How To Defend Against Overeating

When it comes to weight loss diets and exercise, science seems confused. Should you exercise when trying to lose weight on a reduced-calorie diet? How intensely? Skip the exercise entirely? Should you focus on output (how many calories you burn) instead of restricting calories? Should you bag the whole idea and go get a pizza?

While common sense says reduce calories somewhat and increase exercise, some studies disagree with that idea, claiming that exercise increases appetite and/or provides an excuse to eat more. Other studies say exercise mitigates hunger and will therefore reduce the risk of overeating. With all the “X” factors that can lead to dietary lapses and failure, we sure don’t need science arguing with itself!

Well, here come the researchers from the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science (WELL Center) at Drexel University with a new study. This one says exercise is a protective factor against overeating. Their participants followed a reduced-calorie diet and took part in exercise in real-world environments.

“Almost all behavioral weight loss programs prescribe exercise because of its health benefits and because it expends energy or ‘burns calories,’” said Rebecca Crochiere, a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences and lead author of the study. “Interestingly, our study suggests that exercise may also aid in adhering to a reduced-calorie diet, perhaps through improved regulation of appetite or eating behavior. It adds another reason to engage in exercise if one is seeking weight loss.”

The study found a 12 percent risk of overeating for those who did not do any exercise. For those who got 60 minutes of exercise in, the risk went down to just 5 percent. For each additional 10 minutes of exercise done, the risk dropped by another 1 percent in the hours following exercise.

Their research was published in the January 2020 edition of the journal Health Psychology.


The team used some interesting methods to collect data. Multiple times a day, “ecological momentary assessments,” or brief surveys about what the 130 participants had eaten were sent to their smartphones. This allowed researchers to track overeating. Fitness trackers on the participants hips measured exercise.

“These findings can help researchers to better understand when participants who are seeking weight loss are at risk of overeating,” said Crochiere. “It can inform the development of treatments that prevent overeating and facilitate weight loss.”

The findings indicate patterns seen across the sample as a whole. One goal for similar research in the future would be to examine the effect of exercising on eating habits on a person to person basis, said Crochiere.

The study also gave some indication that how exercise impacted eating behavior may depend on the intensity of the exercise. Light exercise seemed to offer the strongest protection against overeating, when compared with moderate-to-vigorous exercise. According to Crochiere, more research is needed to back this up.

Does exercise offer protection against overeating? Maybe. Probably. Maybe not. The answer, as is the answer to so many questions related to fitness, nutrition and health is “it depends.” In the meantime, eat sensibly, get some exercise, try to get more sleep and manage your stress, if you can. You’ll be healthier for it and most likely will have an easier time managing your weight as well.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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