Exercise vs Diet – what is the right formula?

Man doing crossfit

Exercise and diet are the top two factors out of many which determine if you’ll reach your fitness (or wellbeing) goals, as we all know.

With life being so busy and time being so tight we all want to know which one of the two is more important, and which one we should prioritize to see ‘immediate’ toning results. Should we focus on squeezing in more workouts or should we make healthier food choices during the day?

As a clinical nutritionist and a fitness expert, I am frequently addressed with several popular questions:
“Is diet or exercise more important for weight loss?”
“Is it 80/20? Is it 50/50?”
“Is it all genetics?”

Before we start digging in to how diet and exercise impact the process, I’ll just state that combining a healthy-balanced diet with an exercise plan that fits your schedule will always provide the best results.


What do we know about Diet and Exercise?

To lose weight, we need to be in a ‘hypo-caloric’ state, which means we burn more calories (energy) than we consume. To gain weight, we should be in the opposite state, consuming more than what we burn. Reaching your personal physique goal will be determined by your total daily caloric consumption vs expenditure.

Each person has their own daily TEE (total energy expenditure) which includes:

  • BMR (basal metabolic rate) – 60-80% of our energy expenditure is used by our body for  maintenance of the basic processes essential for life.
  • TEF (thermic effect of food) – roughly 10% of our energy expenditure is used for digestion and absorption of foods that we eat.
  • NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) and exercise – an additional ~10-20% that adds up to our daily energy expenditure. Depends how sedentary or active a person is.


So, yes, the influence of exercise on our daily energy is smaller than other factors. However, it is easier to modify for our benefit so it is not any less important. Cutting calories will have a bigger effect on our fitness process, but it might be a gradual, long process.

To lose (or gain) 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of weight we would have to burn (or consume) about 7,000 calories. Let’s say our goal is to lose 0.5 kg (1.1 lbs) of weight in a week, so we would have to create a 500 calorie deficit every single day, which is equal to about 45-60 minutes of running or swimming, or 120 minutes of Pilates or yoga.


Two girls doing yoga


It is important to understand that shifting calories by exercise to burn ‘fat’ is a bit inaccurate since it is based on lab measurements – and life doesn’t take place in a laboratory. Our body works in a far more complex manner (thank goodness!).

That is why a balanced diet is crucial for reaching your goal, even if you work out 120 minutes every day of the week. You can’t rely on exercise alone. If you stick to a healthy, hypo-caloric diet and don’t exercise at all you would probably still lose weight. However, the process might be very slow, and a plateau will be reached at some point.

Combining both exercise and a healthy diet would help in pushing the plateau to later on down the line. Furthermore, incorporating strength and resistance training in your training regime will maintain muscle (or build it if you’re not hypo-caloric) which can increase calorie burn – as muscle burns more energy than fat does. But watch out! Build a training plan that works for you and beware of over-training that can lead to exhaustion or injuries that can throw you out of the loop.

The bottom line is that there is no magic formula. The best method to get leaner, slimmer, stronger or any other goal you have is to combine diet and exercise. What you eat matters more than how you work out, but your fitness level will help you in reaching your ultimate goals and push you past plateaus and challenging phases.

You can lose or gain weight without exercise (depends on your daily total energy intake vs expenditure) but eating healthy and exercising regularly will increase motivation and wellbeing since exercise releases endorphins – happy hormones – and we all love feeling happy and great! On the contrary, eating poorly combined with excessive training is unsustainable and not recommended.

Wellbeing is a way of life, not a quick fix. Set smart goals, take small steps and reach your goals happy and content. The best way is to consult certified nutritionists and fitness experts that would help you get where you want.

Noam Bechar Nature Remedies consultant Noam Bechar Clinical & Sports Nutritionist