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Eat Less, Exercise Less (ELEL): Another Weight Loss Strategy?

The eat less, exercise less (ELEL) protocol is one of the most well known protocols here at Metabolic Effect. First discussed in our book Lose Weight Here. In this blog you get all the in-depth information on how it works and how to use it.

Research tells us that greater than 90% of individuals who follow an eat less, exercise more approach will gain most of the weight back.  Some information suggests more than 2/3 of those individuals will end up even fatter as a result.

Part of the reason this happens is the natural adaptive processes the metabolism sets in place to “protect” itself from losses of body fat (see this blog and this study).  These include changes in hunger, energy and cravings (HEC) OR sleep, hunger, mood, energy and cravings (SHMEC). I came up with these memorable acronyms to help understand how your body uses biofeedback sensation to communicate with you. SHMEC & HEC (pronounced shmeck or heck) are what allows for a sustainable diet. Keep SHMEC and HEC in check, and you know your metabolism is in a position of strength where willpower is needed much less.

For more information on SHMEC, HEC and other biofeedback signals that teach you how to be a metabolic detective, SEE THIS BLOG.

Changes in SHMEC, and the accompanying metabolic slow down of traditional approaches, cause the body to consume more calories and burn less of them.  The body burns less because it becomes less motivated to exercise, becomes less motivated to move and may have reductions in resting energy expenditure too (due to changes in hormones like thyroid, as well as losses in lean muscle tissue).

In other words, the metabolism fights back with multiple changes whenever you attempt to lose weight use the traditional eat less, exercise more approach.  I have written on this in other blogs HERE and HERE

A review of metabolism

If you are a student of metabolism you will realize that the thermic effect of exercise or TEE, also know as exercise associated thermogenesis or EAT, is considered separate from non-exercise associate thermogenesis or NEAT.  And both of these are separate from BMR (aka REE or resting energy expenditure) and TEF (the thermic effect of food).

BMR (aka REE) is far less changeable and constitutes the amount of energy you burn at rest if you just laid around all day. The three components of the changeable metabolism are known collectively as NREE (non-resting energy expenditure) and consist of TEF, EAT/TEE and NEAT. The relative contributions of all these components is interesting to consider.

  • REE or BMR= 70%
  • NEAT= 15%
  • EAT or TEE= 10%
  • TEF= 5%

Of the changeable aspects of metabolism NEAT is the greatest component.  This is why movement needs to be be considered as separate from exercise. NEAT constitutes all movement that is not structured exercise. Add all this up and the contribution to energy expenditure is VERY big.  This is why activity trackers can be such a valuable part of a metabolic detective’s tool box (even if some are less than accurate).  It is also why many researchers are calling sitting the new smoking.

For a graphical representation of metabolism I pulled this image from the Trexler, et al. article published in the February 2014 addition of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, entitled Metabolic Adaptation to Weight Loss: Implications for the Athlete.

When you diet via the eat less and exercise more approach, the metabolism will often compensate by making you less motivated to exercise AND also by reducing the unconscious movement you do through the day (walking, standing, fidgeting, washing the dishes, doing the laundry, etc). In other words, metabolic compensation changes several aspects of the metabolism, most notably NEAT. This is why researchers in metabolism now consider movement and exercise as two separate things.

A different approach

If the eat less, exercise more approach induces so much metabolic compensation, is there another approach that might be more balancing to the metabolism and less likely to causes these metabolic changes?

We will need studies to tell us that for sure, but my brother Dr. Keoni Teta and I, have been using an approach in our clinic for years that we believe does just that.  Actually, we have been using several approaches, but the one I will cover today is what we at Metabolic Effect call the ELEL approach (I.e. eat less and exercise less).

Whenever you use descriptive terminology to describe something, you necessarily run the risk of being too subjective and vague about topics that really should be more objective.  Eat less, exercise more suffers the same problem.  How much less should we eat?  How much more should we exercise?

Eat less, exercise less has the same draw backs, but it is not meant to provide anything other than a guiding model in the same way eat less, exercise more does.

To lose weight we need a calorie deficit and also hormonal, metabolic balance so that we mitigate metabolic compensation.  Creating too large of a caloric deficit can be a major stress to the body, and it’s stress that triggers more metabolic compensations.

What if we created the calorie deficit in a more gentle way? That is what the eat less, exercise less approach is attempting to do.  Eat less, exercise more pushes on the metabolism aggressively from two sides, both diet and exercise. Eat less, exercise less uses diet alone to create the calorie deficit.

