Exercise Versus Nutrition for Weight Loss: which is the winner?
Oh, it’s On Like Donkey Kong!
As a qualified personal trainer, I’d love to sell you on the promise that if you work out using my program 5 x a week, you’ll be able to inhale donuts all day long and still rock a six pack.
But I can’t do that, because it’s sadly not the truth.
You may have heard maxims like:
- “Weight loss is 80% nutrition, 20% exercise”;
- “You can’t outrun a bad diet”; and
- “Abs are made in the kitchen.”
If you’ve ever justified an extra slice of pizza by saying, “I’ll burn it off later”, this one’s for you.
First, let’s take a look at how weight loss works
The science is crystal clear.
Your weight is determined by the number of calories (energy) you eat versus the number of calories you burn through daily activity.
Your energy input minus your energy output = whether your weight rises, falls, or stays the same.
If you burn the same amount of calories as you eat, your weight will stay the same.
Eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight.
But if you eat less calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight.
Therefore, the goal when it comes to losing weight is to create a calorie deficit through nutrition and exercise. This is so that you can burn more calories than you eat on a daily basis.
How much of a caloric deficit, you ask?
To lose 1 lb (0.5 kg) of fat per week, you need to create a caloric deficit of between 500 to 1,000 calories per day, or 3,500 to 7,000 calories per week.
That means that you need to eat 500 to 1,000 calories less than you body burns in a day in order to lose 0.5 kg.
It’s kind of a lot, when you think about it.
So why won’t exercise alone put me in a caloric deficit?
Well – it might, provided you were a pro athlete who trained for six hours a day.
But the reality is that most of us only burn between 5%-15% of our daily calories through exercise.
In fact, it takes a LOT of exercise to burn rather a small amount of food. Like, smaller than you think.
Now, none of this to say you can’t enjoy highly caloric dense foods as part of a balanced diet, or that working out doesn’t have fat burning benefits – but just that exercise by itself is an inefficient way to create an energy deficit.
Eat the pizza because you want to eat the pizza, not just because you’re going for a run later and you’ll “burn it off” anyway.
Exercise will help you create a caloric deficit and live a healthier, fitter lifestyle in conjunction with a nutritionally balanced diet, it’s just not going to do all the heavy lifting and erase an unbalanced diet.
Unless you’re willing to put in 3 x one hour workouts every day, it’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to maintain a caloric deficit through exercise alone.
Also, we have a tendency to underestimate what we eat, and a tendency to overestimate just how active we are – how hard we worked, and how many calories we would have consumed, even with the help of a FitBit.
Now, this is not to say that exercise won’t help at all – far from it.
Exercise, especially moderate to high intensity exercise, definitely helps with fat burning.
And when you build muscle through resistance training, that muscle starts to burn calories just sitting there doing nothing, increasing the amount of daily calories you need to stay where you are.
(This happens over a sustained period of time with regular strength training, not, like, overnight.)
Secondly, even though staying in a caloric deficit helps with weight loss, you don’t want to drop your calories too low or stop eating. You’ll fuck with your hormones, disrupt your metabolism, lower your immune system and cause a whole bunch of other health problems that are just as bad for you as chronic overeating.
Cardio helps with this. It burns a relatively high number of calories, helping you to stay in a caloric deficit without undereating. It also has lots of other fat burning benefits.
HIIT (high intensity interval training) has even been shown to make your body burn calories at a higher rate for up to 48 hours after your training session.
And overarching all of these reasons, exercise is great and important for your body for reasons that are far more important than a number on the scale. For example, regular exercise:
- Improves your heart health
- Reduces your risk of chronic disease
- Boosts your immune system
- Makes you more likely to choose healthier food choices
- Reduces anxiety
- Makes you happier
- Increases productivity
- Makes you stronger
- Improves self disciplined
- Strengthens your bones and joints
- Makes you more flexible
- Gives you more energy
- Improves the quality of your sleep
- Slows the aging process
- Increases your confidence
Similarly, nutrition is important for more than just weight loss. If you ate garbage all the time, even if your workouts created a caloric deficit, you would:
- Feel tired, lethargic and drained
- Have a lowered immune system
- Develop an increased risk of developing chronic preventable illness like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers
- Have lots of digestive issues
- Cause hormonal and nutritional imbalances in your body
Remember, maintaining a healthy weight range is just ONE piece of the puzzle when it comes to overall health. Nutrition doesn’t just help us lose weight – it’s vital for good health and a long life.
