Do you want to lose weight, but you don’t know where to begin? Should you focus on exercise or your diet? Maybe both? The internet is full of weight loss programs promising incredible results, and recipes designed to help you lose weight. But which one is more important?
Read on to find out what scientists have to say about diet and exercise, and take control of your weight loss journey.
Obesity Epidemic in the US
Health experts warn we are facing a worldwide obesity epidemic. According to the CDC, obesity prevalence in American adults is at 42.4% (1). When we compare it to 30.5% in the year 2000, and around 15% in the 90s, we realize how bad the situation is (2).
Excess weight increases risks of developing many chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, and more.
Health officials have been giving diet and exercise recommendations for years, trying to tackle obesity problems by stimulating people to eat healthily and become more active. But, our lifestyles have changed quite a bit. We have become too busy, and we spend most of our time sitting down.
Luckily, there is an effective, science-based way to approach weight management.
Weight Loss in Exercise
Weight loss is the main reason why people start exercising. But it shouldn’t be the only one. Physical activity is essential for our health and longevity. Research shows that some of the health benefits of exercise include (3,4):
And the list goes on.
According to the CDC, you need to aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week to enjoy health benefits (5). However, some recent studies show that every little bit of exercise helps, so do it even if you can’t get 150 minutes per week (6).
Research shows that no matter how much you exercise, it only accounts for a small percentage of your total energy expenditure. In fact, your body burns around 60-80% on the basal metabolic rate, which is the energy needed to keep you alive. Another 10% of energy goes into breaking down food, which means that only 10-30% of energy expenditure is reserved for physical activity.
Losing weight is simple in theory. You just need to spend more calories than you consume. But, it is not so simple when you consider that consuming calories is so much harder than burning them.
For instance, eating a Snickers bar adds almost 250 calories to your body. A 180-pound person will need an hour of walking to burn that many calories, and it only took a minute to consume them (7).
Multiple studies show that people tend to eat more when exercising because they feel like they have burned enough energy with physical activity (8,9). Dr. Kevin Hall, body weight and metabolism expert, explained:
You work hard on that machine for an hour, and that work can be erased with five minutes of eating afterward. A single slice of pizza, for example, could undo the benefit of an hour's workout. So could a cafe mocha or an ice cream cone.
You Are What You Eat
Limiting your calorie intake is a lot easier than working out for hours trying to burn those calories. That is why diet beats exercise every time when it comes to weight loss. Don’t get us wrong – both are essential, and it is best if you combine diet and exercise, especially if you are looking to experience full health effects. But, if you want to lose weight quickly, your diet should come first.
When you limit your food intake, it becomes easier to enter a calorie deficit, which is vital for losing weight. However, it’s not just about how much you eat; it’s your food choices, too.
Most people rely too much on processed foods, and they are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Even when we are on a diet, we eat way too much, explains Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, and an author of “Eat Your Way to Happiness” book.
They [dieters] seriously underestimate portions, especially for grains and meat. People eat too many processed foods that are high in calories, fat, salt, sugar, and low in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. They eat far too few fresh fruits and vegetables, and when they do eat them, they chose the worst ones, such as potatoes, iceberg lettuce, apple juice, etc.
You won’t get far by limiting your calories but continuing to eat junk food. Eating half a burger and smaller fries will leave you hungry, and it is not the right long-term approach. Instead, you should aim to eat a Mediterranean style diet as researchers highlight the positive effects on health (10,11,12). Mediterranean diet consists of lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats. And none of those high-processed foods.
As experts point out, changing your nutrition strategy will better impact your weight loss than hitting the gym. However, you should have at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. You can try brisk walking, jogging, hiking, swimming, or cycling. Feel free to mix in some weight and resistance training at the gym for the best long-term results.
When it comes to weight loss, eating healthy is more important than exercise. Keep in mind that you should still exercise on weight loss eating plans. That way, you can burn fat, gain muscle mass, and improve your overall health and well-being.
You can’t say that either one is better. You should aim to improve your eating habits and get more active if you’re looking to lose weight. Diet, sleep, and exercise should be your top priority if you want to lead a long and happy life.
The Bottom Line
Diet is more important than exercise when it comes to weight loss. However, that doesn’t mean you should neglect either one. People tend to focus more on their workouts, but if you want a more efficient way to reach that calorie deficit, change your eating habits.
It’s all about cleaning your food selection, and going for whole foods, instead of processed ingredients. Your diet should be nutritionally balanced, and it should be in sync with your weight goal needs.
Forget about fad diets and develop healthy eating habits, even if it takes longer to see the results. These popular diets may help you drop some pounds quickly, but they are not sustainable in the long run. By developing healthy dietary habits, you will enjoy long-term weight loss, as well as many positive health effects.