Don’t Forget the Food: It’s More Than Half of the Weight Loss Equation

The start of a new year is the perfect time to look at new research on diet and exercise. What’s trending? What’s ending? What message should you be sending? (Hint: It’s not all about exercise!)

by Leslie J. Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN

Fitness pros know so much about guiding clients toward a healthy diet and sustainable weight that it’s hard to fathom how obesity and overweight have somehow become the new normal. Yet our knowledge, experience and passion don’t seem to be making much of a dent in America’s obesity epidemic. The latest estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics classify 70% of Americans as overweight, with 40% further classified as obese (most of them in the 40–59 age range). Perhaps even more disconcerting are the obesity rates for young people:

  • aged 2–5: 13.9%
  • aged 2–5: 13.9%
  • aged 12–19: 20.6% (Hales et al. 2017)

Those numbers represent millions of Americans potentially looking for the answers fitness pros provide. Helping these people lose weight and keep it off can boil down to four principles:

  • Success means more than a number on a scale.
  • Restricting calories increases hunger.
  • Dietary variety discourages overeating.
  • Combining diet and exercise has the greatest potential for weight loss success.

Thus, the best route is to stay fit, fed and strong. But to help clients do that, fitness professionals need to do more than have knowledge, experience and passion—we need to get the word out. Here’s how to deliver your message succinctly and successfully.

When the Scale Won’t Budge

Clients hoping to lose weight come to the gym in search of lower numbers on the scale, smaller clothing sizes and fewer inches around the waistline. The trouble is that for all the health benefits of exercise, it does not typically result in significant weight loss. It’s up to fitness professionals to explain the importance of “eating” in the weight loss equation, while maintaining clients’ enthusiasm for exercise.

Clients hoping to lose weight come to the gym in search of lower numbers on the scale, smaller clothing sizes and fewer inches around the waistline. The trouble is that for all the health benefits of exercise, it does not typically result in significant weight loss. It’s up to fitness professionals to explain the importance of “eating” in the weight loss equation, while maintaining clients’ enthusiasm for exercise.

What about clients who don’t understand why the scale won’t budge even though they train with you 2–3 times a week? We know the calorie cost of exercise is not always very significant and can be easily offset by a large snack or an extra serving at dinner. Clients must be reminded that food choices and quantity have much more impact on body weight than exercise does.

Clients also need help when they feel stuck: They’re watching their portions and showing up for training sessions, but the scale won’t move. There may be more options than they realize—it’s up to you to point them out. For instance, a recent study (Byrne et al. 2017) examined one key roadblock to dieting for weight loss: Eating less food increases hunger and slows metabolism. The Byrne study suggests that adhering to a diet plan for 2 weeks and then taking a break can potentially offset the bump in appetite and the drag on metabolism triggered by dieting

Diet or Exercise—or Both?

Though diet is far more important than physical activity for burning off pounds, certain kinds of exercise can play a vital role in weight loss

A meta-analysis (Clark 2015) found that exercise activities which ignite substantial metabolic change—such as resistance training or high-intensity endurance training—are more effective than calorie restriction for people who are overweight. Thus, improving body composition is not only about dieting. Those who spend quality time lifting weights may not need to be quite so careful about what and how much they put on their plate.

That does not mean feasting, but nor does it mean famine. Think of it as a perk that can increase client engagement: Having people work harder, not necessarily longer, can get them closer to their desired results.

Another study reinforces the potential of a combination approach. Scientists working with a group of postmenopausal women with overweight or obesity tested the effects of diet, exercise and a combination of both over 12 months. Results showed that women who modified their diet intake and exercised lost 10.8% of their starting weight in a year (Foster-Schubert et al. 2012).

So, moving more and eating a little less works, but you must explain to clients that this is not an overnight fix. Weight loss is more likely to occur in steps over the course of months; clients shouldn’t expect a weekly decrease.

The Case Against Strict Diets

Clients may tell you they’re frustrated because they have been very strict with eating, avoiding all goodies, and still they’re not seeing the results they expected. It’s true that restricting calories potentially creates an energy deficit, so theoretically if one burns more than one consumes, weight loss occurs (Van Horn 2014). But in general, the strictest diets have the lowest adherence, and, besides, every client loses weight differently. Your job is to meet your clients where they are and help them progress in a realistic, achievable manner.

