Joe is an online weight loss coach and qualified personal trainer of 15 years who helps busy, professional men and women lose fat and build muscle.
Having a 9-5 desk-job, Joe understands the struggles of juggling a hectic life with trying to maintain a good physique.
“Losing weight is 60% diet and 40% exercise”
How many times have you heard that tired old trope being wheeled out (or some variation of it)?
The truth is that creating a calorie deficit and losing weight can be 100% exercise, or 100% diet, or any combination of the two.
There is no ‘magic formula’ that will suit everyone.
Maybe you’re a restaurant critic that eats for a living and you can’t physically cut down on calories, in that case in order to lose weight, you’d be focusing pretty much 100% on diet.
Alternatively, if you’re unable to walk temporarily (maybe you’re injured), you have no choice but to make weight loss 100% about diet.
There is no right or wrong, it depends on the individual and their unique circumstances at any given time.
So yes, if you think it’s the right approach for you, you can lose weight through diet alone. Losing weight simply comes down to creating a calorie deficit and staying in that deficit for a long period of time.
📉 How to Create a Calorie Deficit Without Exercise
Before you even think about what you’re going to do to create that calorie deficit and lose weight, you need to know your current weight and how many calories you currently use per day.
Remember this won’t be an exact figure, just an estimate.
You can use my calorie deficit calculator below to work it out for you if you want.
But for now, let’s just look at a typical example.
Let’s say I use 2,200 calories a day and do zero steps.
If I wanted to lose 1 pound a week (about half a kilo) I’d need to be a 500-calorie deficit (2 pounds a week would need a 1,000 calorie deficit)t;
There are a few different ways we can create this deficit.
If you were going to create that deficit through a combination of diet and exercise, it could look something like this;
You could increase your step count by 5,000 steps a day (1,000 steps will burn roughly 50 calories); that would mean you burn an additional 250 calories, then you could eat 250 fewer calories, which would create a total daily deficit of 500. This would mean you need to eat 1,950 calories.
If you didn’t want to decrease the amount you ate at all, you could simply do more steps. Doing an additional 10,000 steps would burn about 500 calories. There’s your deficit. You still get to eat 2,200 calories a day
If you wanted to create a calorie deficit and lose weight through diet alone without any EXERCISE that would mean you’d need to eat 1,700 calories a day.
Of course, there are endless combinations for how you could create your deficit, the point is if you don’t want to do any exercise (or any extra exercise), the calorie deficit will need to come entirely from food.
👍👎 The Pros and Cons of the Different Approaches
Whichever approach to creating a calorie deficit and losing weight you chose, there will of course be benefits and drawbacks.
It’s vital to consider each of these before you start because if you commit time to a diet that you hate only to quit and regain the weight, that time is totally wasted.
You might think that you want to lose weight without exercising, but consider the consequences of each approach first.
Losing Weight Through Exercise Alone
Again if we use the example of the person that uses 2,200 calories a day, and wants to lose 1 pound a week, they’d need to burn an ADDITIONAL 500 calories, which is the equivalent to about 10,000 steps.
- No need to reduce food intake
- Time-consuming – walking an extra 10,000 steps a day could take around 90 minutes
- Doing extra exercise could mean your appetite increases, which may make it hard to stick to your calorie target
Losing Weight Through Diet Alone
Using the same example person above, they would need to reduce their calorie intake to 1,700 calories per day to lose 1 pound a week.
- Doesn’t require any extra time commitment
- Could save you money
- Easy to achieve (Especially if you eat a lot of calorie-dense foods)
- could result in extreme hunger
- Could mean missing out on social events etc
Losing Weight With a Combination of Diet and Exercise
This is generally the easiest approach for most people because it’s less extreme, it just means eating a little bit less and doing a little more exercise. The best of both worlds.
- No extreme approaches required
- May not suit people that can’t exercise
- May not be ideal for athletes that have to do a fixed amount of training
In all honesty, the 3rd approach suits most people and it’s the one I use for almost all my clients.
The diet-alone or exercise-alone approaches should only really be used in extreme cases
The fact is however that any approach can work, but the best one is going to be the one that’s easiest for YOU to stick to long term.
Side note: There’s no reason why you can’t change your approach when you’re into a diet, just be sure to work with a weight loss coach who can suggest tweaks to your targets and monitor results closely when things are changed.
🔬What Does the Science Say?
The science echoes pretty much exactly what I just said.
This study took 439 overweight women and split them into three groups, one was focusing on diet alone, one on exercise alone, and one on both.
The study found that more people in the diet and exercise group lost weight, and also lost MORE body fat than the other two groups.
The diet alone group came in second, with exercise only a distant third.
“we observed an 8.5% weight loss among women participating in diet alone, 2.4% weight loss among those participating in exercise alone, and 10.8% weight loss among those in the combined diet + exercise interventions. Furthermore, we observed that the relative reductions in % body fat measured by DXA in each group differed significantly… with the following rank order: −12.4% (D+E) > −8.9% (D) > −3.3% (E) > −0.3 ©”Foster-Schubert et al (2012)
This tells us that diet is the most powerful weight loss tool we have, but its effectiveness can be boosted when we combine it with some exercise.
This study also points to the importance of continuing to exercise during a weight-loss phase for other reasons.
The study found that people doing strength training (lifting weights) were able to maintain fat-free mass (muscle, basically) during weight loss phases. You might not think you care about that, but the more muscle you have, the better you’ll look (however heavy you are).
Finally, this study backs up the findings of the first study, finding that weight loss protocols that combined a hypocaloric diet with exercise (especially resistance training) were more effective than diet alone.
