In the UK, and most western countries, there is a high incidence of obesity. A report published in 2019 highlighted that 28.7% of adults in the UK were obese and a further 35.6% were in the overweight category; this means that less than 36% of the adult population in the United Kingdom is of an acceptable weight for their height. This statistic makes it clear why the diet and exercise industry is big business. However, if people were successful at weight loss these statistics wouldn’t be so shocking.

When embarking on a weight loss regime many people opt to do one or both of the following:

  1. Improve their diet and decrease calorie intake
  2. Begin/increase exercise

Many people lose varying amounts of weight; however, the vast majority of people quickly put it back on, and often more, quite quickly after stopping their new regime. So, what could we do differently to make weight loss sustainable? Are diet and exercise equal? What are the benefits of each? Keep reading to find out all the answers to these questions and more.

Is Diet or Exercise Better for Weight Loss?

Unhappy woman eating cake

Food is emotive; most people love to eat it is social, the tastes and textures can evoke memories and feelings of happiness, and chemicals in some foods can release feel good hormones in the body. However, most of us lean toward unhealthier foods to satisfy these feelings. Many people struggle to change their eating habits so go along the exercise route to promote weight loss. The problem with this is that the mentality of ‘I run to eat’ often means limited or no weight loss. It is hard to lose weight through exercise alone.

Some studies suggest that the impact of exercise on weight loss is minimal, with the statistics estimating that diet is responsible for around 80% and exercise 20%. This however doesn’t mean that you should hang up your running shoes; it means that exercise alone is unlikely to make a huge different to weight; but there are many more benefits of exercise than weight loss.

Food that we put into our body equals 100% of the energy available. Whereas, energy expenditure is based on various different aspects, that contribute as follows:

  • Basal metabolic rate: 60-80%
  • Food digestion: 10%
  • Physical activity: 10-30%

Basal metabolic rate is the energy we consume just to live – assuming we do absolutely nothing other than essential bodily functions such as breathing – this accounts for different percentages depending on the individual, but it will be around 60-80% of all energy burnt. Then we have the energy burned in digesting the food we eat; which accounts for approximately 10%.

Physical activity accounts for the remaining 10-30%, but before you get excited that exercise makes up a reasonable percentage it is worth remembering that this is all physical activity. The 10-30% includes the energy you burn all day doing housework, going to work, walking around the supermarket, cooking food and even fidgeting. It is thought that 10% or less is actually attributable to planned physical exercise, such as running, cycling or swimming, in most people. Furthermore, people tend to overestimate the calories burned during exercise, they then compensate by overeating or reducing daily activity meaning that the planned activity has even less effect on weight-loss.

Importance of Diet

Bowl of salad and an apple with a tape measure

Diet in the UK is a word associated with a temporary change in eating habits to promote weight loss. Going on a diet is often seen in a negative light – it is a tough restrictive process. And, to some extent this is correct being on a diet does restrict the types and quantities of foods that you can eat. However, if we changed our mindset, we might be more successful.

Another way of thinking of diet is to consider the types of food we eat – we have all heard of the Mediterranean diet – most cultures have their own traditional way of eating. If we swap our typical diet for a healthier, but sustainable, way of eating we are more likely to make permanent changes and break our old habits.

Types of Weight Loss Diet

Unhappy woman eating a plate of salad

There are literally hundreds of ‘diets’; these are marketed by various companies selling products and ideals. These companies are businesses and their primary aim is to make a profit. Many people do well on these diets for a time, and some do make lifelong changes; but, the majority of people see a diet as something with an end goal. Once we have achieved our goal the diet ends, the measuring, special food and meal plans stop, and ultimately the weight creeps back on!

Some of the most popular types of diet are listed below:

  • Low calorie diets – Weight Watchers, Slimming World
  • High protein diets – Atkins, Paleo
  • Meal replacement diets – SlimFast, One 2 One Diet
  • Crash diets – Cabbage soup or grapefruit

Each of these diets have their supporters and haters, pros and cons. And if one has worked for you and the changes have lasted more than a few weeks or a year then great; but, for the vast majority these diets do not produce lifelong changes.

Once we are no longer counting points or syns, once we can reintroduce bread or pasta, swap out a shake for a homemade meal or stop drinking soup three times a day most of us have no idea what to do next. We go back to our old eating habits – sugary snacks, large portions, too many treats and ultimately undo all of our hard work.

Sustainable Lifelong Eating Plan

Mediterranean family eating

Based on years of scientific research doctors today, in the UK, are recommending a new way of eating to many of their most overweight patients. It has long been thought that the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest ways of eating in the world – and essentially that is what doctors are recommending. It is not recommended that we go on a weight loss diet, it is recommended that we swap our highly processed, sugar laden diet with a new way of eating; a way of eating that is sustainable, enjoyable and filling.

Yes! That’s right, there is no need to go on a diet. Let’s think of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ as a ‘Way of Eating’ instead. The idea is that this is a lifelong change, that will have many benefits including weight loss; but, also improved blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, improved heart health and much more.

