Ask the Dietitian: Is Counting Calories or Working Out Better for Weight Loss?

by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Ask the Dietitian: Is Counting Calories or Working Out Better for Weight Loss?

One of our readers, Ewa K., asked on Facebook:

“Which is better for weight loss: (1) eating 1,500 calories a day and not exercising or (2) eating 1,800 calories but burning 300 calories per day through exercise?”

What the question really asks is less about the actual numbers and more about the deficit and whether one way of creating the deficit is better. It’s true that if following a 1,500-calorie diet creates a calorie deficit, then you will lose weight.

The first scenario assumes you’re cutting calories by eating less but not exercising, while the second scenario assumes you’re consuming 300 calories more but burning those calories off through exercise. In both scenarios your total daily net calories is 1,500 — implying you should lose the same amount of weight taking either approach.

But the answer to this question isn’t black and white, so let’s break it down further.

DIET VS. EXERCISE: WHICH IS BETTER?

It’s generally accepted that diet is more important than exercise for weight loss — some say weight loss is 80% diet and 20% exercise. We live in an environment that is “obesogenic,” meaning weight gain is easy and weight loss is difficult, especially with tempting snacks and fast food around every corner. The problem is, those snacks and fast-food dinners take a lot of extra effort to burn off. Nobody has time to walk 25 minutes every time they eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup. This is why diet trumps exercise if you have to pick one.

But, research has proven an obvious but important point: A 2012 randomized controlled trial of about 400 overweight, middle-aged women found a lifestyle change combining diet and exercise led to greater weight loss than diet or exercise alone. Here’s what their weight loss progress looked like after 12 months:

  • Diet-only group lost an average of 8.5% of their body weight.
  • Exercise-only group lost an average of 2.4% of their body weight.
  • Diet and exercise group lost an average of 10.8% of their body weight.
  • Control (no diet or exercise) lost an average of 0.8% of their body weight.

Even though all the participants were given a goal to lose 10% of their bodyweight, only the diet and exercise group met that goal. Because losing weight can be challenging, it’s best to approach it from more than one angle.


READ MORE > WHAT HEALTHY 200-CALORIE SNACKS LOOK LIKE


THE CASE FOR COMBINING DIET AND EXERCISE

To build better habits that’ll help you lose weight, employ a strategy that combines both diet and exercise to increase your weight loss and keep it off in the long run. In my experience, people who want to lose weight don’t merely relegate their goal to seeing a smaller number on the scale. What they really want is a leaner, fitter physique that makes them look and feel better. For that reason, an 1,800-calorie diet paired with burning 300 calories through exercise is the better choice. Here’s why:

YOU SLIM DOWN WHILE BUILDING STRONGER, FIRMER MUSCLES

When you lose weight it comes off as water, fat and muscle. One way to combat loss of valuable lean muscle is to take up strength-building, resistance exercises, which experts recommend you do at least two times per week. Use weight machines, free weights, resistance bands or even your own bodyweight.

YOU FEEL LESS HUNGRY AND DEPRIVED

You’re able to feel more satisfied on an 1,800-calorie diet. While you should always make room for the foods you love, having an extra calorie buffer may make you feel more at ease. This gives you a psychological leg-up to keep going, resulting in more weight loss in the long run.

YOU REAP AMAZING EXERCISE BENEFITS

Even if your total calorie goal is the same at the end of the day, working out gives you physical and mental perks outside of just weight loss. This includes stress relief, mood improvement, better self-esteem and healthier heart and lungs. Go, endorphins!

ENJOY THE JOURNEY

It takes a lot of grit and determination to reach a weight-loss goal, which is why the key for success is making the journey as enjoyable as the destination. Losing weight is more than just getting down to a specific number on the scale. So celebrate your non-scale victories! Share them with us every Friday on Facebook and read about all the inspiring folks in our community who are on this journey with you. Need more inspiration? Read the 9 signs of progress that aren’t a number on the scale. We look forward to reading yours!

Related

  • The P

    Great article! Simple and makes a lot of sense. Thank you.

  • Carrie

    Lord help us. The actual answer is neither. Calorie reduction ‘works’ because you’re eating less of the bad, as well as the good. Forget counting calories, just eat as much as you want of the correct foods. Go to the gym if you want. Eat right, which basically means severely limiting grains and sugars, and the weight will take care of itself. 1500 calories a day can’t last.

    • Sean

      I’m sorry you feel this way Carrie. Her article is great and setting and maintaining a calorie goal is more than doable long term for weight loss. Eating right (as you put it) is not about severely limiting grains and sugars as all sources of carbohydrates turn in to glucose when metabolized for energy and storage. It is about discipline, mindfulness, knowing your BMR and exercise calorie expenditure and a healthy relationship with food. Different people need different portions of macro-nutrients based on their lifestyle, health goals and possible medical conditions. That is why anyone that wants to lose weight should go see a professional so they can see the results they want as quickly as possible.

    • thisstinks…again!

      Horrible input Carrie. Very idealistic approach that sounds like “wing it as long as it feels good” that ends with “how did I get to this point”. Better to follow an approach supported by research.

    • Jim

      Can you give me the peer reviewed research on what is the good food that lowers weight and the bad food that increases weight? And when does it switch over if you want to gain weight are the same foods good still good or are they now bad?

  • Robin Weiner

    My body has become my laboratory and this article is worth its weight in data.

  • Elaine M.E.

    Loved the article – I find the combination of diet and exercise working for me.
    What I would love to read, though, is the reference in the last paragraph to “Read the 9 signs of progress that aren’t a number on the scale.” Where do I find this?

  • Jen

    “Read the 9 signs of progress that aren’t a number on the scale.” A link here would be nice.

  • This is a controversial article and not all dietitians or healthcare agree on the best approach. You can site one meta analysis that shows diet and exercise is better than diet alone, but you can also site other meta analyses and studies that there is no significant difference (1-2 kg is not a significant difference), and Vox did a good summary of this in the past year or two. If you are trying to lose weight, exercise to stay healthy–not to build muscle simultaneously or burn calories through exercise, and most people do not need to add back calories from exercise because it will slow the process down (who says you actually burned that many anyway–devices aren’t measuring your heat expenditure or gas exchange if indirect calorimetry). It is a lot of effort that is not what you should be spending your emotional energy on. Focus on getting fit when you are weight stable or not in a calorie deficit. Your workouts can be much more intense, which is what actually makes people fit. Not just doing exercise at low intensity. The point of exercise during weight loss is to maintain general health and feel good, not to burn calories or get super fit simultaneously.
    –BS, BS, MEd, RD, CSSD, CSOWM, LD, NASM-CPT

    • Fitmom Fitmom

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge, just a reminder how I really need to get control over my food and to slow down on killing myself by trying to become an athlete overnight when I have so much to lose.

  • DOyouEVENlift

    You dont build “firmer” muscles. An idiotic article at best.

  • Jean

    Great answer, clearly stated. I eat whole foods, high fiber, low sugar, and watch calories, and have lost weight at about 1400 calories a day. At my height (5’4″) and age (52), I need to eat net calories closer to 1200 per day, however, to reach my goal weight of 115-120. Eating 1200 calories a day is no picnic (literally). Exercising daily to burn off 150-200 calories allows me to eat a more reasonable amount of food and the benefits of movement are obvious. Thanks for the encouragement with this article!

  • Ros

    strongly agreed with the article that both are important for our daily healthy life. The simple rule, you eat for your body you exercise for your body.

  • barbara

    Thank you for the great info., now to get back on track 🙂 have a lovely weekend..

  • Sharon Ferreira

    Type the title into the search bar at the top of this page. It will bring it up.