Fat Loss: Is Exercise or Nutrition More Important?

If you have been near the exercise and nutrition scene for any period of time, you would have no doubt heard a few of these sayings:

  • Abs are made in the kitchen.
  • It’s 80% diet and 20% training.
  • Fitzgerald for PM (this wasn't topical when I first wrote this article, but it seems appropriate to leave it in now).

Generally speaking, Personal Trainers say exercise is the key and Nutritionist’s/Dietitian’s will claim nutrition is the panacea. Obviously both have a bias due to their profession. Since I am a Personal Trainer + Nutritionist - and I can bill you for both services - my need for bias is mitigated. It’s very hard to ascertain which is more important, but I am more than happy to share with you my thoughts and how I operate.


The Short Answer

This is a bit like the chicken and the egg. It doesn’t really matter what came first because both are a great source of protein and good for you. Similarly, exercising and nutrition will both positively impact your fat loss. 

However, that doesn’t suffice. You clicked this link wanting a more descriptive answer, so here it is. Just like any topic, the more you know the harder it often becomes to make a clear call, because you learn to identify other factors. Let me preface this by saying that we are talking about people who are beginning fat loss, not necessarily experienced individuals.

Exercise is more important at the beginning of a program, but it has a smaller capacity for manipulation. There are only so many exercise sessions that can be completed in one week, due to recovery and also other commitments. Once this capacity is reached later in a program, then nutrition becomes the primary variable for fat loss.

That's the short answer. If you want to find out more, read on!


The Case for Exercise

Exercise is often considered as energy depleting, because it requires energy to complete movement. However, the benefits of exercise are well beyond just burning energy. Improved blood flow, increased muscle and bone strength and improved blood glucose control (via GLUT-4) are just a few of the numerous benefits.

Exercise's health benefits that are independent of losing body fat. What is this means is that even if you don’t lose any body fat, exercising will induce changes that are beneficial for your health. However, the vast majority will lose fat and improve health.

For individuals beginning a weight loss program, exercise has often been sporadic or absent over the past 6+ months. For this reason, developing the habits of three weekly training sessions is the first step in their program. The multiple training sessions allow the individuals to develop confidence with new movements and get themselves acclimatised to exercise.

This is enough to focus on in the early stages of a training program, without need to worry too much about nutrition plans, macronutrients and meals! If an individual can develop can exercise three times per week and develop confidence in the gym for the first two weeks, that is a positive result - irrespective of weight loss!

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The Case for Nutrition

Nutrition is seen as energy adding, because food and nutrients provide energy to the human body. Consume too much energy and your body will store the excess, most likely in fat tissue. But this doesn't mean that food is bad - we need to remember that weight gain only occurs with excessive food intake!

A good nutrition intake will provide adequate macronutrients (protein, fats and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to meet your body's needs. These nutrients are essential for physiological functioning and the maintenance of health. 

There are numerous variables that we can manipulate for body recomposition. Nutrient intake, timing, supplementation, loading, depletion are among the many tools at our disposal. However, nutrition is less exciting than training and takes a lot more dedication and commitment.

Exercise can see immediate improvements (including non-body composition improvements) which are motivational to the participant. For example: in the first week they might not be able to do more than four push ups, but come week three, they can complete sets of ten! Nutrition on the other hand, will probably see you doing the same thing for a few weeks a time...

Nutrition also comes with more temptations, both in terms of frequency and intensity. There are more opportunities to make sub-optimal food choices throughout the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks) as well as emotional and external influences (your friends, feeling tired, etc). This can be avoided with exercise, if you are at the gym


My Thoughts: Why Exercise is the Key Early On

I make exercise the first priority for any client on the Body Recomposition Program. Three weekly training sessions are put in place before an emphasis goes to nutrition intake.

This isn’t to say that nutrition doesn’t matter, it just means that training as a priority works best on this program. In reality, most people begin to eat between (without my direction) in the early stages, because they want to maximise their progress from their training. This has the triple-benefit of training, nutrition and motivation improvements, all from adding three training sessions!

I believe that exercise is more important than nutrition for fat loss, in people starting their weight loss journey. Once people are exercising 3-4 times per week and not making progress, than nutrition becomes imperative. However, a significant amount of weight can be lost by exercise alone.

I recommend anyone - whether my client or not - begin by making exercise a priority. The plethora of benefits will keep you motivated and keep you accountable on your journey!