When it comes to losing weight, should you focus on diet or exercise?

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A mix of diet and exercise is the best approach to weight loss.

Anatoly Tiplyashin / Getty Images / iStockphoto

D: I'm a healthy eater, but I've always been sedentary. Last month, I started training to help me lose 15 pounds by summer. So far, I've only lost two, which is frustrating. Is my goal unreasonable?

Assuming you do, in fact, have 15 kilos of body fat to lose, then, yes, your goal of spreading them for more than three months is quite reasonable. But given your approach, it's probably not realistic.

If you want to lose weight and keep it forever – here's what you need to know about diet versus exercise.

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Lose weight

A mix of diet and exercise is the best approach to weight loss.

First and foremost, resistance training can help prevent muscle loss associated with diet alone. Regular exercise also helps reduce stress, which could otherwise lead to overeating. And builds self-esteem, something that is important for motivation and success.

But to remove excess weight, you must also pay attention to your diet.

To lose one pound a week, for example, a 185-pound person would need to run for 40 minutes, walk for 70 minutes or do an hour of vigorous weight lifting every day. If you weigh less, you should train longer to burn the same number of calories.

It is easier for most people to consume 500 calories less each day than spending it at the gym seven days a week. This also applies to healthy eaters.

Relying only on exercise to lose weight is not sustainable. A more demanding work program than usual, an injury or a boredom in the gym can interrupt a constant training program.

In addition, eating an indulgent meal can cancel the calorie consumption of a day from exercise.

Furthermore, a healthy diet does not always equate to fewer calories. Eating a larger portion of salmon than necessary, an extra handful of nuts or too many salad dressings can block weight loss.

Maintenance of weight loss

Weight loss means losing weight in the long run. But the physiological changes that occur during weight loss, and persist afterwards, make this difficult to do.

Weight loss is associated with an increase in hunger hormones, which makes it more difficult to stick to a low-calorie diet.

After losing weight, the body also burns less calories at rest and during physical activity than before. This is not unexpected because a lighter body requires less energy to function than a heavier body.

It is assumed that the more weight you lose and the faster you lose it, the more unfavorable metabolic effects will be.

Research conducted among 14 competitors of The biggest loser, a competition for reality TV weight loss, found that, six years after the show, participants' resting metabolic rates were lower than expected based on changes in body composition.

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The biggest loser the participants lost a dramatic amount of weight in a short time through extreme diet and exercise. The results may not translate into more modest methods of weight loss.

Exercise the secret weapon?

According to a study published last month in the journal Obesity, successful weight loss maintainers (people who had kept off at least 30 pounds for an average of nine years) rely on exercise to keep the pounds of build up.

Researchers at the University of Colorado measured daily caloric expenditure, resting metabolic rate and physical activity levels in weight loss maintainers and two control groups: normal-weight and overweight individuals.

The amount of calories burned for physical activity (800) by weight loss maintainers was significantly higher than the other two groups. The success of weight loss maintainers has also reached more than 12,000 passes per day – compared to 6,500 for the overweight group and 9,000 for the normal weight group.

The results also suggested that weight loss maintainers ate a similar amount of calories compared to overweight participants. In other words, these people have avoided regaining their lost weight by being physically active, not limiting their caloric intake.

I don't like the The biggest loser study, the researchers did not find that successful weight loss maintainers had a lower than expected resting metabolic rate.

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Bottom line

Your diet plays a more important role than exercise when it comes to losing weight. Include physical activity, however, to help maintain muscle and motivation.

To avoid the return of lost pounds, consistent evidence suggests that physical activity is the key. This does not mean that the diet is not important, it is.

But changing your daily habits to get more passes and including a fitness class can help you reduce your calories.

Leslie Beck, a private practice dietician based in Toronto, is director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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