It’s a simple question, but the answer remains elusive. Most health experts agree that obesity is caused by a basic energy imbalance: We are eating more calories than we’re burning through daily activity. But what’s the primary driver behind our energy surplus? Is it that we’re eating more because we’re surrounded by calorie-laden foods and drinks, or that we’re expending less energy because we’ve adopted a more sedentary lifestyle? While it’s likely a combination of both behaviors, scientists continue to dispute the contribution of diet versus activity levels to the current epidemic, as well as the role each should play in prevention efforts.
When it comes down to individual choices, there are three areas that you should be focused on: how much you’re eating, what you’re eating, and how much daily activity you get. All of these factors have a significant and unique impact on health, and neglecting any one of them can have harmful consequences. Here’s what you can gain by making improvements to each of these three habits.
1. The Benefits of Eating Fewer Calories
If you’re looking to lose weight, cutting calories has a much bigger impact than logging more time at the gym. Research shows that exercise alone, without any diet changes, produces modest weight loss at best, typically less than four pounds. So, following a low-calorie diet is critical to success if you have a significant amount to lose. (Trimming 500 to 1,000 calories a day is a good initial target for most people.) Losing 5 to 10 percent of your weight can reduce your risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases, so the payoff is huge.
2. The Benefits of Exercise
Regular exercise may not be a highly effective weight-loss strategy on its own, but being physically active appears to be very important for maintaining weight loss once it’s achieved. Exercise also has powerful, disease-fighting effects that rival some prescription medications. Even without any weight loss, getting regular exercise can help to improve cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and quality of life. Combining a fitness program with a calorie-controlled eating plan can reduce risk factors for chronic diseases more than dieting alone.
What’s more, overweight people who are physically active are less likely to develop heart disease and type 2 diabetes and die an early death than those who are overweight and inactive.A recent European study even found that lack of exercise was responsible for twice as many deaths as obesity. The benefits of being fit extend to sleep, mood, brain health, and other aspects of health as well.
3. The Benefits of Eating Healthier Calories
Eating the right number of calories can prevent weight gain, but it doesn’t ensure optimal health. Adopting a more nutrient-dense diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts can help to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, inflammation, and other risk factors for chronic disease. Reducing sugary foods, red and processed meats, and salt can have similar effects. Research shows that people who follow a healthy diet are less likely to develop heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease than those who eat poorly, even after weight is taken into account. So, it’s not simply the quantity of calories that matters — the quality of those calories have a big impact on the body’s metabolic health.
The bottom line: Devoting attention to both your eating habits and activity level, and making improvements where you can, is the best approach to preventing disease. The two really do go hand-in-hand. You can’t outrun a bad diet, but you can’t outeat a sedentary life either.