It’s been a tough few months for soft drink makers. Actually, scratch that – it’s been a tough few years.

Sugary drinks – long known to be unhealthy – have recently been directly linked to increased cases of Type 2 Diabetes. Pepsi Cola – facing declining sales – dropped aspartame entirely from their Diet Pepsi line purely as a popularity stunt. 

Now Coca Cola has turned up in the news. If the headlines are to be believed, a similarly desperate Coca Cola wants fat people to stop worrying about their diet so much and focus on exercise to lose weight.

Coke sponsored health group suggests that exercise - not diet - is the key to weight loss.

Let’s just be clear about one thing up front – the negative attention is well-deserved. 

Sugary, fizzy drinks are a major contributor to obesity rates in this country. If all soda consumed by Americans were to be replaced with water, our obesity epidemic would see a distinct improvement. I’m just going to plant that blazing flag right here. 

That done, let’s take a few steps back and look at what’s going on a little more objectively. Pointing fingers is fun – but what can we learn from all of this?

Recent articles in popular media like the New York Times have suggested that diet is the crucial factor in weight loss, and exercise is entirely optional.

Recent Studies: Diet More Important Than Exercise?

Less than a month ago, news headlines began to surface decrying the amount of focus we place on exercise for weight loss. 

Studies were cited, showing that activity levels had little correlation with obesity in children. It was additionally noted that physical activity among Americans has risen since the turn of the century, yet obesity rates have as well.

There is truth to this, of course. Physical activity is quite easily negated by poor dietary choices, and we Americans have made an art of it. We go to the gym and sweat up a storm, only to ravenously swing by the local burger joint on the drive home and order something greasy with extra cheese and bacon.

Why are we constantly being told to be more active then, when the more important factor is diet? After all – you can lose weight by dieting, regardless of whether you exercise or not. The reverse is not quite so true.

Writers on the topic weren’t so objective, of course. Studies showing limited improvement in weight losses based on diet and exercise versus diet alone were abused to claim that exercise is quite optional entirely in the grand scheme of things. The over-all gist of this media flurry was that working out isn’t important for weight loss at all. Watching what you eat on the other hand, is paramount. 

Experts would have you believe that drinking a can of coke per day is just fine when you're trying to lose weight. The key is to burn off those calories with extra activity.

Latest Coke Sponsored Experts: Exercise More Important Than Diet?

It helps if you skip past all the hype and spin, and actually check out the information that the Global Energy Balance Network is publishing for yourself. 

On their site, GEBN describes “healthy energy balance” this way:

“People can be in energy balance at any body weight or BMI, whether lean, overweight, or obese. This simply means that body weight is stable and neither increasing or decreasing. Being in healthy energy balance means maintaining a body weight and level of physical and metabolic fitness compatible with good health.”

Clearly their writers were cut from the same cloth as those behind our current executive branch of government – so I will take the liberty of translating this into lay terms:

“Anyone who is taking in and expending the same amount of calories is neither gaining nor losing net calories – and thus is stable, regardless of their state of fitness.”

For you mathematicians out there, it looks something like this:

While distillation of the concept yields absurdity, there is a point to the madness. Here’s what Dr. Steve Blair of the GEBN had to say about their energy balance as applies to weight loss:

“It’s very clear that around the world the populations are getting fatter. The big problem is we don’t really know the cause other than, well, too many people are eating more calories than they burn on too many days. But maybe the reason they’re eating more calories than they need is because they’re not burning many. So we need to be in balance. We need to be in energy balance and at a healthy level, which means getting a proper amount of physical activity.”

There is truth to the GEBN concept. Maintaining an equilibrium between calories in and calories out is essential to maintaining your health. Making sure your caloric output matches your caloric input is certainly important. And for purposes of weight loss, ensuring that your caloric output is higher than your intake is pretty much the only game in town.

