In or Out

Why is it easier to create a calorie deficit by tracking and reducing your calorie intake as opposed to increase your calorie burn?

In theory you can create a calorie deficit in both ways, you can eat less or move more (or meet in the middle and do a bit of both). Generally though, I’d tend to push people to focus on calorie intake over what your burn and here’s why.

It’s pretty hard to track how many calories you have burnt a day. You can get idea of your TDEE across the week based on your general activity levels, but how many calories your burnt in that specific HIIT class or on that run is difficult to put a number on (smart watches calorie burn figures are normally massively inaccurate). Beyond that you need to remember that your TDEE will take into account your normal activity levels, so those calories have already been accounted for, so at what point do you know you’ve done ‘extra exercise? The answer is in reality you don’t. So how much you expend is a rough figure, but you can track how much you consume with much more accuracy. Of course it’s never going o be spot on to the nearest calorie but with apps like My Fitness Pal you can track your intake for free and to a reasonably accurate level. The fact that trying to monitor what you eat allows you more accurate data to sue means you’re more likely to be successful sticking to a calorie deficit if you try to adjust what you eat instead of trying to increase what you burn. If on top of this you then also look to move more (which I’d full encourage) you will find you can increase your calorie deficit a bit more and maybe assist your results.

The other aspect of creating a calorie deficit by burning more calories instead of eating less comes if you are already quite active. If you currently do nothing and then start walking daily and maybe doing planned exercise once a week, then you will probably find that you can eat the same and lose weight. You might also find though that you’re more hungry because you’re doing more so you end up eating more too. Without tracking this is a very hit and miss approach.  Now if you are already quite active and want to create a deficit through exercise the issue comes from how much more can you do in reality?  Unless you want to spend all your time in the gym how realistic is this going to be for you?  

The one time I’d be mindful of making a deficit a mixture of reducing intake and increasing output is when someone is quite small and already quite light. This is going to give them a smaller TDDE to start with and so creating a calorie deficit by food alone might leave them with a very small daily calorie amount. In cases like this a missed approach could be beneficial, however equally, it might be that a review of goals and a decision of whether weight loss if the best goal here or whether body recomposition might be a better focus.

Ultimately there are multiple ways you can create a calorie deficit. Using one which allows you to track accurately will allow you to assess progress and when you start to plateau or are noting getting results as you think you should be you have real data to use to assess why and what you can do to change that.

Calories Aren’t Bad

How often have you heard about calorie counting being restrictive / bad / creating obsessive eating habits? It’s the anti diet movement’s tagline.

Now the notion that you haven’t got to be a certain weight or size is great. But if you do want to lose eight because you want to and you will feel better then you are allowed to.

If you are going to do this you have to eat less than you burn. There’s literally no other way.

So if you are keeping track of your calorie intake in order to sensibly lose weight because you will feel better for that why would that be bad or unhealthy.

Of course, like anything, it can be taken to extreme. If you are refusing to do things because it would take you over your daily calories, skipping meals, finding yourself obsessing over your diet, severely restricting your food intake for quick results, cutting our food groups or anything like that then there’s an issue. If that’s you, those are signs it may be helpful to seek a medical professionals advice. For most people though, keeping a track of how much you’re eating doesn’t create such issues.  It does allow you to sensibly work towards your goals with data you can use to see what is and isn’t working.

What are the alternatives? You could use an eating systems where calories aren’t counted. Slimming World, Weight Watchers, maybe Intermittent Fasting.  They might take the counting away but they don’t prevent restrictive habits or a bad relationship with food.

You could eat intuitively. Which is great if you are happy with your body as it is, but in reality if you want to lose weight then what you eat now isn’t working and without a mean to measure your food intake how do you know what changes to make?

The upshot is, there are so many reasons you might have a bad relationship with food. Calorie counting might not be for you because of that, but calorie counting in itself doesn’t create bad relationship with food, there are so many factors in play when such a thing happens. Making a process, that is pretty factual when you take our emotional relationship with food out of the equation, into a negative idea is dangerous, not least because it’s actually the easiest, least faddy and cheapest way to lose weight out there.

