Diet vs. exercise: which is most important when you’re trying to lose weight?

Everything you need to know about diet vs. exercise when you’re on a weight-loss journey

A rugby player works out at the beach
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The importance of diet vs. exercise is an age-old conversation that can at times be confusing. There’s such an abundance of information out there when it comes to both what we eat and how active we are when trying to reach specific results. 

Weight-loss culture has always felt like toxic territory fueled by societal pressures to have whatever the “ideal” body type of the moment is—be it the super-slim '90s supermodel era or today’s Kardashian-influenced curves.

Social media has only amplified that in the past decade, with women held up against unrealistic beauty standards, resulting in a devastating impact on our mental health. In fact, just recently, the UK government announced that restaurants will be forced to put calorie counts for the food they serve on menus, reinforcing the pressures and dangerous traits of diet culture. 

That's why it’s imperative to approach any kind of weight-loss journey with care and caution, especially when it comes to your diet vs. exercise habits. Health should always be at the forefront of whatever you set out to do, but how exactly do you go about it the right way?  

We spoke to some qualified nutritionists and health experts about getting the right balance in your diet and your workouts, whether you're an avid gym-goer or prefer exercising at home—especially after spending your lockdowns ordering all the best yoga mats and dumbbells for women. Here's what they had to say about what is most important when you're trying to lose weight...

Diet vs. exercise: which is most important? 

In the diet vs. exercise battle, first, we must address the term “diet” when discussing this topic as it often has negative connotations. “The term ‘diet’ can cause a negative impact on how a person looks at food and in various cases can lead to yo-yo dieting, binges, purging, and other unhealthy habits," says Carly Thornton, nutritionist and founder of lifestyle and activewear brand Gluteywear

“Now if we remove the word ‘diet’ and replace it with nutrition or healthy lifestyle, then this would be different, as the mind has a very clever way of transferring data in positive or negative traits of thoughts and patterns.” 

Once you've recognized this, the next step is to set out a goal for your weight-loss journey. That is what determines whether you should focus more on your eating habits or your exercise habits, according to Mark Russell, Head Coach at Team Chongi. “The old adage is that you cannot outwork a bad diet,” says Russell. But what is better, he explains, is dependant on what your ultimate goal is. “If it is to improve your cardiovascular fitness and to develop some muscle tissue then exercise is better, but for weight loss, addressing your calorie intake would be better.” 

However, he points out that the two should ideally go hand in hand, something fellow health expert Eric Richard Allen, CEO, and founder of Erafit, agrees with.In short, with diet vs. exercise, ideally you need to do both," he says. “You can’t do one if you want results, and only doing one can actually be bad for your health. Both work side by side with one another to give you the best results and quality of life.”

As you may know, incorporating exercise into your lifestyle helps elevate endorphins, which are our happy hormones and are known for helping relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. This ultimately also helps keep our joints healthy and subtle, while boosting muscle tone and anti-aging. 

So for a healthy and effective lifestyle according to these fitness and nutrition experts, it's less about diet vs. exercise, and more about diet and exercise.

Sagal Mohammed

Sagal is a journalist, specialising in lifestyle, pop culture, fashion and beauty.  She has written for a number of publications including Vogue, Glamour, Stylist, Evening Standard, Bustle, You Magazine, Dazed and Wonderland to name a few.