Point out nonscale victories. Help your clients understand that gains in fitness are incredibly valuable—and so are their losses on the scale. Consider doing circumference measurements and asking people how their clothes fit. If they have health issues, they may see improvements in blood glucose, blood cholesterol and blood pressure. It comes down to helping your clients find the “aha!” moments in their food and fitness choices.

Keep it simple. Ask your clients how much time and effort they are willing to invest in their health, and then advise them accordingly. Be sure to take into account their culinary competency, travel schedule and economic status. The client who travels regularly is not going to be interested in recipes but will appreciate tips on healthy dining out.

It’s crucial to leave your preferences out of your food-choice suggestions. Every client’s diet needs to be about his or her individual preferences. Calories and macronutrients don’t have to be highly prescriptive: It’s better to emphasize consistency in quality of food choices.

Nix elimination diets. Your clients may be fired up about eating clean, keto, paleo, macros or Whole30®, but as an RD, I worry that emphasizing certain foods can have unintended consequences from nutrient elimination. For instance, a diet too low in carbohydrates may increase fatigue and cause the body to burn muscle during exercise. The body also needs carbs to provide the prebiotic fuels that allow probiotics to work efficiently (see “Mixing and Matching Healthy Foods,” below). A diet low in carbohydrates and too high in fat may have detrimental effects on the microbiome. A diet with too little fat may decrease satiety and limit absorption of fat-soluble nutrients and phytonutrients.

Above all, eating should not cause new problems. We need to take care of our insides, not just our appearance.

Diets They’ll Stick To Happily

Rather than urging clients not to eat certain things, ask if they include protein-rich foods at every meal and snack, eat plenty of produce (fruit and vegetables), and include some kind of carb, such as whole-wheat bread, pasta, a small potato or a corn tortilla. They even need some fat in the mix. See the chart below for portion guidelines.

TEACH THEM to Swap (Not Drop). Carbohydrates can create guilt and angst, but they also bring abundant enjoyment. Eliminating these foods makes no sense. Clients get FOMO (fear of missing out) when their plate has no carbs; however, you can talk to your clients about “swap-fors.”

For instance, a client may prefer potatoes to bread, a glass of wine over pasta, or a brownie instead of rice. All of those items are “carbs,” and if those foods make her feel less like she’s dieting, she may make better choices. Measured (occasional) indulgences, along with compromise—and an emphasis on inclusion rather than exclusion—can increase success. This approach works because restricting calories can increase hunger, making it harder to adhere to the diet.

Encourage them to pack in the protein. Instead of focusing on minimizing calories, urge your clients to try for a plate that is about 30% protein, or about one-third of the plate. Adding protein to each meal increases satiety. Protein in meals decreases postmeal hunger and increases postmeal fullness—so it’s the gift that keeps on giving (Leidy et al. 2007; Leidy, Mattes & Campbell 2007).

More specifically, higher-protein diets—where protein accounts for about 30% of daily calories—can decrease food cravings by reducing secretions of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and increasing secretions of PYY, the satiety hormone (Leidy 2012).

Trackers: Check Progress, Find Patterns

Diet and fitness ultimately must help clients achieve their goals. Before smartphones, we didn’t have much beyond the scale and tape measure to quantify client successes. These days, it’s much easier to document efforts toward goals because there are so many effective accountability tools.

Food logs, apps and activity trackers provide rich potential for monitoring diet and exercise and for baking accountability into weight loss efforts. Studies find a consistent, statistically significant positive relationship between self-monitoring (in relation to diet, exercise and body weight) and achievement of weight management goals (Burke, Wang & Sevick 2011; Pourzanjani, Quisel & Foschini 2016).

Still, tracking devices are only as good as the time and effort put into their use. They are also more effective for those who are motivated to monitor their progress. At the end of the day, it is readiness to change that improves success (Laing et al. 2014).

To help your clients get more out of their apps and trackers, look for patterns. For instance: When do clients eat the most? When are they the least active? How can you help them make the most constructive changes?

Another smart use for their smartphone? Invite them to send you pictures of their meals. If you can see what they’re eating, you can help them understand the value of controlling portion size and selecting more nutritious options from the many foods they already enjoy.

Getting Help With Dietary Choices

Weight loss is hard. It takes time and can be frustrating. As your clients’ weight loss coach, your role is to provide insight, motivation and the delight of success. To keep the momentum going, remember:

  • Change up the workout routine when needed.
  • Make sure they have enough protein.
  • Help them improve their app-titude with appropriate and user-friendly tracking devices
  • Make sure they take care of their core with good food choices—not just with crunches, twists and planks.

