Diet and Exercise… Will Never Cure the Obesity Epidemic

After years of proclaiming that “diet is 85% of the game”, this title might leave you thinking that I have just fallen off the turnip truck. But if you sit with me for a few minutes, I will explain why I believe that the current protocol for addressing obesity is doomed to failure.

Diet and exercise: there are two distinct problems in this equation. The first one comes from the inherent limitations of language and misunderstandings around the word ‘Diet’. Secondly, we have adopted a view of physical fitness that does not reach the vast majority of the population. Throw both of those into a solution for combating obesity related degenerative diseases, and the byproduct is a catastrophic fiasco. Does that mean that you should just resign yourself to ‘genetics’ and a future predetermined by forces out of your control? Of course not! Let’s break it all down for a better understanding of what-fails-where, and then we can look at a better solution.

The dictionary definition of the word ‘diet’ does not vary much. Merriam-Webster describes diet as:
a. food and drink regularly provided or consumed
b. habitual nourishment
c. the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason, and
d. a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight.

In our current culture, D-I-E-T is a four-letter word in every sense. Nobody likes being on a diet. When people talk about diets today, it is almost always in reference to that last definition. Being on a diet is all about denial, limitations, bland foods, and becoming a bit of a social outcast. Dieting has become synonymous with a collection of aberrant prescriptions outlining good and bad foods. Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and a host of other diets over the decades claim to be the ideal solution for health and weight maintenance.

The real problem is that nobody eats this way as a natural course, so diets are always temporary. That means that eventually, you are going to be back in the same predicament debating which ‘diet’ to put yourself on next to help you lose the extra weight. And, that extra weight will return given that scientific studies show that when individuals diet to lose weight, they rebound by gaining all of the weight lost plus additional weight when they return to a ‘normal’ diet. This is a direct response to the traditional calorie restricted diet.

Focusing solely on calories, or calorie restriction, also affects the thousands of micro and phytonutrients in our food chain. Weight gain after dieting is the byproduct of nutrient depletion and the body’s need to replenish those nutrient stores. In addition to your immediate needs, you necessarily have to consume in excess to create stores — hence, the yo-yo effect.

Now lets talk about exercise.

From the perspective of language, “exercise” has a lengthy history as well. I used to say that before all of the big-box gyms started popping into our culture, exercise was called “work”. That is true to a point, but in fact, exercise goes back at least as far as soldiers have been preparing for battle.

Another angle on exercise is the concept of “play”. Children inherently use play to develop strength, muscle coordination, and strategy … as is true throughout the animal kingdom as well. The problem with play is that we inherently grow out of it. This is in part due to adult responsibilities such as work, and in other part due to the increased risk of injury. So if we look at the statistics for our youth, we can use this data as an upper limit for physical activity among US adults.
dietandexcersize2The Physical Activity Council (PAC) has published their participation statistics among US youth ages 6 and above in sports, fitness, and recreation.# They track 119 sports and physical activities. People considered inactive are those who do not engage in one or more of those 119 activities. Substantiating our earlier assumption, the following inactivity rate graph published by PAC displays inactivity trends related to age groups.

The University of Chicago Divinity School published similar data utilizing participation rates among US individuals ages 18 and above.# Their analysis of survey data from 2003-2005 showed that approximately 25% of American adults participated in any sport, exercise, or recreational activity on a random day. Referring back to the PAC study, we also know that inactivity rates among adults have increased over the last three years by nearly 8%.

Summing it all up, we see that our contemporary definition of a diet necessitates a vicious cycle of malnourishment if not outright failure. Roughly 45 million Americans spend 33 billion dollars on weight loss products, yet nearly 70% of the US population is at least overweight. Additionally, on any given day of the week roughly 75% of the American population is not motivated to engage in any type of sport, exercise, or recreational activity. As people gain excess weight, the likelihood of inspiring physical activity of any sort declines. I think it is overwhelmingly safe to say that the “Diet and Exercise” message has missed its target market outside of sponsoring a thriving diet industry.


Lets go back to the beginning and look at a simple breakdown.

We started by pinpointing a problem with the popular definition of the word diet. Shifting our focus from definition ‘d’ to definition ‘b: habitual nourishment” is the first step towards setting the right equation. Habitual Nourishment implies nothing about punishment, drudgery, tasteless, or unnatural protocols. Now the concept of a diet is about lifestyle. Developing habitual behaviors around eating sets the stage for consistent outcomes. It is also easier to make small changes that result in sustainable outcomes. Dieting is now about a dynamic relationship between foods, your health, and you.


The culture of physical activity is presently wrapped too tightly around athletics. Honestly, not everyone wants to spend precious hours in a gym watching television from a treadmill. It is also true that a significant percentage of the population does not get into team sports. Our message over the last few decades has been that in order to be fit, one needs to become an athlete. Changing our perception around exercise towards ‘physical activity’ allows for the separation. Physical activity encompasses household chores, family outings, leisure activities, and a wide array of other possibilities. Just getting people to park the car and walk in for their coffee is a significant improvement over the drive-thru. There is so much more to physical activity than high-intensity training. The first step is to allow the largest possible population to engage in ways that compliment their interests and needs. Although this does not in any way negate the activities of athletes and weekend warriors, the goal is health rather than marathons.

Diet and Exercise as we view it today will never produce results different that what we are already seeing. This article presents a strong argument around culture and the implications of language. Our relationship with food and physical activity IS THE KEY to reversing the obesity epidemic.

“Diet is king, exercise is queen, but put them together and they make a Kingdom.”
Jack LaLane

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