Are the Scales Bad?

Scales get a bad rap.

These days multiple PTs will tell you to throw them out, so should you wiegh yourself?

Now he thing to remember is they are pretty inaccurate. The flooring your on, the make and model will affect the reading, what you’re wearing, the time of day, how hydrated you are, when you last went to the toilet, what you ate and when. All these things will affect the number on the scales.

It’s for this reason generally PTs are at pains to tell clients not to be too worried about that number. You could weigh yourself several times a day / week and get vastly different results.

And it’s not just that, what’s the right weight anyway. Most people know BMI isn’t the most accurate measure of a healthy weight and one person at a certain weight can look drastically different to another person the same weight. More than that you can be very slender and light and far less healthy or fit than someone bigger or healthier. So what weight do you even aim to be?

So weight monitoring isn’t the best motivating progress tool around. You have a week where you do everything right and still out on weight because of hormones or something else and then end up feeling disenchanted because what else are you supposed to do. This can end up being the thing that makes people think f**k it and give up.

Of course there are other ways to measure progress, but does that mean the scales should go?

I never quite managed to throw them out. I feel like knowing their limitations is enough and the fact is they can work for you. Regardless what the number is, if you weigh yourself at longer intervals, say monthly, you can see a trend of progress over time that should take into account fluctuations across the month. Another way to use them is the opposite end of the scale (no pun intended) and weighing yourself every day. If you do this you can get used to the fluctuations and the drastic up and down changes that do occur and as well as starting to see a pattern over time, this way also allows you to get used to and accept the daily changes you naturally see in weight.

Scales can be used as a tool to help you monitor your progress if you allow yourself to acknowledge that weight loss is never linear, and will happen over a period of time rather than on a day by day basis. The day to day fluctuations are just that.

Calorie Hacks

Are you trying to lose weight and struggling to stay within your calories? Truth is we all go through periods where this happens and with better weather coming up you’re likely to find it a little bit harder anyway as you find yourself out enjoying the weather more.

So what can you do to help keep your progress on track?

  • Plan your weeks meals in advance.
  • Prepare any meals you can in advance, especially for days you know you’ll be busy, that way you’re more likely to stick to your plan.
  • Treat your calories as an allowance for the week rather than per day, that way you can have days you eat more, higher calorie food and still stay on track.
  • If you know you are going out work out what you’ll need calorie wise for that meal and account for that in your plan for the week.
  • If you know you’re going to want an ice cream, cake or whatever at some point, include it in your plan for the week s you are still on track without losing out on the things you enjoy.
  • Consider options – would an ice lolly instead of a 99 be ok when you pass an ice cream man on a trip to the beach? Do you need the super cream filled high calorie coffee as well as the piece of cake or would an Americano with the cake be satisfying enough? Picking lower calorie options can be a good way of staying on track. But if you’d feel you missed out and deprived it’s probably better to just plan the ice cream into your week!
  • Be flexible. Honestly sometimes things are going to come up and put a spanner in the diet works, but living your life is more important than losing weight so when that happens don’t beat yourself up.    
  • Balance YOLO and Moderation. If you always think F**k it at any point where a bit of restraint is required you won’t see results (now that’s ok – I’ve been like this in recent years and you can totally decide to take this tact with life) but if you always refuse to do fun things or eat the amazing cake because you want to lose a pound this wee you’re missing out on life. Finding a balance that works for you on when to make the sensible choices and when to throw caution to the wind will help you stay consistent.

I’ll Start on Monday

Starting things on a clear starting point always feels good.

January 1st – New Year

1st Month- New month

Monday- New Week.

Mentally we have this fresh start mindset with these kind of days and dates.

The problem is, if you decide to start on a Monday and it goes wrong on Wednesday, you end up writing off the rest of the week to start again Monday. Or you get to October and think well I might as well wait until January now. All that time in between start points just takes you further away from your goal. In fact if you think well I’ll start again Monday on a Thursday you far more likely to binge over the weekend because you know what’s coming.

