What’s More Effective for Weight Loss, Eating Right or Exercising?

This article was originally published by our friend Dr. Mercola

So, you need to lose a few pounds. The question is how to go about it. If you’re like most people, you probably think you need to get serious about hitting the gym more often. However, this idea may actually be the fatal flaw that keeps you from succeeding.

The 2-minute video above, even though it focuses on the fatally flawed theory that weight loss is merely a simple equation of calories in and calories out, still manages to reach the correct conclusion, so it is worth a watch.

When it comes to losing weight — and keeping it off — it’s crucial to understand that you cannot out-exercise your mouth. Your diet is far more important than exercise,1although physical movement is the leverage agent that allows you to truly optimize your health and fitness.

Exercise has been proven to be as effective (or more) than many drug treatments for common health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and depression, just to name a few. So, exercise definitely plays a role in optimal health — it’s just not the central key for weight loss.

You cannot keep eating a junk food diet and simply exercise your way into smaller pants. Additionally, when and how much you eat can also have a distinct influence. Eating less and paying attention to the timing of your meals can be particularly useful for kick starting your metabolism in the right direction.

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Research Shatters Link Between Exercise and Weight Loss

According to Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist and former director of the University of Utah Nutrition Clinic, more than 700 weight loss studies confirm that eating healthier produces greater weight loss results than exercise.2

“On average, people who dieted without exercising for 15 weeks lost 23 pounds; the exercisers lost only six over about 21 weeks. It’s much easier to cut calories than to burn them off.”

Indeed, one of the simplest ways to improve your ability to burn fat as your primary fuel and lose weight is to replace all sodas and sweet beverages with pure water. Condiments and snacks are other categories that can be eliminated without risking nutritional deficits, thereby lowering your overall calorie consumption.

Most recently, an international study again confirmed the fact that exercise was largely unrelated to weight loss.3,4,5  Even more surprisingly, sedentary behavior wasn’t even strongly associated with weight gain. As noted by Science Daily:6

“People who are physically active tend to be healthier and live longer. But while physical activity burns calories, it also increases appetite, and people may compensate by eating more or by being less active the rest of the day …

Surprisingly, total weight gain in every country was greater among participants who met the physical activity guidelines. For example, American men who met the guidelines gained a half pound per year, while American men who did not meet the guideline lost 0.6 pounds.”

Similar findings were made in 2012, when a systematic review7 of studies found that, over time, people who exercised regularly wound up burning less energy than predicted based on their activity levels — a phenomenon known as metabolic compensation. They also increased their overall calorie intake.

Moreover, exercise only accounts for 10 to 30 percent of your overall energy expenditure each day. How many calories you burn in total each day primarily depends on your resting metabolic rate. On the flip side, you have full control over 100 percent of the energy (calories) you put into your body.

This discrepancy alone is a major clue as to which strategy is likely to have the greatest impact on your weight — exercising more, or reducing excess calorie intake. The video below summarizes the influence physical activity has on your daily calorie expenditure.

How Does Everyday Activity Affect Your Weight?

Other recent research8,9 looking at the number of calories burned by different office activities — such as sitting versus standing up — found that if you’re trying to lose weight, standing up will not have a significant impact.

Walking more, on the other hand, could have a modest effect, provided you don’t sabotage it with poor dietary choices. Overall, they found that:

  • Sitting burns about 20 calories per 15 minutes
  • Standing up burns about 22 calories per 15 minutes
  • Walking burns nearly three times more calories than sitting or standing, with an hour of walking resulting in an additional 130 calories being burned each day

While standing still may have a negligible impact on the number of calories you burn, standing does increase the likelihood you’ll move more in general. It also provides biological benefits besides calorie burning that make it well worth your consideration. As explained by Dr. James Levine, co-director of the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative and author of the book “Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It,” standing up triggers a number of beneficial molecular cascades.

Within 90 seconds of standing up, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol — which are mediated by insulin — are activated in response to carrying your own bodyweight. These cellular mechanisms are also responsible for pushing fuel into your cells and, if done regularly, will radically decrease your risk of diabetes.

Diet and Exercise Complement Each Other

All of that said, research10,11 does confirm that when you add exercise to a healthier diet, you’re typically rewarded with more sustained weight loss over the long term. As noted by Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of physical education and exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama:12

“[Y]ou can lose weight with diet alone, but exercise is an important component. Without it, only a portion of your weight loss is from fat — you’re also stripping away muscle and bone density. Since working out stimulates growth of those metabolic tissues, losing weight through exercise means you’re burning mostly fat.

The number on the scale may not sound as impressive, but because muscle takes up less space than fat does, you look smaller and your clothes fit better … [Y]ou’ll get leaner faster by using your body weight against gravity, as with movements like squats, lunges, push-ups and planks.

And, of course, beyond burning fat, people shouldn’t forget that exercise can have other impressive health perks, like improving the quality of your sleep, lowering your cholesterol and reducing your stress level.”

What Dietary Changes Are Necessary to Lose Weight?

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, the following generalizations will typically work for most people. At its most basic, healthy eating can be summarized as eating REAL FOOD. However, the devil is in the details, and if you’re serious about losing weight and optimizing your health, you’d be wise to take the time to understand some of these finer details.

