Why Dieting and Cardio for Weight Loss Are a Bad Idea

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Are there any superfoods that contain some sort of antioxidant or vitamin that can halt weight gain? Sadly, the answer is “no,” at least not according to research. Ultimately, it all comes down to total calorie consumption (i.e., you should burn calories). Cardio is something else to consider. If you’re doing cardio for weight loss, you should stop until you read this post.

Here’s a shocking secret: dieting and cardio may actually lead to weight gain. What we have been conditioned to believe to be the key to six-pack abs may partially be what’s keeping you from reaching the single-digit bodyfat percentage.

Why Cardio for Weight Loss Is Counterproductive

Some people have reported weight gain despite doing tons of cardio and eating clean. How can this be? Not only that, but this is also extremely disheartening. It’s soul-crushing to see results counter to what you’re trying to achieve in spite of supposedly doing everything correctly.

Have you heard of the saying that too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing? This is what’s happening here. Your body essentially rebels when you diet and do cardio in excess. The key to consistent fat loss isn’t eating 1,000-calories a day and doing 90-minute cardio sessions six days out of the week. That is clear overkill.

Here’s the deal: as you get closer to reaching the single-digit bodyfat percentage, the body becomes ever more sensitive to cardio and calorie deficits. As you get leaner, your leptin levels lower, which affects your metabolism.

It’s all About the Dreaded Cortisol

Too much cardio also elevates cortisol. You likely already know about the testosterone-killing effects of cortisol and how it also promotes weight gain.

If you’re unfamiliar or unconvinced, here is a study examining the correlation between cortisol elevation and drop in testosterone.

Here’s another study that reveals a correlation between cortisol and fat gain.

Here’s something else about cortisol that most people don’t know about: cortisol is also what causes water retention. When you gain unwanted weight, not all of that jiggly layer of puffiness around your midsection is from fat. A lot of it is water.

To know why crash diets and high-volume cardio don’t work, we don’t need to look beyond one of the most high-profile studies in American history.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was conducted in the 1940s to determine a viable method for restoring the health of food-deprived POWs. The yearlong research was led by Ancel Keys and consisted of 36 volunteers who underwent a calorie-restricted diet of about 1,500-calories a day while also performing hard manual labor.

The subjects’ weights were routinely measured. Initially, they lost weight at a rate of about 2-pounds per week. This was expected given the food restriction and physical labor. However, after several weeks, the weight loss became erratic. Subjects may remain at the same weight for weeks on end and suddenly lose three to four pounds in a single day.

What was going on and how was it possible to burn several pounds of fat in a single day?

What was happening was that the subjects did indeed lose body fat even in the weeks when no changes were observed in their weight. The fat loss, however, was counteracted by the body holding onto excess water.

The rapid three to four-pound weight loss occurred when the subjects were given a refeed day to celebrate the halfway mark of the experiment. Upon the feast, the subjects reported heavy urination. By making multiple trips to the loo, the subjects expelled all the water retention weight.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment is much more extensive than what is covered here. It also delves into the psychological aspects of severe calorie restriction, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. If you’re interested, then see this Refienry29 article for an in-depth look at the experiment.

What the Experiment Demonstrates

The Minnesota experiment shows that extreme dieting and cardio lead to massive cortisol spikes, thereby causing water retention. The cortisol levels eventually dropped when subjects had their refeed day.

The sudden and noticeable weight loss from expelled water is common knowledge in the bodybuilding community and is known as the whoosh effect. Bodybuilders often experience the whoosh when binge eating after a long calorie-restriction cycle.

The Solution?

Cardio is not the solution to lose weight. As people reach closer to the ideal bodyfat levels, they tend to believe that they have to push harder by doing even more lengthy cardio sessions and dropping number of calories even further. This is what causes water retention and the soft pudgy look.

Once you reach closer to a lean body, the key is to actually scale back and eat closer to maintenance level and do less cardio or none at all. When you get to the point where you’re only eating around or little more than 1,000-calories a day, you’re going to feel deprived. This may cause you to give in and binge eat, thereby gravitating from one extreme to another. This leads to an endless cycle of weight gain and weight loss.

To prevent plateaus, perform low-volume strength training three times a week. Also, be sure to eat below maintenance level, do intermittent fasting, and take a casual walk for about 40-minutes.

If you need a refresher, remember that maintenance level is your body weight multiplied by 15. When eating at a deficit, multiply your current body weight by 10-12 (x10 If you are on our Aggressive Fat Loss program and x12 if you are on Warrior shredding program) Read our previous post on increasing a slow metabolism for ensuring you never hit a plateau.

Strategic Refeed Day(s)

What is a “Refeed day?”

A refeed day is when you eat at approx maintenance level calories for one or two days (depending on the program).
The reason for this is when you are in a caloric restriction the body will fight against this. Your body NEVER wants to be in a caloric deficit. It’s sole purpose is to keep you alive. It does not care if you want a “six pack” or a lean fit aesthetic body. So it will adapt to that restriction by slowing down your metabolic rate. Hormones like leptin will drop causing hunger (as mentioned above) Yes the programs are set to where the deficit is not overly aggressive but it’s still going to take some effect on the body. 

The refeed day(s) are incorporated to help control the adverse (or potential adverse) reactions by strategically adding in additional food (energy) mainly in carbohydrates to keep hormones regulated and essentially let the body know you are “ok” and not going into a famine. They are also a great mental break when you are restricting caloric intake.

More Is Not Better

It’s tempting to think that you can drop that final inch around your waistline if you just drop another 300 calories or squeeze in another session on the treadmill. It just doesn’t work this way. Various factors affect your hormones, which in turn can have various effects, positive and negative, on your body.

Strictly using cardio is the wrong path. For maximum and effortless fat loss, check out our Aggressive Fat Loss program. If you insist on doing cardio or just love the high you get from it, then do it the right way. We recommend the Cardio Abs & Mobility program for a training that doesn’t cause dramatic cortisol spikes and water retention.

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Greg O'Gallagher

Greg O'Gallagher is the founder of Kinobody, a site dedicated to helping men and women achieve the lean, muscular, and aesthetic "Hollywood" physique. His fitness programs have helped hundreds of thousands of people transform their bodies and change their lives in the process.

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