The first thing to remember is it doesn’t matter what day you start. You can start the gym or a diet on a Friday or 6th of the month or November, calories don’t only work in week or month long blocks.

The next thing to understand is you don’t need to be perfect. The only reason you want to stop a diet or training plan once you start is because you feel you’ve failed. You probably feel like you’ve failed when you don’t manage to do everything you planned to. Yet you are never going to stick 100% to something with no meals out, takeaways, days when things go wrong, days when you’re too busy to train. Accepting that a ‘bad’ day is just that and getting back to it the next day keeps your progress on track and means you won’t keep having to ‘start again’.  

Progress is rarely linear. When we start anything we have ups and downs and your fitness or weight loss are going to be no different. Restarting every other week will be much more detrimental to that progress than the occasional bad day.

That’s not to say if what you’re doing for you doesn’t suit you and isn’t working for you, that you should just stick with it. If you want to train differently, try something new. If you wat to adjust your eating habits to suit you better, you can. Instead of seeing it as starting again though, see it as an adjustment in a long term journey, where you are going to make changes as time goes on. Those changes will be what keeps progress coming.

It might make things feel a bit messier but life is pretty messy so trying to make your fitness and diet the exception to life is pretty pointless.

Why Slower Weight Loss Is Better

  • Helps develop good habits
  • It’s more likely to be fat (rather than water) that you lose
  • Studies have found people with slower fat loss tended to lose less muscle mass thus helping with body composition (i.e. what you body looks like s your lose weight)
  • You are less likely to get loose skin, stretch marks (This is never guaranteed of course)
  • You are less likely to suffer health issues as a result
  • You are less likely to get brittle, dry hair
  • You will have more (not less) energy
  • You’re more likely to maintain it longer term

Why did you get fat?

When it comes to diets, we talk a lot about what to do to lose weight.

We talk less about how we got to the point where we needed to lose weight. Yet the understanding of how we got to a point where we were unhappy with our weight is actually pretty essential.

Of course we know the basic of ‘I was eating more than I was burning’ that’s why I put on weight, I don’t mean that.

 I mean honest self reflection, as in what specifically was causing you to eat more calories than you burnt?

  • Was it nights out at the weekend and the hangover food the next day?
  • Was it a nightly chocolate and wine binge?
  • Was it emotional eating? If so what specific situations were causing it?
  • Was it lack of knowledge surrounding food?
  • Was it eating ’good’ ‘super’ foods like avocado on toast every day, which certainly have nutritional benefits but are way higher in calories than you small bowl of cereal?
  • Was it never counting the coffee shop coffees and sauces you added to meals each day?

There are loads of reasons we put on weight, some can be hidden calories and from a lack of knowledge, some are linked to lifestyle, some are linked to our mental health. When we identify specifically the reasons we put on weight, down to the specifics of certain situations causing us to over eat, we can look at how to combat it.

Because it’s no good saying on Monday I’ll eat less this week if weekends are your issue and you don’t have a plan, as come Saturday you’ll over consume on calories and be back at square one. Whereas if you know weekends are your sticking point you can look at a strategy. Maybe that’s eating less Monday to Friday so you can eat more over the weekend. Maybe it’s having a plan to reduce your weekend intake (lower calorie drinks, less alcohol so you crave hangover food less the next day, trying different types of nights out some weeks etc.).

If your trigger is a bad day at work causing you to binge on chocolate and wine mid week then saying I’ll be good this week isn’t going to cut it. You need to look at what’s causing the bad days at work or how else you can make yourself feel better after a rubbish day (phoning a friend for a rant instead of opening the wine or having a long bath for instance).

Once you know why you put on weight it becomes much easier to look at how you can cut back on the calories. That doesn’t mean never doing those things again, but if we really want change we do need to make changes to wat we currently do.

Does this apply to you?

People are different. Even if you share a lot of similar circumstances with someone, you aren’t going to be exactly the same.

