Diet or Exercise – which matters more for weight loss (for beginners)?

Can beginners lose weight with just one or do you need to both eat healthily and to exercise?

diet vs exercise
Ask a room full of people this question and it will spark quite the debate! Some people think you can eat whatever you like if you just go for a run; others think that the only way to lose weight is to cut out all sugar and as much fat as possible.

Before we give you the answer (and hopefully put to bed many of the diet vs exercise myths out there), we should clarify that when we say ‘weight loss’ we actually mean fat loss.

In fact, when most people say they want to lose ‘weight’ they mean that they want to lose fat (or more specifically that they want to wear a smaller clothes size or fit into something that they used to feel great in a year or two ago).

What is the key to losing fat?

The key to losing fat is very very simple.  Your body needs to be taking in fewer calories than it uses.  Put another way, you have to burn more than you consume or, in more technical terms, you have to be in a calorie deficit.

It’s the very old concept of CICO (calories in, calories out) which may not sound half as sexy as some of the fancy-named diet plans out there but it really is as simple as that.

What’s more, whether you are into intermittent fasting, 5:2, low carb, vegan or any one of the globally successful slimming clubs out there, if you are finding that you are losing weight it is only because that diet (whichever one it is) has you in a calorie deficit.
Each of us requires a different number of calories each day just for our bodies to work properly.  Even when we sleep, we are digesting food, dreaming, fidgeting and breathing, and all of these actions use energy (calories).  For some of us, our bodies might need only 1300 calories to perform these functions; for others it might be 3000.

How will exercise help me be in a calorie deficit?

Exercise raises your heart rate and uses your muscles, both of which require energy. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that exercise burns calories.

Bigger muscles require more energy to sustain them, so that means if you can build some muscle then you will need to eat more in order to maintain it.  Put another way, the more lean muscle that you have, the more you will be able to eat without gaining weight.

Having a good base of lean muscle on your body will also allow you to diet (and lose fat) on higher calories.

If you keep your current diet exactly the same, but increase your level of exercise, you will lose weight.  However, you will probably start to look leaner as you build muscle through resistance training.

How do I make sure I am in a calorie deficit with my diet?

There is really only one way to be absolutely sure of how many calories you are consuming, and that is to prepare all your food and drinks yourself while also keeping a record of what you are eating.  Online food trackers are a free and easy way of doing this.

At first, friends and family are likely to raise an eyebrow if they see you weighing your food or keying nutrition data into your mobile device.

But, as anyone who has successfully lost weight and kept it off long term will tell you, it really is a foolproof way for you to know for sure how much energy is going in and, therefore, how much energy you need to expend to ensure you remain in a calorie deficit.

If you keep your current level of exercise exactly the same, but consume fewer calories, you will lose weight.  However, if you don’t eat enough you will start to lose muscle as well as fat, which is not ideal for anyone’s health.

So, which is more important?

You will have started to see by now that really, diet and exercise complement each other and work together for the most healthy and sustainable way to get in shape for the long term.

You can lose weight with either one of them but for results you can really be proud of, you should be looking at a combination of both diet and exercise for weight loss.

The answer to the question in the title of this article is that, in the beginning, dieting is a great way to shed some weight and feel that initial burst of motivation to keep going on your journey.

Diet is key in so many ways; choosing whole foods high in protein will help you feel your best, stay fuller for longer, sleep better at night and most importantly help you to hold on to any existing muscle and lose fat instead.

Realistically, however, even the healthiest diet (when you do it for a long time) is only ever going to be 80:20 at best.  You will have family gatherings, birthdays, holidays, weddings and celebrations with cake, alcohol, fast food and fatty snacks.

You should be able to enjoy milestones in whichever way you choose and yes, even fitness professionals weigh a few more kg after the holidays!

The difference between fitness professionals and regular people though is that the fitness crowd have built underlying habits over the years that allow them to indulge and get back on track immediately afterwards.

Another difference between fitness professionals and the general population is that, for the former, exercise forms part of their everyday life.

If they have a big celebration planned they will eat lean proteins and low calorie vegetables during the day so that they can indulge at night. They will go to the gym earlier in the day, or perhaps even throw in an extra workout that week.

They will enjoy the same treats as everyone else but the next day, rather than thinking “I’ve ruined my diet, there’s no point in even bothering anymore”, they will go for a long walk, drink plenty of water and make sure they get back to their regular diet.

While diet will likely dictate whether you lose weight or not, exercise will decide what you will look like as that weight comes off.  Losing fat and losing muscle looks very different on any individual body and has a huge effect on your overall health.
If you know you want to lose weight but you don’t know where to start, our coaches at ATP Personal Training can teach you how to build healthy habits around both your diet and exercise that will enable you to lose weight and keep it off, forever.

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