I was a professional fitness model who only cared about my appearance. I let the numbers on the scale motivate me to change the way I looked through diet and exercise. My goal was to weigh 120 pounds, yet even when I achieved this, my regimen was so strict I could never maintain my results.

My weight was constantly going up and down. I learned the hard way that if I consumed too many carbs or calories, or missed a calorie-burning cardio session, I'd gain weight. My diet and exercise routine became a vicious numbers game of calories in and calories out, more and more restrictions, and increasingly longer workouts. It wasn't working for my body, and it started messing with my mind, too. Deep down, I felt miserable and out of control.

Like so many other women, I subscribed to the "out-diet" approach of trying starve myself and burn more calories to stay thin—and it was working against me.

The scary thing is, this mentality is still all too common today.

I recently asked a few women what they do when they want to improve their physiques, and they all responded with the same mantra I used to buy into: "eat fewer calories, cut carbs, and do more cardio."

Here is what I've learned from my attempts to "out-diet" my training:

  • Unless you can follow the diet for the rest of your life, the diet will fail you.
  • If you are already at a healthy weight, there is no need to diet.
  • If you're only focused on numbers on the scale, your body composition will suffer.

Why "Out-Dieting" Doesn't Work

The problem with constantly restricting calories and increasing cardio to burn even more is you inevitably lose muscle mass. You don't want to lose muscle because muscle burns calories—even at rest! The around-the-clock energy demands of muscle tissue burn calories when you watch Netflix, when you sleep—even when you miss a workout.

Knowing this, why would you ever rely on cardio sessions alone to burn calories? You can have a higher, and much more efficient, metabolism simply by increasing your muscle mass. And the higher your metabolism, the more calories you can afford to eat.

Turning Back the Training Clock

If I had known then what I know now, I never would have slashed my calories or exercised to burn calories. It simply is not a practical way to maintain a healthy weight, because it's so counterproductive. You end up sabotaging your body's ability to naturally burn more calories every day.

To improve my body composition, I should have focused on building muscle and growing stronger and fitter, making better nutritional choices, and improving my metabolic flexibility. Metabolic flexibility is your body's ability to switch between using glucose or fatty acids as fuel, adapting as needed to meet specific demands. Research suggests metabolic inflexibility is a major component of metabolic syndrome, a generic term for a number of factors directly related to an individual's risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.[1,2]  

Building skeletal muscle increases energy demands and fat oxidation in the body, improving both body composition and metabolic flexibility.[3,4] Put simply, the more muscle you have, the easier it is to burn fat and stay lean.

And the only way to build muscle is to train for muscle growth, something you cannot do with diet alone.

If I could go back in time to when I was caught in the endless "diet and exercise" loop, there are two things I would do differently:

Train for performance, not the scale

This is a much more sustainable approach because it does not restrict calories and carbs, and training for performance is incredibly motivating. Training for performance rather than results—aka, numbers on a scale—will make you mentally and physically stronger, which in turn boosts confidence.

This approach consists of training with compound exercises—such as deadlifts and pull-ups—that work multiple muscle groups at once. These exercises elicit a potent neuroendocrine response, which in turn releases growth hormones in the body that help increase muscle mass and bone density. Once again, you cannot achieve this effect with diet alone, which is why you cannot out-diet a mediocre training program.

Do intermittent fasting

Fasting sounds scary, but with intermittent fasting it can be as simple as skipping breakfast to improve your metabolic flexibility. I want to be metabolically flexible because I don't want to polarize how my body uses carbs or fats, which is what happens when you eliminate any one macronutrient.

It's unwise to demonize any macronutrient. It's too extreme and unsustainable. Would you really want to be on a low protein, negligible-carb diet for the rest of your life? I don't demonize any macros, and I encourage metabolic flexibility by fasting for 16-18 hours a day to switch to fat for fuel. If you want to burn fat, teach your body how by fasting.

Today, I'm a CrossFitter with a penchant for strongman training, and my performance relies heavily on consuming adequate calories and carbs. Carbs fuel my workouts and provide an anabolic environment, and with these new eating habits and the right training stimulus, I've been able to build muscle and still stay lean. My weight has gone up on the scale, but my body-fat percentage has not. I'm more chiseled today than I ever was when I was cutting carbs, slashing calories, and logging hours of cardio.

I'm not genetically gifted. I do not have an athletic background. I'm an endomorph who is on the verge of turning 40. Despite all the strikes against me, I'm succeeding because my approach is simple and sustainable. I acknowledge that my approach may not work for everyone, but there are elements of my approach you can modify to fit your training routine.

But there is one truth you cannot escape: Relying on strict calorie deprivation and excessive cardio ultimately leads to failure.

I encourage everyone to look at what they are really doing when they try to out-diet their training program and make a change. Quit exercising to burn calories and start training to become a badass—you'll never have to obsess over food or starve yourself again!

 References
  1. Storlien, L., Oakes, N., & Kelley, D. (2004). Metabolic flexibility. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 63(2), 363-368.
  2. Kaur, J. (2014). A comprehensive review on metabolic syndrome. Cardiology Research and Practice, 2014.
  3. Hawley, J. A., & Lessard, S. J. (2008). Exercise training‐induced improvements in insulin action. Acta Physiologica, 192(1), 127-135.
  4. Kelley, D. E. (2005). Skeletal muscle fat oxidation: timing and flexibility are everything. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 115(7), 1699.

About the Author

Dr. Sara Solomon, BSc. PT, DMD

Dr. Sara Solomon, BSc. PT, DMD

I was a professional fitness model who only cared about my appearance...

View all articles by this author

Diet