What Happens If You Workout But Don’t Eat Healthy? (Surprising Good News)

Nutrition | Written by Nathan Petitpas | Updated on 2 July 2024

A white woman wearing a headband and wrist sweatbands lies on a purple yoga mat in her living room. With a red ball in the background, she takes a bite of a burger, occasionally eating french fries and drinking Pepsi. This makes her contemplate the effects of working out without eating healthy.

People looking to make lifestyle changes might consider the effects of working out without eating healthy.1

For beginners, the surprising good news is that, at first, workouts alone may be enough to see positive body changes.

However, as time goes on, exercise by itself will most likely not be enough for weight loss or building muscle.

Instead of leaving results up to chance, continue reading below to see how exercising without making decent food choices can affect the body as well as ways to make diet changes that are easy and foolproof.

Does Working Out (Exercising) Make Up For a Bad Diet?

The common belief is that exercising can outweigh a bad diet, leading some to think they can eat whatever they want if they work out. Since exercise does burn calories, it is logical to think that loosening the reins on food restrictions is ok, but in reality, it can be a slippery slope.

A black woman with brown wearing a grey top and green yoga pants has coiled hair and is doing a side bend with a cityscape in the background.

Source: pixelshot via Canva.com2

For most people who don’t follow a diet or work out plan, if exercise is introduced, there is a strong chance that they will see immediate benefits. Adding movement for those who typically live a sedentary lifestyle can have some remarkable results right out of the gate. Notable changes for those adding in exercise are:

  • Weight loss
  • Increased energy
  • Positive health reports
  • Better sleep

These results, however, can lull people into a false sense that their routine is sufficient. While in reality, it is not feasible for those results to continue indefinitely. As the body gets used to exercise, these positive changes will become less and less noticeable and may even become completely undetectable.

What Are the Consequences of Exercising Without Maintaining a Healthy Diet?

Exercise is incredibly beneficial and necessary for staying fit and healthy, but working out without eating healthy can undermine your efforts.3 Thankfully, exercise will always have a positive effect on the body, regardless of whether it is counteracted by other things. Unfortunately, though, those benefits will be degraded and the time and effort spent working out will be mostly wasted if poor food choices are constantly being made.

You Can Gain Weight or Lose Weight From Eating Unhealthy & Working Out

Eating unhealthy and working out can cause weight gain or weight loss based on the amount of calories burned versus the amount of calories consumed.4 Everyone has a base amount of calories they burn everyday determined by factors such as their weight, height, typical amount of movement, etc.

Many people who are not eating healthy are either maintaining their weight or slowly putting on pounds throughout the years. If these individuals begin working out on a normal basis, there is a high probability that the calories they burn while working out will put them into a calorie deficit which will cause weight loss.

A white woman with straight brunette hair has her nails painted dark red, wearing a white long sleeve shirt and is taking a bite from a large burger that has beef, lettuce, onions and cheese on it as she sits on the patio of a restaurant.

Source: galitskaya via Canva.com5

A calorie deficit is when the amount of food eaten per day is less than the amount burned by the body. Achieving a calorie deficit can be done regardless of whether the food that is being eaten is healthy, however, it may prove difficult because unhealthy foods are typically higher in calories.

If someone was already gaining a steady amount of weight before working out, it is possible that exercise will only slow weight gain instead of causing weight loss. There are 3500 calories in a pound, so if someone is gaining a pound a month, they would have to workout out enough to burn at least 980 calories per week to drop weight.

Some may think they have mastered ways to maintain weight without counting calories or having to choose healthy foods, but the more likely scenario when not eating well while exercising is that they will gain weight. A workout will prompt hunger due to burning calories which will then be replaced with unhealthy food that will cause a calorie surplus which ends in weight gain. As mentioned earlier, burning calories takes significantly more time than eating them, so it is easy to negate any progress using this method.

Your Workout Results Will Be Subpar From Eating Whatever (Harder to Tone or Build Muscle)

A majority of unhealthy diets include refined sugars, empty carbohydrates, saturated fats, and multitudes of processed foods; these choices lead to subpar results from workouts due to how hard it is to tone and build muscle while lacking certain nutrients.

The key to toning arms, legs, abs, or any body part is to slim down to show off muscle definition. Because weight gain while eating an unhealthy diet is so easy, even when working out, it is less likely to see desired results.

For those wanting to optimally build muscle, unhealthy eating can reduce the effectiveness when starting a strength routine to lose weight fast because muscles aren’t getting the proper nutrition. Protein, specifically, is used to aid in repairing and rebuilding muscles after a workout; without it, muscles will struggle to heal and develop as they should.6 Most Americans do not get the proper amount of protein in their daily diet even when eating healthy, so those making poor diet choices are most likely even more deficient.

You May Run Into Other Health Complications

Eating poorly doesn’t only affect weight, but it can also have severe health consequences, whether it is done in conjunction with exercise or not. When it comes to physical well-being, working out without maintaining a healthy diet can undermine your efforts.

