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Diet or exercise: what's more important for weight loss?

Diet or exercise: what's more important for weight loss?

Team ErbologyErbology

Exercise is a proven method to maintain and improve our physical and mental health. Many people also use exercise as a tool for weight loss. Yet the diet industry promotes diets to target weight loss. The question is, what’s more important for weight loss: diet or exercise?

May 29, 2022 6:08 pm

Obesity and modifiable lifestyle factors 

The obesity epidemic is on the rise around the world, and levels of obesity have tripled globally since 1975. According to the World Health Organisation, most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.(1) 

This epidemic is largely due to changes in our environment, from increasingly sedentary lifestyles and ease of access to fast and ultra-processed foods. Diet and exercise are two modifiable lifestyle factors which can significantly impact our energy balance. There is considerable research in the field of diet, exercise and weight management, however it appears that there is no “one-size fits all” approach. In fact, there is debate amongst scientists regarding the optimal energy and macronutrient values to promote healthy and sustainable weight loss. 

Low-fat and low-carb

The general consensus used to be that low-fat diets were the ultimate key to weight loss, and for many years health professionals prescribed them to obese individuals. However, such diets have been questioned and challenged for their effectiveness. In fact, one might wonder, if fat intake has decreased, why is the prevalence of obesity showing no signs of slowing down? 

Over recent years, very low carbohydrate, ketogenic diets have gained mass popularity amongst those looking for a quick-fix approach to weight loss. In fact, the very nature of a ketogenic diet promotes short-term weight loss. For many dieters, this initial weight loss can serve as a great encouragement in what can often be a long and challenging journey. However, there is still a lack of long-term safety and efficacy data regarding ketogenic diets. 

Both clinical and anecdotal evidence over the years has shown that weight loss can be achieved through a myriad of dietary interventions. These include the not-so-healthy (e.g. crash diets) and the more sustainable, long-term lifestyle approaches (e.g. the Mediterranean diet). 

Italian pasta

From fads to the future of personalized regimes

Exercise is also known to have positive effects on weight loss and overall health, although there are differing schools of thought concerning the most effective type, duration and intensity of exercise. Moreover, weight management plans, whether they involve dietary intervention, exercise, or both, must be sustainable in order to ensure long-term results. 

In fact, far too many fad diets and exercise regimes may work in the short-term. However they are unsustainable and often unhealthy, and if carried out indefinitely, many adherents end up regaining the initial weight lost. 

One of the most exciting fields of research today is that of personalized medicine. This will potentially help to accurately predict individual responses to diet and exercise in the future. This will enable individuals to find the best solution tailored to their individual needs.(2) 

The benefits of exercise 

Exercise has multiple health benefits, from improving cardiovascular function to warding off depression and anxiety . It comes as no surprise then that it’s also an important part of achieving weight balance.

In fact, Michele Olson, professor of physical education and exercise science at Auburn University, Alabama, states that while it is possible to lose weight through dietary intervention alone, exercise is also an important part of the process. Losing weight without exercising is likely to lead to a loss of muscle rather than just fat. Indeed, exercising stimulates muscle growth so losing weight through exercise means you are burning more fat. 

It’s important to note that weighing yourself can also be triggering for some people, especially for anyone who has gone through or is currently going through an eating disorder. A better way to measure weight loss in such cases is to check how your clothes fit, this can give you an indication of changes to your body without having to worry about a number. 

boxing

Moreover, exercising to balance weight is not about running marathons or completing triathlons. Dr. Olson suggests starting small and ultimately building up to five to seven weekly workouts, of roughly 50 minutes each and of moderate intensity. She cites brisk walking and zumba as good examples. So even if it’s an hour long vigorous walk with your dog, that still counts as exercise! 

However it’s not just cardio exercise which shows benefits. In fact, resistance training can help too. Body weight exercises such as planks, squats and lunges are all great movements you can practice without any equipment at all. 

Overall, not only will exercise help with weight loss if that’s your objective, it will also have other benefits on your general health from boosting mood to increasing sleep quality. 