So, it needs to be a balance between nutrition and exercise?
We can’t just cut our calories to 1,000 calories a day forever. It would stuff up our health, and we can’t just work out for 5 hours every day, so there needs to be a balance.
Since most of us only spend up to a 24th or less of our day in the gym, one of the most important factors in our results is what we’re doing for the other 23 hours. This is where nutrition comes in.
What goes into your mouth, ultimately, will play a bigger role not just in weight loss/gain, but also in your overall health, simply because most of us spend more time eating than we do exercising.
And remember – when it comes to nutrition, it’s not just about weight loss or calories.
1,500 calories’ worth of McDonalds operates very differently in our bodies than 1,500 calories that mostly come from nutritious, healthy foods.
If most of what we’re eating comes from nutritious food, we:
- Reduce our risk of chronic preventable disease, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers
- Give our bodies the fuel they need to get through our workouts properly, recover and build muscle
- Nourish our bodies with nutrients that are important for the proper function of all the processes and systems our body uses to survive and thrive
- Feel full and satisfied – nutrient dense foods, like vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and low fat dairy are often lower in calories than their less nutritious counterparts, so we can eat more of them and fill our bellies
- Don’t feel bloated from excess salt and other ingredients that can cause fluid retention or upset tummies
So how do I make sure I’m getting the right nutrition?
I’m not a nutritionist, but I can share some tips that have really worked for me.
- Follow government nutritional guidelines, which have been prepared by experts in the field and are suitable for most people who don’t have specific/special nutritional needs. I follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines for adults.
- Eat more fruit and veggies. Like, you need to eat more of them than you think. Veggies are super low in calories but provide a tonne of bulk. You can eat until your tummy is super full and still not consume a lot of calories.
- Make healthier swaps. Make low calorie substitutions for high calorie counterparts e.g. low fat dairy instead of full fat, multigrain bread instead of white bread, air popped popcorn instead of oil/butter popped popcorn etc.
- Eat less packaged foods. We’re talking soda, muesli bars, candy, chips, biscuits, cookies etc. They add little to your diet nutritionally but they’re super calorie dense.
- Focus on whole foods. Eat foods as close to their natural source as possible e.g. baked potatoes instead of French fries, grilled fish fillet instead of fish fingers.
- Cook more meals at home. Restaurants and takeaway vendors don’t cook for health – they cook for flavour so your tastebuds will just explode and you’ll keep coming back for more. Often this means adding a tonne of fat, sugar, and salt. When you cook at home, you can watch the amount of oil that goes into the pan, add more veggies, go easy on the salt, and choose lean, high quality protein.
- Don’t cut out food groups or restrict food too heavily. It just makes you hangry, leads to nutritional imbalances and provokes overeating. Talk to a dietitian or your doctor if you’re worried about allergies, food intolerances, or have special nutritional needs.
In the battle of Exercise Versus Nutrition for Weight Loss, nutrition is the clear winner.
You can’t outrun a crappy diet!
All that said, don’t panic too much calorie deficits and workouts and all that stuff. Your goals can still be important to you AND it’s not the end of the world if you overeat from time to time.
One or two indulgences over the course of your whole journey impacts your results as much as if you did just one or two workouts, or ate one or two healthy meals, over the course of your journey.
Speaking from experience, the WORST thing you can do is freak out about calories and clean eating and “good vs bad” foods. It messes with your head!
These days, I observe the 80/20 guidelines. 80% of the time I eat nutritiously, 20% of the time I just enjoy my life guilt free. We eat for all kinds of reasons, and health is just one of them.
Life is short and it’s here to be lived. I flatly refuse to feel guilty about a big stack of Canadian pancakes when there’s only a finite amount of times in my life I’ll ever get to enjoy them.