  • Consistently eating unhealthy food can lead to obesity, which puts that person at risk for several other issues and diseases.
  • Saturated fats and sodium can lead to high cholesterol and blood pressure which can increase the likelihood of a stroke or heart disease.
  • Empty carbs and sugar both contribute to Type 2 Diabetes which requires monitoring and medications and if uncontrolled, can result in severe complications.
  • The risk of cancer increases with poor diet and weight gain and leaves individuals more susceptible to 13 additional types of cancers.7

Lack of Energy and Fatigue (This Is the Outcome When You Exercise Without Consistently Eating Healthy)

It is commonly known that the body needs food to survive; in fact, calories are a measurement of energy and the calorie count of foods is just the representation of how much energy that food can provide. So, even if enough calories are being consumed, it doesn’t necessarily provide ample energy. Not exactly.

It is important to realize that the body doesn’t treat each calorie the same; it reacts differently based on the macronutrients (macros) of that food, the most common of which are:

  • Fat
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fiber
  • Protein8

Without the proper amount of each of these aforementioned macros, lethargy and fatigue can set in. Calories from empty carbohydrates, such as sugar and white bread give an initial energy spike but are then burned off within an hour and cause individuals to feel a crash as that energy wears off.

You’re Unlikely to Build or Maintain Healthy Habits & Lifestyle Adjustments

Making unhealthy food choices makes it difficult to create and maintain healthy habits. It takes effort to make healthy eating a priority and, unfortunately, there are many things that can stand in the way of positive lifestyle adjustments

  • The world is fast paced and people are busy, which makes temptations such as fast foods and high carb snacks hard to resist..
  • Struggling with emotional eating by using food as a crutch is real and binge eating typically revolves around large amounts of unhealthy food.
  • Already dealing with disease or illness can make it feel like change isn’t worth it, so some will continue to eat poorly because they feel like it won’t make a difference.

Each of these issues can inch an individual toward putting in less effort into exercise and movement and in turn, care less about their health and well being.

Exercise Intensity is Unsustainable

Many things in life can derail an exercise routine which can leave someone solely counting on a diet to keep them healthy. If a diet is full of processed foods, sugar, and refined carbs, a sudden lull in exercise can cause massive consequences.

For those in the throes of a stable workout routine, it may seem implausible that anything can put an end to it, but there are several things that are uncontrollable:

  • Illness: Getting sick can kick people out of everyday routines such as work and family activities, and exercise is no exception. Energy is low while recovering from sickness so it is to be expected that calories burned will be at a minimum.
  • Injury: Injuries occur without notice and healing from them can take weeks to months. While it may be possible to get some movement while on the mend, it is not guaranteed and could cause a long stint of immobility.
  • Aging: As people age, they are typically not capable of sustaining exercise at the same level indefinitely. Not being in the habit of making good food choices can lead to issues later in life when diet can’t be aided by working out at the same intensity.
  • Life Events: Life has a tendency to put a wrench in plans and there are several things that can pull someone away from workouts. Demanding careers, needs of family members, logistics, etc. All of these things can affect a single or multiple workouts.

Which Is More Important: Eating Healthy vs Exercise?

Both exercise and making good food choices are critical for health. The body is a complex machine that requires daily maintenance to be able to continue to be strong and perform all the tasks that it is asked to do. Similar to asking whether which is more important, food or water, both are vital and each play a different role in sustaining life.

Why Eating Healthy-Ish is Worthwhile: The Benefits of Eating Healthier

Making healthier food decisions a majority of the time is essential for the well being of the whole body. The benefits of healthy eating are both immediate and long term,

Immediate Benefits of Healthy Eating:

  • More Energy: Choosing foods with higher protein and complex carbs can give the body energy over an extended period of time.
  • Better Sleep: Foods with less added sugar and fats don’t have the same tendency to cause indigestion and acid reflux which can lead to sounder and more comfortable sleep.
  • Mood Boost: A drop in blood sugar can cause irritability and moodiness, so foods such as high quality carbs and whole grains can keep blood sugar stable.
  • Laser Focus: Another plus for complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats which all can contribute to clearing up that mid-afternoon brain fog that many are familiar with.

Long Term Benefits of Healthy Eating:

  • Eye, Teeth, and Skin Health: Vitamins and minerals located in fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and complex carbs all contribute to oral and visual health as well as contributing to skin’s elasticity and healing properties.
  • Bone Strength: Bones need calcium as well as other minerals to maintain their density and strength, which is especially important as people age.
  • Muscle Building: As mentioned before, muscles need protein for maintenance and recovery, which is essential to keep them from deteriorating.
  • Immune Support: Foods such as bell peppers, spinach, and citrus fruits contain zinc and vitamin C which can help ward off sickness.
  • Digestive Function: Leafy greens and other fiber rich foods aid in digestion and contribute to gut health.
  • Lowered Risk of Disease: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer risk can all be significantly reduced by choosing foods lower in refined sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.9
  • Weight Loss: Most people would love to know how to lose weight without trying and although eating healthy does take some effort, making nutrition a priority can easily result in weight loss.

What Happens if I Eat Healthy and Don’t Exercise?