In fitness though things tend to get generalised.

Being overweight is unhealthy in one camp, being over weight is fine in another for instance. Now in reality some people who are overweight will be healthy and active and happy as they are which is fine. There will be others however, for whom their weight does affect their health and wellbeing.

BMI is pointless and potentially dangerous. To be fair, I don’t know that many people in the healthy range of BMI even when they are super lean and fit so I’d tend to agree. However, I get why doctors use it, in some situations and for some people monitoring a BMI will have its uses.

A workout that is designed for a specific type of person (the busy mum, a group fitness instructor) could work for a large percentage of that group but won’t absolutely suit everyone who falls under that umbrella.

We can say if you’re in a calorie deficit you will lose wight, but of course there will be a small percentage of people who do have medical issues that mean this isn’t true.

The fact is it’s really hard to talk about things and take into account every single potential caveat. PTs know that there will be exceptions, but when for the vast majority of people or a group of people something holds true it makes sense to talk to the majority rather than the exceptions.  People who are the exceptions tend to know they are and will know to follow their individual advice from their GP, PT and so on.

What isn’t helpful online is people refuting general facts because of specific anomalies.  This can make people question solid advice that could help them because someone’s aunty Pat who is on some medicine that causes weight gain couldn’t lose weight even on a low calorie diet.

It’s useful to remember that not everything in the world of fitness or nutrition will apply to you. That doesn’t make it wrong or bad, just not something that would be of benefit for you to consider or incorporate.  Sometimes you need to use your own knowledge or recruit the help of a PT you trust to work out what would be useful for you and what to disregard.   


Fad diets are bad. Everyone agrees on that right? What is a fad diet though?

Same with exercise. Everyone scoffs at people jumping on the latest trend. It’s a fad it won’t last. How do we decide what’s a fad type training method and what’s a ‘good’ training method.

The definition of fad is something that people have an intense enthusiasm for, short lived, a craze. Generally in terms of diets and training we think of fads as things that offer quick fixes, magic results, do xyz and all your problems will disappear in weeks, you can do really simple things like add in a drink and still eat everything you normally do and the magic drink will fix everything and so on. It might be the idea that you can do just one type of exercises and change nothing else and suddenly drop 5 dress sizes.

Again here, much like Slimming World from my last pos, what PTs have issue with, is not always that specific fad in isolation. It’s the idea it is a magi fix.

There are fads that we out and out despise of course. Any magic slimming pill or skinny tea for intense. Literally a way to steal people’s money.

But some ‘fads’ could be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle and could have some benefits. Certain supplements incorporated into a good routine will add benefit. Our issue is that on their own they’ll do f’ all, and you need to understand that.

I happen to think that Herbal Life’s protein powder is actually one of the tastier ones out there (expensive though so I’ll stick with My Protein thanks), but it doesn’t do anything more than any other protein powder will. If you think it will it’s a fad. I’m partial to a hot water with lemon when I wake up, but that’s because it’s part of my morning routine which sets me up for the day, 5 minutes first thing sat and drinking it is calming and means I start the day not rushing around. It doesn’t act as a magic detox or anything. If I thought it did that would be a fad. Pilates, a current trend, is an excellent addition to anyone’s week. Is it the only form of exercise we should ever do? No. If you think it is we are entering fad territory.

What I’m saying is the reason I think we (PTs) dislike these fads is not always that the thing itself is bad. It’s the lack of understanding of why you might decide to do it. If you do something that could be seen as ‘faddy’ for a reason that benefits you and you understand it, it isn’t a fad. If you do something because you think it will fix a problem without any real knowledge of how it might do that it is. It always comes back to education, understanding and knowledge.