That said, you can’t possibly expect to burn off a 5,000 calorie per day intake – and this is where the news media is having an absolute heyday. “Coke wants overweight people to stop worrying about what they eat!” shout the headlines. 

Your body undergoes a number of changes when you start a reduced calorie diet. Some of these are helpful, but others are not.

How the Body Handles Calorie Reduction

Your body does not physically understand what you’re doing to it when you embark on a reduced calorie diet. This is important to understand more fully before we try to reach a conclusion about the arguments given above.

When cutting calories, consciously you know that the goal is to reduce fat around your middle. Physically however, your body believes that starvation (and eventually death) are imminent! When this happens, your body can elect to salvage energy in the following ways:

Decreased metabolism: Simply put, your body slows down all non-vital systems to save as much energy as possible. Metaphorically, it is like a college student living on ramen and carpooling with friends when he runs out of cash a little too soon.

Increased digestion: You might be surprised at how many nutrients pass completely through your system without being taken in at all. Humans under normal circumstances pass quite a lot of nutritional content unused. When the body enters starvation mode however, it will work much harder to absorb nutrients from whatever meager sustenance it is given. This is our metaphorical college student eating leftover pizza that he might otherwise have thrown away, or taking the time to thoroughly scrape clean the last of the peanut butter from the bottom of the jar.

Using fat reserves: Fat is produced and stored in your body for a purpose – and this is that purpose. When in dire straits, your body will re-absorb this fat and burn it for fuel. Storing and burning fat is a survival thing. This is our metaphorical college student dipping into his savings account in order to buy a new textbook that he absolutely cannot study without.

As an added survival bonus, every pound of fat in your body requires about 3 calories per day to keep alive – therefore every pound you lose is 3 calories less that the body needs to survive.

Burning muscle: We all know fat converts back into energy, but did you know that muscle works the same way? Not only can muscle be converted back into usable fuel for the rest of the body, but the process of doing this is less costly to perform than burning fat. This is our metaphorical college student selling his bicycle in order to pay the rent.

Muscle costs twice as much to support in the body as fat, clocking in at around 6 calories per day simply to stay alive. This makes burning muscle not only easier, but more logical for survival purposes than burning fat – and therefore your body will prefer to burn muscle and fat equally if given the option.

Increased activity causes a number of changes in your body. Most of these are beneficial - provided you are training properly and avoiding dangerous techniques that could cause injury.

How the Body Handles Increased Activity

Increasing the energy demands on your body through physical activity (exercise) taps into your survival modes as well. 

If you begin running on a regular basis, you consciously see this as a way of reducing stress and getting some cardio. It’s good for you. Kind of like eating green leafy stuff. You do it because you know you should.

Physically however, your body simply knows it is being called upon to run frequently. Therefore running must be necessary for survival. If the running is completely within your comfort zone and not taxing your system, then your body simply burns as much energy as needed to do the task.

If you are running in excess of what your body can easily handle, your muscle fibers will become strained and take damage. The body responds to this damage by repairing individual muscle fibers with multiple replacement patches. This is the key to building lean, powerful muscle. Energy is actively poured into improving every other system that enables running as well, so that it can be done faster, longer, better, and with less risk of injury. 

Any excess calories the body takes in that would have been devoted entirely to the fat stores are now being drawn upon to build muscle and improve vital systems for this new activity. Your brain also releases endorphins while you’re running. This provides the “natural high” runners often experience, and helps to dull any pains or discomfort that occurs while you’re running. 

There are essentially three main ways to approach weight loss - you can focus entirely on exercise,  focus entirely on diet, or split your focus to include both.

Three Possible Approaches with Three Possible Outcomes

With all of this information fresh in your mind, now it’s time to compare approaches. For purposes of comparison, I am going to treat them exactly the same way journalists have, and pretend as if each approach is completely black and white on the issues.

#1: The Energy Equality Approach – AKA Intense Physical Exercise without Regard for Diet

If you take the Coca Cola sponsored idea as it has been portrayed, this is a one-sided approach. Rather than decreasing caloric intake, you focus all of your energies on participating in physical activity to burn as many calories as possible and reach equilibrium between intake and output.