A few clarifications

Before I get into the protocol specifics I want to cover a few concepts. Metabolic Effect is NOT about one-size-fits-all protocols. While I will give you some good approaches that fit easily into an ELEL approach, you must always work to tweak and adjust the guidelines to fit your unique metabolism, psychology and personal preferences. This is the only way to create a sustainable lifestyle.

Next, the differences between movement (NEAT) and exercise (EAT) are important. The ELEL approach is indeed a lower exercise approach than is traditionally recommended, but it is also a very movement focused approach.

Finally, it is important to speak about one obvious consideration. What if someone is a couch potato and has been living an eat more, exercise less (EMEL) lifestyle? Again, I will remind you that these designations are somewhat vague and arbitrary. They are meant to provide a framework in which to wrap your mind around, but cannot and should not always be taken literally.

A person who is living a “couch potato life” probably will end up exercising and moving more than they were previously, but will still not be engaging in the amount of activity that is normally recommended by traditional weight loss programs.

Eat less, exercise less is really about creating a gentle calorie deficit using diet alone. It then seeks to add enough exercise, and the right type, to maintain muscle, along with plenty of movement to keep NEAT elevated and be more inline with humans living in natural settings.

If you want to get more specific, then technically this protocol is really eat less, exercise less and move more.

The Eat Less, Exercise Less Nutrition Protocol

There are many ways to approach an eat less, exercise less approach. In the end you must find the approach that fits best. Here is the protocol I suggest you start with. I will give you two more options below.

I call it the three, two, one protocol (I.e. 3:2:1). I like to use these types of designations for beginning guidelines as it allows you to hold your meal and movement suggestions easily in your head.

The first number represents the number of meals you will eat.  The second number tells you how many of those meals will be protein and fiber based while also starch free, with minimal fat (i.e. hunger suppressing with minimal cals).  The final number is the number of meals you will eat with a mix of all macronutrients including fat and starch.

Following that logic, 3:2:1 means:

  • 3 meals per day
  • 2 of those three meals contain only protein and vegetables (less sweet fruit too)
  • 1 of those three meals contain a mix of all macronutrients including starch and fat.

This will result in a low calorie diet since low-fat protein sources and vegetables provide a large degree of hunger reduction with a minimal amount of calories.

The approach above starts with an intuitive way of eating.  You eat the three meals according to how they are described. You assess how well each meal fills you up (satiation) and how long it keeps you full (satiety). You adjust the volume and content of the meals until your hunger, energy and cravings are balanced and stabilized from meal to meal and day to day.  You then, if you wish, can take a sample day of eating and calculate your calories and macros to get a rough estimate of where you do best.

Another approach is to calculate the calories and macros first and then adjust them to get hunger, energy and cravings stable and balanced. This approach is best for those who are psychologically predisposed to calorie crunching and macro counting.

You can use our automated macronutrient calculator for the ELEL protocol if you would like. That can be found here: http://metaboliceffect.com/macro-calculator.

Regardless of which approach you choose, calories first or intuition first, the nature of the metabolism requires you adjust. In this way both approaches ultimately should end in a more intuitive and easy approach you can sustain over the long run. No one wants to have to weigh and measure everything that goes in their mouth for the rest of their lives.

As my friend, and fat loss coach Bryan Krahn says, think of calorie concerns and macro counting as training wheels on a bike. They can help you learn to ride but eventually should be removed.

A brief word about calories

There is one concern that comes up again and again for those who misunderstand this method, that is calorie intakes that are too low. There is a belief that if the calorie intakes are below a certain arbitrary threshold, the metabolism will some how be damaged and never recover. This is a misunderstanding about the metabolism.

First, a low calorie intake in the context of low calorie output is very different than low calorie intake in the context of high energy output. In other words, eating a very low calorie diet while exercising like crazy is different than not consuming much food while instead relaxing, or just moving in a leisurely way all day.

The second point is that low calorie intake is not a problem at all if the  metabolism is flexible enough to access its ample fat stores. In point of fact, isn’t that the whole point? Ironically, the eat less, exercise less approach is designed to reduce the stress, insulin and calorie burden most people are constantly under so that it can switch to fat burning mode.

Third, and finally, if the calorie burden is too low for too long the body will gladly let you know by increasing hunger, sapping energy, reducing motivation and elevating cravings. When that happens you can easily adjust, and should adjust, your calories upward.

