Diet or Exercise? Which Is Most Important to Weight Loss?


If you’re one of the millions of Americans struggling with their weight, you’ve heard that a healthy diet and regular exercise are key to sustained weight loss. But which of these two healthy habits is most important for shedding pounds?

At Prima Medicine, we hear this question from many patients at our Fairfax and South Riding, Virginia, offices. Our medical providers use an integrated approach to weight loss, covering nutrition, fitness, and lifestyle changes to help you lose those extra pounds. 

We’ve created this guide to let you know which is more important for weight loss: diet or exercise?

Diet and weight loss

The foods you eat have a direct impact on your weight and your overall health. And if you’re trying to lose weight, what you don’t eat also has a big impact. 

This is because to lose one pound a week, you need to create a calorie deficit of 3550 calories. That’s about 500 calories each day. But calories aren’t the whole story. You also must consider nutritional value.

Processed foods are loaded with calories but don’t have the key nutrients your body needs for optimal health. The result? Your body sends you signals to keep eating so it can get these nutrients. 

Scientists call this the “hunger trap.” This makes it easy to eat more calories than you should. In fact, recent studies found eating processed foods increases your calorie intake by about 500 calories per day. 

Cutting out processed foods and focusing on whole foods helps you eat fewer calories and increases your intake of essential nutrients. Here’s what 500 calories of unprocessed foods look like:

  • 2 ½ bunches of broccoli
  • 5 apples
  • 5 pounds of uncooked spinach
  • 2 cups of chickpeas
  • 3 medium baked sweet potatoes
  • 2 cups of brown rice

Plus, studies show that diets high in healthy nutrients actually reduces your hunger, making it easier to eat less. Bottom line? Making the right dietary changes is essential to weight loss.

Exercise and weight loss

To lose significant weight from exercise alone would be a challenge. This is because to lose one pound, you must burn at least 3500 calories more than what you eat. 

To put this in perspective, consider that the average person burns around 100 calories for every mile they walk, run, or jog. That means you’d need to cover five miles a day every day to lose one pound each week. 

But even if you walk five miles every day, you’d have to make sure not to “eat back” the calories you just burned. And it can be easy to put all those calories back with a post-workout smoothie or protein bar, especially since exercise increases your appetite. 

That doesn’t mean exercise isn’t important or helpful for weight loss. It is. Not only does exercise help burn calories and boost your metabolism, but it helps keep your body in better shape so you can prevent or manage many health conditions.

Exercise is also good for your brain. It helps improve brain function and your mood. And if you’re finding it difficult to sleep, regular exercise can help improve the quality of your sleep so you have more energy all day long.

Recipe for success: Diet and exercise

The best approach to losing weight — and keeping it off — is combining diet and exercise.

For example, imagine you’re trying to reach a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day. By combining diet and exercise, you could choose to eat 300 fewer calories and walk two miles (burning 200 calories) to reach your 500 calorie deficit goal. 

Diet is still key, but by adding regular exercise, you’ll likely be able to accomplish your goals quicker, and you’ll get fitter and healthier along the way. And, by continuing to eat well and exercise, you can help yourself stay healthy in the long run.

Should I consider getting medical help?

If you’ve tried losing weight but haven’t found success, it’s time to talk to your medical provider. An expert can get to the root of your weight-loss struggle and rule out underlying conditions that may affect your ability to lose weight. 

It’s also important to get help losing weight if you have a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, hypertension, or high cholesterol. Losing even modest amounts of weight can significantly improve —or even reverse — many of these conditions. 

At Prima Medicine, our team uses an integrated approach that combines nutrition, exercise, lifestyle changes, medications, and more. Your provider evaluates your health and weight history, current weight, and goals to create a customized plan

To learn more about losing weight and living well, book an appointment online or over the phone with Prima Medicine today.

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