If you manage to burn as many calories as you eat, then the body will repair and build muscle but have little need to draw upon energy reserves. The result will be an increase of muscle mass and improvement in stamina, with minimal decreases in body fat. Since muscle is denser than fat, you can expect to gain some weight without gaining many inches. 

If you cannot match your caloric intake, your body will use excess energy to build both muscle AND fat. You will gain both weight and inches.

#2: The Popular Media Approach – AKA Calorie Restricted Diet without Regard for Exercise

Without implementing any exercise plan whatever, you focus all of your energies on calorie reduction and sticking to a solid diet plan. Ideally this plan includes lots of fruits and vegetables and provides balanced, wholesome nutrition. Your caloric goal is lower than your daily caloric spend.

If you stick to your diet, your body will not have enough calories incoming to support itself, and will begin to burn muscle and fat for energy. Muscle costs more to maintain, costs less to burn, and is not actively being used – thus muscle will be the preferred source for needed energy, with fat reserves being expended as well but at an equal or lower rate.

Since muscle is dense and fat is not, you can expect to lose quite a few pounds on the scale. Losing inches around your middle will be considerably slower however, since your body is in no rush to burn fat. The final result may ultimately be thinner you – but you will not look or feel healthy when you get there, no matter how much green stuff you’re eating. 

It’s far more likely that you’ll fail entirely and gain the weight back – and since you’re not building muscle, any re-gained weight will be mostly fat. Therefore you may return to your original weight and yet gain more than your original inches.

#3: The Correct Approach – AKA Calorie Restricted Diet AND Intense Physical Exercise

You focus on burning as many calories as possible through exercise, while simultaneously maintaining a balanced diet of less calories per day than you are expending. 

Because your muscles are being used aggressively, your body must expend energy not only powering them but healing them and building them stronger. With every pound of muscle you gain, your resting caloric burn increases and your ability to work out harder and burn calories faster increases as well.

Since you are eating fewer calories than you are burning, your body will want to slow metabolism. This is not effective however since you are demanding lots of activity. 

It will also want to draw energy by eating up muscle – but since your muscles are being worked and are in a constant state of healing and growth, that is not possible or effective.

The only sources your body can therefore use effectively to gain additional energy are from more thoroughly processing the food you eat, and by burning fat reserves.

Because you are actively replacing large, flabby fat stores with dense, lean muscle, you can expect to lose pounds slowly, but lose inches quickly. As a final result, you can expect to reach a reasonable weight (that may be above your original goals), but to look far healthier than you imagined while feeling vibrant, energetic and alive. 

The only genuinely healthy solution for losing weight is to combine exercise with a balanced, proper diet.

Which Approach is Right for You?

By now that should be a rhetorical question. Here’s the point:

Journalists looking for ratings are going to spin stories in whatever direction they think will get them the most attention. You need to be smarter and savvier than that.  

Journalists may claim that diet is the key to losing weight – not exercise. And they’d be 100% accurate. But losing pounds of weight is not the key to getting healthy. It can even be dangerous.

Corporate conglomerates meanwhile, may claim that exercise is the key to losing weight – not diet. Stop worrying about all the calories in that coke and just focus on getting outside and jogging more to make up for it. And they’re 100% accurate, that your energy spend needs to at least match your intake. But it takes a LOT more time and work to burn off a can of coke than it does to drink one. At best you might break even. Maybe. At worst it’s a run-away path to failure.

Ultimately, you need to know that it takes both disciplines to lose weight. Both schools are required. Both paths must be followed. 

  • Exercise without diet is futile. 
  • Diet without exercise is dangerous.
  • Participating in neither is probably how you got here. 
  • Doing both is the only solution that’s legitimately good for you. 

If journalists would write that, maybe we’d all be a little healthier for it.