALL of my natural tendancies!)

    Leigh, your statement “For people who naturally achieve a higher caloric burn with little effort, and also ta ke part in general training, it makes sense for your deficit numbers to be higher.” sparks my interest. What is considered a naturally high caloric burn?

    I have listened to a little bit of your take on the bodybugg (I wear one and that’s how I discovered you) and I have been wondering lately if the burn number is accurate because it takes very little effort for me to hit my daily burn target. Have you addressed this subject in depth?

  10. Eric Garland
    May 7, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Slam. Dunk!

  11. Laura
    May 7, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I’m struggling to understand the overall point of this….so it’s better to keep calories low and do moderate exercise, rather than intense training? I thought it all came down to deficit…as long as you have the deficit, the weight will eventually come off. Is there really a need to complicate it more than that? Doesn’t it depend on the individual and what works for them and their lifestyle? Just trying to clarify!

    • Leigh Peele
      May 7, 2010 at 9:27 pm

      Fat loss is about the deficit, but it is a bigger picture. Holocaust saw great results with moving, and moving, and moving and not eating. 😉 Oh yeah, I brought up the Holocaust.

  12. nicole
    May 7, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I’m with Daniel – I too spent years convinced of the NECESSITY of eating & exercising more to lose more. I would eat every 3 hours without fail, which wasn’t necessary considering my caloric burn: yes I trained hard, but the rest of the time I spent on my ass in school, the office or driving. I lost a bit of fat over time, but mostly gained muscle and ended up just looking “thick”. THEN I had a bodybuilder trainer point out that I just need to exercise more: 10-15 hours weekly would do it, on a 1200 calorie diet. I promptly lost my period and will to live, and spent $100s on chiropractors, massage and ART. I wish Leigh was around then, but I’m glad she’s here now to help others avoid similar fates. Right now I’m on a proper fat loss diet where I workout 3x a week and eat between 1750 and 2050 kcals. I wonder why 1200 kcals and 15 hrs of activity didn’t work!

  13. Again Leigh, you are on a mission to save the world from stupidity and eating disorders. Why my freshman 185 pound self couldn’t have stumbled onto the Fat Loss Troubleshoot before losing 75 pounds through way too little food and too much activity. Yeah, the weight needed to go, but I still moan at all the time wasted calculating exact nutritonal ratios, obsessing over eating 6 x a day, and going batshit if I missed one of my 4-a-week spin classes.

  14. Karen
    May 7, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    I just wanted to say I don’t think Leigh is attacking Beradi, but if that is the first person you thought of, I think it says something.

    Grea article Leigh, thank you for all you do for us.

  15. Leigh Peele
    May 7, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    Thanks to everyone else for the positive comments. Hopefully the other replies answered some questions.

  16. Chris Miyachi
    May 8, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Leigh – great article. I was just about to post a question about this very topic on the forums.

    Here’s a related question: It’s about the conversion of fat to muscle. You’ve discussed this in your blogs and podcasts where you’ve given us numbers of what to expect for muscle gain. And if you are a highly conditioned female lifter/athlete like myself, it ain’t much.

    So…I was always under the belief that if I could work out more that my muscles would stay “engaged” and “not burn away” if I was in a deficit. Furthermore, if I did use fat for calories, those calories could be used to build the muscle that my program was demanding?

    Do you need real food to build muscle or can calories do it?

    It’s the old “turn muscle into fat” theory I know, but I’m wondering on a physiological level why this doesn’t work.

    • Gabrielle Singleton
      May 9, 2010 at 12:11 am

      @Chris: they are made out of different stuff. Like how lead doesn’t turn into gold. Muscle is made of amino acids chained together in proteins. Fat is made of fatty acids. You can’t turn fatty acids into protein.

      • Chris Miyachi
        May 9, 2010 at 1:21 pm

        @gabrielle: this doesn’t make sense to me because that would mean if I only ate protein, even in surplus of my needs, I would only gain muscle?

        • gabi.k
          May 10, 2010 at 1:05 pm

          Your body will always prefer to turn anything else into fat than to go backwards even in the cases where this is chemically possible.

          AFAIK, you can turn protein to energy (with some difficulty and your body does not like it much) so technically in theory you _can_ create fat stores from some amino acids via gluconeogenesis then those can be converted to fat. Your body can create some amino acids by reversing the reaction, but not all of them. Remember there are essential aminos that your body cannot make. To my understanding this would only happen to create essential enzymes to keep you alive (enzymes are proteins), and almost never to build muscle. I say almost never but it would be close to never ever. Anyway if your body needs an amino for a ‘keep alive’ type thing and you can’t make it it HAS to break down muscle to get it. This is a pretty pathetic explanation, maybe check out Lyle McDonald’s blog? One of his points is that it’s basically all theoretical with the subpoints 1. It’s nearly impossible to eat only protein. 2. There is a big difference between what is technically possible in your body in extreme circumstances and what happens most of the time.

          If you frame it more simply: if I eat nothing and do muscle building workouts can I gain lean mass? Most people can’t eat nothing and do those kinds of workouts, so regardless of the answer it’s kind of irrelevant.