Let’s think about running. I like (well after the event anyway, rarely during) running. Some people think running is terrible for you. Now if I ran because I believed it was the only way to lose weight and so I should run for 20 minutes every day, that’s a pretty unhealthy mindset surrounding running, it’s factually incorrect, I’m unlikely to stick to it and you could argue it’s a bit faddy. Actually I run a couple of times a week because I like being outside, it’s my time to switch off and maybe listen to an audio book or music, I always feel better afterwards. Sometimes I run for a long time, sometimes 10 minutes. I often stop for a coffee and cake during a long run, because I like coffee and cake and runs should be enjoyable. It’s not a magic fix but it has benefits for me personally that I value. Same exercise, two different viewpoints of it, the exercise is the same for both outlooks – what is different is how it is perceived, in terms of purposes and perceived outcomes.

What people selling a specific product or brand want you to believe is their product will change everything. A PT wants to you to understand that sustainable progress comes from a mixture of things, forming habits, understanding how your body works and what it needs, working out what works for you around your lifestyle. It doesn’t require buying into any specific concept or product and if one thing doesn’t work for a client, a PT will look at what else might instead.

We need to keep coming back to the point that no one way of doing things is better than another, the key is making an informed decision on what you do and why.

Slimming World and Us

Why do people hate on Slimming World and the like so much? Obviously I can’t talk for other PTs but here’s my take on the matter.

Now if you’ve followed this blog or my podcast for a while you’ll have heard me go into detail about my thoughts on Slimming World. I was a member, I lost weight on it and then I ran into some problems once I lost weight in terms of the Slimming World outlook and my increasing knowledge of nutrition and fitness.

I wouldn’t recommend joining to people, but equally I wouldn’t discourage someone who decided it was good for them.

Ultimately, it’s not unsafe. Done right, it encourages cooking from scratch, eating dense filling foods and limiting pre package items. It can create good habits.

So why do so many PTs have an issue with it? Education in a nutshell.

Essentially, Slimming World followed sensibly creates a calorie deficit, so you’ll lose weight. But it dresses the calorie deficit up in a cloak of free foods, syns, speed foods and HEXA /HEX B foods. You have to follow the diet book and the app and keep going to the meetings to stay on track. Whereas in reality to hit a calorie deficit you don’t need to do any of those things. You just need to stick within a certain number of calories. That can be tracked for free. You just have to understand what you are tracking. A good PT will teach you this to the point you do not need them to track. Slimming World doesn’t.

That makes sense- if you stopped needing Slimming World after a point where would they make money? A good PT holds more value than simply helping you see a drop in the scale, so we see no fear in simplifying concepts so they don’t seem mysterious.

The big issue I found with Slimming World was they discouraged exercise (or my group did). I was actively advised that if i trained less i might see a bigger drop on the scales. Horrible advice from someone with no qualifications in nutrition or training and potentially damaging to a persons body image and relationship with their weight. Now as a PT I know how important it is to stress how many ways there are to measure progress beyond the scales. Not to mention the health benefits of being more active beyond weight. It also saddens me how many women in these groups decided to wait until they lost weight to exercise because they didn’t feel confident and how this mindset was effectively rubber stamped by Slimming World. When I think how starting to exercise when I was at my biggest and the confidence and sense of achievement I gained from that spurred me on more to lose weight that a brand could actively discourage this is quite sad.

Again, this comes down to knowledge and education. Dressing up NEAT as a magic formula and creating myths surrounding exercise makes people more dependent on a formula which requires continued membership to a brand, instead of educating people and empowering them to eventually not need you anymore.

I get why people decide to join these groups. When I think about some areas of fitness from a new person’s perspective it looks intimidating. Slimming World and the like in contrast seem quite inclusive. The group I joined was full of lovely people and really quite welcoming. That’s why I very much think it’s our job as fitness professionals to not consistently bash these brands but understand what they offer and we do not, how can we make gyms as welcoming as a slimming club? It isn’t enough for us to just know why Slimming World doesn’t work anymore it’s about making our own services as accessible and welcoming.

And if you follow Slimming World or similar. There’s genuinely nothing wrong with that and they way you eat now on that plan can be largely kept in place if you decided to start moving away from Slimming World. As I say, There isn’t anything terribly bad about the concept, it would just be a massive benefit if you understand how and why so you are no longer beholden to a membership.