To help you with this, I’ve created a detailed and comprehensive nutrition plan. If you’re new to this plan, there’s a section dedicated to helping you evaluate your current starting position. The plan itself is then divided into Level 1 and 2. If you’re not yet fully familiar with my health recommendations, you’ll probably want to start at Level 1. You’ll know you’re ready to move on to Level 2 once the health indicators listed are in their optimal ranges.

One of the keys to long-term weight management is healthy metabolism and mitochondrial function. Unfortunately, many diets actually worsen the dysfunction rather than correcting it. Nourishing and supporting your mitochondria (the little power stations in your cells) is also a core concept for optimal health and disease prevention. This is the focus of my latest book, “Fat for Fuel.”

To improve your mitochondrial function through diet, the key is to eat in such a way that your body is able to burn fat as its primary fuel rather than sugars. Ketogenic diets are very effective for this, as is  Peak fasting and longer water fasts.

In fact, while many shy away from water fasting, it can be a very rapid and beneficial process if you have a lot of excess weight to shed. Rather than waiting weeks or months for your body to upregulate and be able to effectively metabolize fat again, fasting really jumpstarts this process.

Dr. Jason Fung, a Canadian nephrologist, has written an excellent book on this topic called “The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day and Extended Fasting for which we had an incredible interview.

Avoiding late-night eating is also helpful, as feeding your body at a time when it needs the least amount of energy will simply result in cellular damage due to the excess production of free radicals. For this reason, I often suggest limiting your eating to breakfast and lunch — an intermittent fasting strategy that allows you to fast for 16 or more hours each day.

General Implementation Guidelines

To regain the ability to burn fat as your primary fuel you need  a diet high in healthy fats, adequate protein and low in net carbs (total carbs minus fiber). The first step is to eliminate packaged, processed foods. The emphasis is on real whole foods, plenty of healthy fats and as few net carbs as possible.  There are far more details in my new book, “Fat for Fuel,” that comes out in mid-May and will soon be available for preorder along with many great bonuses.

As a general rule, it’s recommended you reduce your net carbs to 50 grams a day or less, and restrict protein to 1 gram per kilogram of lean body mass. To make sure you’re actually meeting your nutritional requirements and maintaining the ideal nutrient ratios, a nutrient tracker can be an invaluable tool.

Basically, the nutritional plan is what you follow; the nutrient tracker is how you follow the plan. I believe www.cronometer.com/mercola is the most accurate and best nutrient tracker available. Like my nutrition plan, this nutrient tracker is completely free.

I worked with the developer, Aaron, for months to modify and optimize the program for nutritional ketosis, so based on the base parameters you enter, such as height, weight, body fat percentage and waist circumference, it will automatically calculate the ideal ratios of net carbs, protein and healthy fats (including your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio) to put you into nutritional ketosis.

This is what will allow your body to start burning fat as its primary fuel rather than sugar, which in turn will help optimize your mitochondrial function and overall health and fitness.

Be Mindful of The Kinds of Fats You Eat

Another key to success on a high-fat, low-carb diet is to eat high-quality healthy fats, not the fats most commonly found in the American diet (the processed fats and vegetable oils used in processed foods and fried restaurant meals). Examples of high-quality healthy fats include:

Olives and olive oil (make sure it’s third party-certified, as 80 percent of olive oils are adulterated with vegetable oils.

Also avoid cooking with olive oil. Use it cold.)

Coconuts and coconut oil (excellent for cooking as it can withstand higher temperatures without oxidizing) Animal-based omega-3 fat such as krill oil and fatty fish low in mercury like wild caught Alaskan salmon, sardines and anchovies
Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk Raw nuts, such as macadamia and pecans Seeds like black sesame, cumin, pumpkin and hemp seeds
Avocados Grass-fed meats MCT oil
Ghee (clarified butter); lard and tallow (excellent for cooking) Raw cacao butter Organic-pastured egg yolks

Exercise Is the Great Leveraging Agent

While diet accounts for 75 to 80 percent of the health benefits you get from a healthy lifestyle, including weight loss, exercise is the ultimate leveraging agent that really optimizes all of those benefits — in part by improving your mitochondrial health by forcing them to work more efficiently. It’s especially important for disease prevention, which is just as important as general weight loss.

After all, what good is it to be slim if you’re still inching your way toward heart disease, diabetes or cancer with each passing day? Contrary to popular belief, being slim is not a blanket assurance of good health. You can be of normal weight and still be metabolically dysfunctional.

Overall, Peak Fitness really helps maximize the health benefits of exercise while simultaneously being the most efficient and therefore requiring the least amount of time, so I strongly encourage you to include some form of high intensity exercises in your program.

Also make it a point to walk more every day and stay more active throughout your working day. Researchers have clearly identified sitting as an independent risk factor for chronic disease, increasing your mortality risk from all causes. So, standing up more and engaging in non-exercise movement as much as possible is just as important for optimal health as having a regular fitness regimen.

All of this and much more is detailed in my Fitness Plan, which goes hand-in-hand with my Nutrition Plan. Depending on your current fitness level, you can choose to follow the beginner, intermediate or advanced level, each of which includes Peak interval training, strength training and functional exercises.


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