          There are essential fats and carbs (see Body by Eats). If you eat only protein (which is unlikely) your body will try to make do by creating stuff but this costs energy and not everything can be created. You can get sick: Also maybe you have seen all those warnings on protein about not using it for weight loss. A bunch of people got sick/died on a protein shake only diet in the 70s (The Last Chance Diet). Building muscle is a low priority so if you are on some crazy diet lacking in essentials it will be the last thing your metabolism tries to do. Also see Leigh’s blog about realistic gains. Building muscle is slow even under ideal circumstances let alone crazy nutrient-lacking circumstances.

          You can google gluconeogenesis maybe that will help more than my explanation. Also maybe some stuff on the Kreb’s cycle and amino acid pool. Leigh has recommended checking out college nutrition textbooks and that may help also. I did this mostly from memory so sorry for any mistakes. Just remember that the metabolic edge cases don’t help you much with fat loss or muscle gain, it’s all about what is usual and what is practical.

    May 9, 2010 at 2:07 am

    Leigh, I have to thank you for this article and your member-only podcast about “metabolic advantage.” These spoke directly with what I’ve been concerned with and thinking about a lot.

    metabolic advantage:
    I have said, “my body must just metabolize food efficiently, perhaps that is the reason why I lose fat so very very slowly on any deficit from 250 cal/day to 800 cal/day.” But here you challenge my conclusion that my body is fine; I just need to eat very low 1100cal average to lose weight. But perhaps that is true, that my body is, in a way efficient? I seem to have energy, I’ve been feeling great actually. So I still go back and forth about this efficient use of calories by my body theory, but your podcast made me think about it more and take it more seriously, since I’ve been on a deficit for so long now.

    higher calories bured = more food eaten:
    And this article: I was just thinking: I’m starting to resent my 900cal Mon-Fri, 2000 cal Sat and Sun carb cycling diet. Resenting the weeks and weeks of low calories. Perhaps if I exercise a bit more, I could eat a bit more. … Well, perhpaps you are talking about eat 500 cal more and burn 500 cal more… Perhaps it would be fine if I bump my 1900 cal burn up to 2200 cal average, add another hour walk each day, to make the fat start dropping enough. So here again, what you write really makes me sit back and re-think what I’d been deciding, but I’m still not clear what’s right for me.

    I guess I’m just not as frantic about it as I used to be. I wish I could eat x and exercise y and it would generate a 1 – 1.5# weightloss per week, but it doesn’t seem that true. But over the many months, I am leaner… so that is good and it’s nice to ..not be in a panic.

    WALKING:… you told me so… and dancing
    And lastly, it is the clearest explanation of why, some months ago, you recommended that if I drop my calories way low, then I should stop the aerobics and weight training, and walk walk walk. Well I only walk, and I think I will try to add walk and walk to my walk, and burn more calories that way. So I havn e a question: I have kind of fallen in love with Zumba. It is a latin/world beat dance exercise class. It feels to me like I am dancing the whole hour. I moderate my level to my energy and am not extreme, but I am smiling with fun the whole hour and it makes me so happy to be dancing to fun music with a great instructor. I do it once or twice a week.

    So if I call it dancing is it okay, but if I call it aerobics it is not okay/too stressful on my body? Is it a matter of watching that I keep the stress level/output low? Am I no judge of stress level? I feel energetic. I make a point to eat a good protein and fruit or vegie meal 2 hours before the class, and something small after the class. I drink water. I don’t crave eating more to kill my deficit. I know it is not the low energy gentle walking of REPAIR.

    You’re probably gonna yell at me know that I’m telling you that I am doing aerobics; I did stop for about 8 weeks after you suggested it. If the pounds had melted away, I would have been more convinced to stay away from aerobic dance. Then I stumbled upon Zumba. Leigh, I know you like to dance too… I burn about 250-300 cal during that hour, from my GWF monitor.

    I’ve been looking at the activity of fat loss to find physical activity that I enjoy and will continue after my diet, and just seeing myself become more physically active.

    Sorry this was so long; it was just meant to be a thank you for the value you consistently provide, especially with these two thought provoking and assumption challenging articles.


  18. julie
    May 9, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Apparently, I fully agree, wrote a post, though not based on science or anything, just got tired of spinning my wheels so hard.

  19. Fitness Contrarian
    May 9, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    I never liked trying to control your weight with really hard and long training sessions. The average person whose goal is to be fit and lean will eventually burn themselfves out with too much exercise.

    I just started reading your blog and you make a number of good points about trainig and weight loss. Keep up the good work , Leigh.

    Best – Mike

  20. Chris Miyachi
    May 10, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Garbrielle – thank you for the explanation – how depressing: “Your body will always prefer to turn anything else into fat than to go backwards even in the cases where this is chemically possible.”. LOL!

    • gabi.k
      May 10, 2010 at 8:34 pm

      Well my nutrition prof also said that fat is your body’s preferred fuel source, maybe that will cheer you up 🙂

  21. […] suggestions, programs, detailed description, controversy and more. Previous examples are – Eat More, Exercise More, Pay More?, Pull-Up Workout […]

  22. dinese kestly
    January 22, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Leigh says:
    “I am taking on people for consults and program design. If you want more information let me know.”

    Leigh, I read this above and am wondering if you’d be willing to design a program for me?? I am in CA, so what do I do ?? HELP!?!?

  23. dinese kestly
    January 22, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    btw………..i only want to MAINTAIN my current weight, not lose or especially GAIN any. I am 5’2-3 and 100 lbs.

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