Knowing how important it is to eat healthy, some may try to figure out ways to reduce weight rapidly without exercise within a month, but as important as eating healthy is, it is equally important to exercise to ensure the heart and other muscles are getting enough activity. Choosing nutritional food doesn’t counteract the lack of exercise, which can lead to:

  • Weight Gain
  • Chronic Diseases
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep Disorders
  • Cognitive Impairment
  • Bone Loss10

Easy Ways to Eat Healthier Without Calorie Counting (Weight Loss Tips Without Dieting)

Many individuals are curious about the effects of exercising without maintaining a healthy diet, especially those who prefer not to adhere to a specific eating plan. This is understandable because the majority of Americans have started diets and failed several times. This can lead to feeling like eating healthy is too hard; but it doesn’t have to be so complicated.

An Asian woman is holding a fork that has a carrot on it in her right hand and her cell phone in her left hand while sitting at a table with blueberry muffins, lettuce, and orange juice on it.

Source: freedomz via Canva.com11

Instead of extreme dieting and excessive calorie counting, the below weight loss hacks for lazy girls and guys can help anyone trying to adjust their eating habits.

Listen to Your Body and Try Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating weight loss and maintenance focuses around being intune with what the body needs. Instead of eating at predetermined times and clearing a plate just because it’s full; pay attention to hunger cues. Eat when hungry, stop when satisfied, and choose foods that will supply energy for the needs of the day.

Try Skipping A Meal or Two (Benefits of Fasting)

Skipping a meal may seem extreme at first, but many people eat a marginal breakfast, while some eat no breakfast at all. Making this a regular occurrence by implementing intermittent fasting has the potential to save diners several hundred calories along with potentially boosting metabolism.

To put intuitive eating into action, choose a fasting window and an eating window; the typical plan includes a fast that is 16 hours that typically starts at 8pm with an allowed eating window of 8 hours which would then start at noon. Black coffee, unsweetened tea, and especially water is encouraged during fasting hours, but consuming drinks and food with calories is restricted to the 8 hour eating window.

Hide the Junk Food

Having junk food easily accessible can make it especially difficult for those trying to eat healthier. If possible, the easiest solution is to stop buying calorie laden stacks. When the urge to snack hits, having chips and sweets not sitting in the pantry makes it easier to assess whether boredom or hunger is driving a snack session.

If other residents in the household are responsible for the junk food, try to put it out of sight so it isn’t the first thing in view when cravings strike. Also, search out especially tasty snacks that fit into food goals so that there is an alternative available when trying to satiate hunger.

Eat More Protein and Fiber

Eating more is not something people associate with diets and healthy choices, but adding protein and fiber to meals is an excellent way to feel full and stay feeling full. Forgoing snacks and other calorie filled foods is easier when constant hunger isn’t at the forefront of the mind.

Exercise is an integral part of life, but results from even the best of routines will be greatly diminished if not backed by a well rounded and healthy diet. Making small changes over time is the best way to incorporate nutritious foods into meals and snacks by using some or all of the aforementioned advice.

Rather than focusing on the repercussions of exercising without a healthy diet, it’s advisable to make changes now to reap the numerous benefits that come from integrating nutritious eating habits with regular exercise.


References

1Motortion. Canva. Accessed 15 April 2023. <https://www.canva.com/photos/MADIa4hbUdI-obese-female-eating-greasy-burger-instead-of-sports-workout-lack-of-motivation/>

2pixelshot. Canva. Accessed 15 April 2023. <https://www.canva.com/photos/MAD9UATrK2Q-woman-working-out-on-the-balcony/>

3National Library of Medicine. (2017, August 30). Benefits of Exercise. MedlinePlus. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from <https://medlineplus.gov/benefitsofexercise.html>

4Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, February 13). Balancing Food and Activity for Healthy Weight | Healthy Weight | DNPAO. CDC. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from <https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/calories/index.html>

5galitskaya. Canva. Accessed 15 April 2023. <https://www.canva.com/photos/MAExM3X182o-young-woman-eating-hamburger-woman-eating-junk-food-food-hamburger/>

6Cribb, P., & Hayes, A. (n.d.). Increasing Muscle Growth with Proteins. Increasing Muscle Growth. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from <https://cehsp.d.umn.edu/sites/cehsp.d.umn.edu/files/increasingmusclegrowthwithproteins.pdf>

7Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 8). Poor Nutrition. CDC. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from <https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/nutrition.htm>

8Smoak, C. (2016, November 4). There’s no sugar-coating it: All calories are not created equal. Harvard Health. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from <https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/theres-no-sugar-coating-it-all-calories-are-not-created-equal-2016110410602>

9Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 16). Benefits of Healthy Eating | Nutrition | DNPAO. CDC. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from <https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/resources-publications/benefits-of-healthy-eating.html>

10National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2022, September 8). Chronic Disease Fact Sheet: Physical Inactivity. CDC. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from <https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/physical-activity.htm>

11freedomz. Canva. Accessed 15 April 2023. <https://www.canva.com/photos/MAEXP9hdbtE-woman-eating-salad-while-looking-at-phone/>

About the Author

Nathan Petitpas

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.