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

Typical Mediterranean food

Basically, the Mediterranean Diet includes plenty of good quality protein especially fish, healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, legumes, cereals and nuts. Many traditional low-fat diets would encourage you to substitute oil in cooking for 1-cal spray; whereas, in this way of eating olive oil is used in cooking and as part of a salad dressing. Nuts are also off the menu in most diets as they are high in fat – but they are packed with nutrients and good-fats.

A typical western diet consists of a lot of sugary food and saturated fat. Many studies have shown that this combination of food is not satisfying – it results in blood sugar spikes and cravings for more sugary, fatty foods. In contrast, the combination of healthy fats, lean protein, beans and pulses, and fibre-rich vegetables that make up the traditional Med style way of eating keeps you fuller and more satisfied for longer. In turn, this results in less cravings for snacks and sugary foods.

Eating in the Mediterranean way is sustainable for life, it is not a fad diet; and, once you have got the hang of it, it can be quick, easy, reasonably cheap and delicious. You will likely also find that your taste-buds change after a short while of sticking to this way of eating – many people report that giving into cravings for chocolate or other sweet treats is actually unsatisfying, tasting too sweet.

Banish the diet and start the Mediterranean way of eating. Remember that diet is 80% of the weight-loss picture; so, fill your body with healthy Med style foods. To find out more and how to use this type of diet for short-term weight loss and long-term maintenance you could consider looking into the 5:2, Fast 800 and Blood Sugar Diets – these are ‘diets’ with a difference and often recommended by NHS doctors in the UK.

Exercise is Still Vital

Slim man lying on the sofa with tv remote

After reading this far you may be thinking that you don’t need to exercise! As far as weight loss is concerned it is perfectly feasible to lose weight through diet alone; however, exercise has many more benefits and should be an integral part of your life.

‘Skinny Fat’ and ‘TOFI’ (thin on the outside, fat on the inside) are phrases used to describe a subset of people that outwardly look slim and healthy, but actually have dangerous levels of internal/visceral fat. This internal fat centred around the abdomen can cause long-term problems including heart-disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers.

Genetics are the most important factor in predicting how your body carries fat. Visibly fat people are generally made aware of the health implications of fat; but outwardly healthy-looking people are often shocked to discover they are not actually as healthy as they look. Unfortunately for most of us we won’t routinely get the required medical tests to tell us whether we are one of the unlucky people who store higher percentages of visceral fat. Therefore, we should be aware of the possibility and make an effort to lead a lifestyle that is good for the body inside and out.

It has been shown that diet isn’t necessarily the best approach to removing visceral fat; larger than acceptable levels of such fat have actual been found in underweight people. A low-carb approach to diet has been shown to be most useful in decreasing the volume of visceral fat. Exercise is a key component of overall health for all of us and vital in the removal of this harmful, unseen fat.

Benefits of Regular Exercise

Runner and cyclist outside

Building exercise into your regular routine has many benefits – too many to discuss in detail within the scope of this article. For physical and mental health, exercise should be a key element in all of our lives. Regular moderate and high-intensity exercise have been shown as being key to the effective management of visceral fat.

Walking, running, cycling and swimming are all brilliant forms of exercise for improving overall health. In addition to aerobic or cardiovascular exercise adding in some strength training can also be beneficial. Doing 100 sit-ups a day unfortunately will be of no benefit! Aiming to exercise for 30 minutes a day 5-days a week can help increase the rate of weight loss when sticking to a healthy diet, but also help to manage the levels of visceral fat that your body may be storing.

If you haven’t exercised before or for quite a while, please do consult with your doctor before starting any new fitness regime. The key to exercise is finding an activity you enjoy and then sticking with it. Trial multiple different types of exercise to find the activity that suits you best.

Start with walking if you are currently inactive, just adding a small amount of walking into your daily routine can be helpful, and you can build up to more over time. Many people choose to follow a Couch to 5K running app as a starting point – these alternate increasing periods of running with walking to get you from doing no exercise to being able to run 5k in around 8-12 weeks.

Many people find cycling easier than running, cycling at a moderate pace for half an hour can burn around 300 calories. But more importantly, get your heart beating and cardiovascular system working more effectively, which in turn will help to burn visceral fat. Swimming is another great option and is perfect for older people or those with injuries as the water helps to support the weight of the body making it low impact.

Diet and Exercise Play A Key Role in Overall Health

Happy healthy looking couple preparing a healthy meal

If your sole aim is weight loss, then diet is king; but even thin people can be inwardly fat, and this is where exercise is key. Exercise as part of a healthy diet can help to increase the speed of weight loss – ultimately if you burn more calories than you put in you will lose weight. However, even for thin people exercise should be incorporated as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Western diets are abundant in fast and processed foods. Ditch the junk and approach dieting with a new perspective – a new way of eating incorporating traditional Mediterranean style food. Add in some aerobic exercise and a couple strength training sessions each week for optimum overall health.

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