Burke, L.E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M.A. 2011. Self-monitoring in weight loss: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111 (1), 92–102.
Byrne, N.M., et al. 2017. Intermittent energy restriction improves weight loss efficiency in obese men: The MATADOR study. International Journal of Obesity. Accessed Nov. 20, 2017: doi: 10.1038/ijo.2017.206.
Clark, J.E. 2015. 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. Journal of Diabetes and Metabolic Disorders, 14, 31.
Costa, R.J.S., et al. 2017. Systematic review: Exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome—implications for health and intestinal diseases. Aliment Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 46 (3), 246–65.
Foster-Schubert, K.E., et al. 2012. Effect of diet and exercise, alone or combined, on weight and body composition in overweight-to-obese post-menopausal women. Obesity, 20 (8), 1628–38.
Hales, C.M., et al. 2017. Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth, United States, 2015–2016. NCHS Data Brief No. 288. National Center for Health Statistics. Accessed Oct. 30, 2017:
Laing, B.Y., et al. 2014. Effectiveness of a smartphone application for weight loss compared with usual care in overweight primary care patients: A randomized controlled trial. Annals of Internal Medicine, 161 (10 Suppl.), S5–12.
Leidy, H.J. 2012. Evidence supporting a diet rich in protein to improve appetite control, satiety and weight management across the lifespan. American Meat Science Association 65th Reciprocal Meat Conference. Accessed Oct. 30, 2017: meatscience. org/docs/default-source/publications-resources/diet-and-health/amsa-65-rmc-heather-j-leidy.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
Leidy, H.J., et al. 2007. High protein intake preserves lean mass and satiety with weight loss in pre-obese and obese women. Obesity, 15 (2), 421–29.
Leidy, H.J., Mattes, R.D., & Campbell, W.W. 2007. Effects of acute and chronic protein intake on metabolism, appetite, and ghrelin during weight loss. Obesity 15 (5), 1215–25
NIH (National Institutes of Health). 1996. Clinical guidelines on the identification, evaluation, and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Obesity Education Initiative. Accessed Oct. 30, 2017:
Pourzanjani, A., Quisel, T., & Foschini, L. 2016. Adherent use of digital health trackers is associated with weight loss. PLOS ONE , 11 (4): e0152504.
Van Horn, L. 2014. A diet by any other name is still about energy. JAMA, 312 (9), 900–901.

Be Good to Your Gut

The human digestive tract is teeming with trillions of bacteria that digest food, distribute nutrients and transport waste out of the body. These microbes constitute the gut micro-biome, essentially an ecosystem full of organisms crucial to our health.

Clients need to see the big picture of gut health because the digestive tract plays a critical role in the body’s ability to process nutrients and provide energy to muscle cells. One particular facet of this relationship emerged from a recent review of research literature, which noted that extended strenuous exercise can compromise the health of the gut (Costa et al. 2017).

Scientists are busy exploring how thoughts and emotions also affect digestion, the so-called gut-brain axis. And they’re confronting the prospect of mapping the gut genome, which is daunting because the gut contains up to a thousand species. Trainers interested in helping their clients eat healthfully should keep an eye out for reports on foods, nutrients and supplements that influence gut health in physically active people.

Prebiotic substances provide fuel for probiotics, which are good for gut function. Prebiotics include pectin, inulin, beta-glucan and fructooligosaccharides. These are some foods that have them: apples, asparagus, barley, dandelion greens, garlic, jicama, leeks, oats and onions. To help your clients get the benefits of prebiotics, suggest they swap rice or pasta for barley, have an apple instead of a banana, opt for oats as a cereal, and incorporate garlic and onion into some meals.

Consider Becoming a Weight Loss Specialist

To learn more about helping clients stay healthy as they take off extra pounds, consider the Weight Loss Specialization (WLS) from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. This specialization will strengthen your ability to attract clients and improve your training business. As an NASM-WLS, you can do the following:

  • Train clients to make the transformation to a healthy lifestyle.
  • Create exercise programs using NASM’s Optimum Performance Training™ model.
  • Elevate your professional reputation by establishing yourself as the go-to trainer on the physical, mental and social challenges of weight loss.
  • Use the latest, most innovative and most science-based guidelines and methodologies.
    Materials Include:
  • downloadable manual
  • video demonstrations
  • programming manual
  • exercise library
  • CEU exam
The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more