Which Is Better for Losing Weight: Diet or Exercise?
Maybe you’ve been hitting the gym religiously five days a week for months, but the numbers on the scale have barely budged. Or maybe you’ve completely overhauled your diet, swapping pizza and pastries for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. But you aren’t seeing the pounds fall off as you’d hoped.
If you identify with either of these scenarios, it’s time to take a step back to consider your approach to weight loss. Is it true that diet is more important than exercise? Could one work without the other? Or do you need to reexamine your habits on both fronts? Read on to get the answers.
Which Is Better for Weight Loss: Diet or Exercise?
There is no silver bullet for weight loss — the truth is that diet and exercise both play a part in weight loss and your overall health, and they do it better together.
People often hear that you need to create a 3,500-calorie deficit over the course of a week to shed one pound.
Unfortunately, weight loss isn’t as straightforward as “calories in, calories out.” While the sentiment is generally correct, it oversimplifies energy expenditure and the role your diet plays in this process.
When we consume food and drinks, those nutrients are utilized to maintain and strengthen the processes and structures that keep us alive and healthy. They’re also used to top off fuel fuel stores (fat and glycogen), which the body taps to produce the energy it needs to function.
All energy expenditure falls into three basic categories:
- Basal Metabolic Rate: Energy burned for essential (largely autonomic) functions like breathing and blood circulation.
- Active Energy Expenditure: Energy burned through physical activity, whether that’s lifting weights, vacuuming the living room, or carrying groceries.
- Diet-Induced Thermogenesis: The energy expended to process (digest) food.
Additionally, our bodies expend different amounts of energy to process different types of food.
Research has shown, for example, that our bodies burn around three times more energy after a high-protein meal than after a high-fat meal.
To further complicate things, the type of exercise we do, as well as things like age, gender, weight, fitness level, and genetics, affect both our caloric needs and the number of calories we burn each day.
When you take all these factors into account, it’s clear that the process of weight loss is far more complex than simply cutting 3,500 calories per week. “But for most people, cutting around 300 calories from the number you’d need to consume each day to maintain your current weight typically does the trick,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content. “But keep in mind that you’ll need to recalculate your daily ‘maintenance calories’ regularly as you become leaner and fitter.”
Also remember that while reducing your calorie intake is the most important thing you can do for successful weight loss, it’s also important to make sure that the calories you do consume come from quality sources. “To lose weight and keep it off, you need to have a healthy, balanced diet that’s matched both calorically and nutritionally to your fitness goals,” says Thieme.
Research shows that when it comes to losing weight, diet generally trumps exercise. But their combined effect is more powerful than one alone.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends, at the very minimum, that people get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g., brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (e.g., running or high intensity interval training), or an equivalent mix of the two every week, as well as at least two total-body strength workouts.
“Most people don’t have the knowledge or background to design a workout program that optimizes calorie burning and fat loss,” says Thieme. “And with the incredible number of programs available online, there’s really no reason to.”
Sign up for Openfit.com today to find the best program for you.
Can You Lose Weight Without Diet or Exercise?
While there is still much research to be done, there’s no question that a more holistic approach to weight loss yields the best results.
The National Weight Control Registry examined the habits of people who were most successful in losing weight, and they found the people who were most successful at weight-loss modified their diets and increased their physical activity.
Another review conducted by Austrian researchers concluded that a combination of diet and exercise was more effective in long-term obesity management than diet alone.
A study in the journal Obesity came up with similar results. The researchers separated a group of participants into four groups: exercise only (45 minutes, five days per week), diet only (1,200–2,000 calories a day, with less than 30 percent of calories from fat), exercise and diet, and a control group with no change to diet and exercise habits. Over the year-long study, the exercise-only group lost an average of 4.4 pounds, and the diet-only group lost 15.8 pounds. But the combined diet/exercise group lost an average of 19.8 pounds.
So remember that whatever diet plan or exercise regimen you choose to follow, combining both diet and exercise can produce the most successful long-term results — and the key to maintaining weight loss is consistency.