The evidence to say that diet AND exercise combined is the best approach for weight loss is pretty strong
📆 How to Lose Weight Without Exercise in a Week
What if you’re looking for super quick weight loss, could you lose a noticeable amount through diet alone in the space of a week?
As mentioned earlier, if you were to create a 500-calorie deficit per day, you’d lose about a pound in a week.
Of course, you could have a deficit of 1000 calories a day which would double your weight loss to 2 pounds.
Also, for most people, 2 pounds won’t make a noticeable difference.
Most people will start to see a difference when they lose roughly 5% of of their body weight (unless they are already very lean).
So, you could certainly lose some weight in a week through diet alone, but rushing isn’t really worth it.
You need to take a long-term view of weight loss – I’d recommend giving yourself at least 3 months to lose a significant amount of weight.
What If You Can’t Exercise?
If you can’t exercise because of an injury (or any other reason) then you literally have no other option, your calorie deficit will have to come from the ‘calories in’ side of the equation.
This is generally fine if you have a lot of weight to lose (dozens of pounds), but if you’re already very lean and looking to lose more than around five pounds, you should consider the safety of a very low-calorie diet.
For some people, even going below 1000 calories a day can technically be safe, but it’s all about context.
Do you have a manual job that requires some level or strength or endurance to perform?
Do you have a mentally demanding job that allows you to be alert of focused, and not thinking about food?
Do you have other responsibilities like kids to look after?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then you need to seriously consider whether the calorie target you plan to stick to is safe and if it will allow you to live your life without interruption.
If you can’t exercise and you want to lose weight, the best option might be to have a very low-calorie deficit 150-350 per day, then potentially ramp things up when you can exercise again.
Always speak to a weight loss coach before you attempt any kind of diet!
⭐ Five Ways to Be More Successful in Creating a Calorie Deficit WITHOUT Exercise
Calorie deficits are very black and white.
If you’re not in a deficit, then you won’t lose weight, so ‘be in a deficit consistently’ is the best possible piece of advice.
Of course, you need to get into that deficit first; a few of these tips might help you achieve that.
This is controversial
Is walking classed as ‘exercise’ or just NEAT?
Everyone will have a different opinion but walking certainly isn’t what more people would think of doing when trying to lose weight.
Exercise or ‘working out’ is generally considered to be something that’s demanding from a cardiovascular or strength point of view (or both) – stuff like cycling, swimming, or weightlifting or CrossFit.
You definitely don’t need to do any of that stuff to lose weight.
Technically you don’t even need to walk, BUT walking can really help you out (as you see in the examples above), especially because, unlike other forms of exercise;
- You don’t need to ‘psyche yourself up’
- You need to put on workout gear
- You don’t need to stretch before (or after)
- You don’t need to shower and change after
This is why I recommend walking as the default form of exercise for ALL my clients.
Sure, go crazy in the gym, run 10 miles a day and swim 50 lengths of the local pool, as long as you get your steps.
250 calories burned from 30-45 minutes of walking isn’t a bad return at all
2. Eat More Protein
If there is one ‘magic pill’ or ‘silver bullet’ in weight loss, its protein
Protein has so many benefits;
- It helps you feel fuller
- It takes more energy to digest than carbs or fat (i.e. you burn more calories digesting protein)
- It helps maintain your muscle mass (which will make you look better)
- It only has 4 calories per gram (fat has 9 calories per gram)
Ok there are four benefits, but they’re all REALLY important.
Base every meal around a protein source and you can’t go too far wrong.
3. Time Your Meals
If you aren’t exercising when losing weight, you don’t have to worry about fuelling your workouts (or being really hungry after).
So you can time your meals to ensure you’re eating when you feel hungry.
If you feel most hungry in the evening (As most people do) then make sure to have a decent amount of calories in your evening meal, and make sure you’re eating high-fiber, high-protein foods that’ll fill you up like lean meat and fish, potatoes and vegetables.
4. Cut Down on Calorie Dense Foods
There is no such thing as perfect ‘calorie deficit foods’ but there are certain foods you should eat and avoid when trying to stay in a calorie deficit.
- Lean protein (poultry, white fish, lean beef)
- Low-fat dairy (yogurt, milk)
- Fiber (oats, potatoes)
However, you should also limit (NOT totally avoid) calorie-dense foods (ie. foods that pack a lot of calories for very little weight or volume of food)
- Fatty meat and fish (Pork belly, Salmon)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Oil and Butter
Yes you can eat what you want in a calorie deficit, but believe me it’ll be SO much easier if you prioritise these foods
Sleep is crucial.
Lack of sleep can mean you’re more hungry the next day which can make it more difficult to stick to your deficit.
Get 7-9 hours per night. Just do it.
You absolutely CAN create a calorie deficit and lose weight without exercising.
But it’s probably not the optimal approach for most people.
Especially considering that you can burn an additional 250 calories per day just by walking for 30-45 minutes
It’s certainly true that you don’t need to do tons of intense exercise (running, cycling, swimming etc) but walking as a measurable form of NEAT will make most people’s journeys much easier.
You can rest assured that if you’re injured or can’t exercise for whatever other reason, weight loss is still possible, it might just be a it more tricky.
Diet, exercise or diet with exercise: comparing the effectiveness of treatment options for weight-loss and changes in fitness for adults (18–65 years old) who are overfat, or obese; systematic review and meta-analysis: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4429709/
Body Composition Changes after a Weight Loss Intervention: A 3-Year Follow Up: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7825716/
Effect of Diet and exercise alone, or combined, on weight and body composition in overweight to obese postmenopausal women: : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3406229/
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