This protocol is a very healing protocol to the metabolism and results in consistent and predictable losses in body fat, but it may require putting aside some of these wrong beliefs about low calorie levels. I can tell you many people following this will achieve very low calorie levels and, barring the first few days of adjustment, see hunger, energy and cravings balance in a positive way.

Other nutrition approaches

There are many ways to approach the eat less, exercise less model. I have shared with you a protocol I have developed and used extensively. There are a few others that work just as well if not better, depending on the person’s unique metabolic expression, psychological sensitivities and personal preferences.

The two that are my favorite are a very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet and/or an intermittent fasting approach.  I say “and/or” because the fasting approach, of narrowing your eating window, is a great way to comfortably reduce calorie levels without excessive hunger and cravings.

A ketogenic diet, done the right way, elevates ketones, especially betahydroxybutyrate, which may be powerful hunger suppressor. These diets also, and perhaps most importantly, elevate the very satiety inducing combo of fat with protein.

The ketodiet we use here at metabolic effect has you calculate your macro levels by setting protein to 1g per pound lean body mass, and then setting that to 20% of total calorie intake. Then set your carb intake to 5% and fat intake to 75%. This does a very good job of getting most people into ketosis.

The easiest way to follow intermittent fasting is simply push your eating window to a 12pm to 8pm schedule allowing 16hours of fasting and only 8 hours to consume your calorie allotment.

Either of these approaches, or a combination of the two, can result in a very nice eat less, exercise less nutrition protocol.

Here is a past article on intermittent fasting and I will soon be tackling nutritional ketosis on this blog.

The Eat Less, Exercise Less Exercise Protocol

The same 3:2:1 protocol we used to guide us for the nutrition component can also guide us for the activity component. It works like this:

  • 3 rest & recovery activities, preferably more, each week
  • 2 workouts per week that incorporate weight training
  • 1 hour, or more, of slow relaxed movement on all or most days

One of the major benefits of an eat less, exercise less approach is to reduce metabolic stress. While research has not given us the entire story on how stress negatively impacts metabolism, we now know a lot more than we used to.

We know that stress hormones like cortisol are correlated with, and may be directly causing increased drive for highly palatable, calorie rich foods (see HERE , HERE and HERE).

We know that chronic elevations in stress hormones can antagonize insulin and lead to insulin resistance (more of cortisol and insulin here).

We know that the combination of excess cortisol and insulin resistance makes it more likely we over-consume calories, gain fat and store it mostly in the midsection.

We also know that over exercising does NOT have the weight loss advantage we once thought and may actually be working against us by decreasing the NEAT component of metabolism and making us more hungry.

While the 3:2:1 protocol for activity may seem simplistic, it is actually constructed this way for a very few very important reasons.

  1. Rest & recovery activities like listening to music, massage, meditation, physical affection, orgasm, social connections, laughter, time in nature, etc all lower cortisol and may help lower calorie intake because they are incompatible with eating (mostly).
  2. Walking does double duty by being the only activity we can sustain with little effort over most of the day, and therefore is an amazing insulin sensitizing activity. It also lowers cortisol, especially when done in green settings. And yes, it elevates the the biggest component of our changeable metabolism, NEAT.
  3. The weight training workouts, and the fact they are only a few times per week, help maintain muscle mass without ramping up stress hormones.

Final thoughts and common missteps

I can tell you without hesitation this approach works incredibly well. Why it works so well, and whether or not some of my assumptions about the protocol, remain to be discovered through research.

If you want a summation of the idea, think of the ELEL protocol, as a hunter gatherer type protocol. This traditional lifestyle had plenty of movement (walking for transportation and gathering food), occasional intense activity (hunting for dinner, and avoiding becoming dinner) and plenty of time connecting with those in our tribe.

It also likely consisted of modest calorie intake that likely involved short periods of abundance with long periods of calorie deficits.

If you want something a little closer to the modern Western world, think of the traditional European city. Think of a Parisian of a couple hundred years ago. They would have eaten modestly, walked a lot, exercised rarely and used meal times to connect and communicate rather than gorge and go.

The one single mistake made in this protocol is the incessant, and wrong, belief that exercise must be a central component. Overexercising turns this very effective protocol into just another version of eat less, exercise more.

Want a simple, downloadable protocol cheat sheet for the 3:2:1 approach to ELEL?