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“Exercise [improves] cardiovascular function [and wards off] depression and anxiety [...] it’s also an important part of achieving weight balance.”

It all starts in the kitchen 

Whilst exercise is certainly a useful component of weight loss, it goes hand in hand with nutrition. In fact weight loss is generally 75 per cent diet and 25 per cent exercise. Although this is a rough generalization, it is true that for most people, it is easier to reduce energy consumption than it is to burn energy. 

In other words, it’s easier to adapt your diet to eat less calories than it is to spend hours at the gym each day! For example the average person may burn 600 calories during a 1 hour run, but one large muffin and a latte can easily amount to the same number of calories if not more. 

It’s unsustainable to have to match your exercise levels to your calorie intake in order to obtain a deficit through exercise alone. In addition, it promotes an unhealthy mentality which only sees food as calories, when in reality it’s much more than that. It’s not just about burning off the calories you eat, it’s also about the nutrients that food provides for your body. In fact, as the saying goes, “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet”. 

veggie burger with amaranth flour

Calories in vs calories out 

Even though it is theoretically possible to obtain a calorie deficit through exercise without modifying your diet, if your diet is not balanced then the positive effects of exercise don’t outweigh the lack of healthy nutrients from your diet. So the question is, what constitutes a healthy diet for weight loss? 

The short answer is a sustainable one. In other words, it’s best to avoid crash diets and fad diets that promise overnight results. More often than not, these diets lead to rapid short-term weight loss and eventually people tend to gain back their initial weight if not more. A repeated pattern of this is commonly known as “yo-yo dieting”. 

While low-carb diets are trending at the moment due to their fast results, they can be hard to sustain. A more balanced approach may be wiser and more beneficial for long-term success. A diet focused on fruits and vegetables, lean protein, legumes and whole grains, essentially a Mediterranean type diet is a sensible approach that is accessible to everyone.(3)

Maintaining muscle mass

There is often no need for weight loss shakes or meal replacements, unless advised by a dietitian and usually for morbidly obese patients. Also, it’s important not to go overboard and drastically reduce your calorie intake. Ironically, this can be counterproductive causing your metabolism to slow down and ultimately leading to loss of muscle mass. 

In fact, muscle mass burns more calories at rest than fat mass so having more muscle equates to burning more calories even when you are sitting still. A general guideline for healthy weight balance is 10 calories for roughly 0.5kg of body weight. 

For example, a 70kg woman may have a target that is roughly equal to 1400 calories per day. It’s important to note that this is a very generic guide and can vary based on many different factors, from gender and age to activity level and medical conditions etc.

It’s important that you check with a dietitian or qualified health professional to determine the appropriate energy intake for your personal needs and goals. 

push ups

What about obesity?

A study published in the international journal of obesity examined the effectiveness of dietary interventions and exercise in long-term weight loss in both overweight and obese individuals.(4) 

The researchers conducted a systematic review on overweight or obese adults aged over 18 years from a series of different trials. These studies evaluated the effects of diet, exercise or diet and exercise combined on weight-loss. They found that dietary intervention combined with exercise led to 20% greater weight loss versus dietary intervention alone.

After one year, both the exercise and diet group and the diet only group regained almost half of the initial weight lost. However, combined intervention of diet and exercise led to a 20% greater sustained weight loss after one year compared to diet alone. 

Overall, diet and exercise together lead to significant weight loss which is greater than that obtained by sole dietary intervention. 

Two is better than one in the long run

The bottom line is that there’s no such thing as the best exercise for weight loss or the ideal diet for weight loss. Weight loss can be achieved through diet alone but the benefits are greater when combined with exercise. 

Whether it’s cardio or resistance training, or both, find something you enjoy and will stick to in the long run. Sustainability is key with exercise as well as with diet. Crash diets work for quick short-lived results and may be the fastest route to weight loss, in the long-term they can do more harm than good. Aim for a mediterranean style diet that is matched to your energy requirements.(5)

Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to weight balancing, and remember, you can’t out-exercise an unhealthy diet. 

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