Ask the Dietitian: Is Counting Calories or Working Out Better for Weight Loss?

Ask the Dietitian: Is Counting Calories or Working Out Better for Weight Loss?

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Ask the Dietitian: Is Counting Calories or Working Out Better for Weight Loss?

One of our readers, Ewa K., asked on Facebook:

“Which is better for weight loss: (1) eating 1,500 calories a day and not exercising or (2) eating 1,800 calories but burning 300 calories per day through exercise?”

What the question really asks is less about the actual numbers and more about the deficit and whether one way of creating the deficit is better. It’s true that if following a 1,500-calorie diet creates a calorie deficit, then you will lose weight.

The first scenario assumes you’re cutting calories by eating less but not exercising, while the second scenario assumes you’re consuming 300 calories more but burning those calories off through exercise. In both scenarios your total daily net calories is 1,500 — implying you should lose the same amount of weight taking either approach.

But the answer to this question isn’t black and white, so let’s break it down further.


It’s generally accepted that diet is more important than exercise for weight loss — some say weight loss is 80% diet and 20% exercise. We live in an environment that is “obesogenic,” meaning weight gain is easy and weight loss is difficult, especially with tempting snacks and fast food around every corner. The problem is, those snacks and fast-food dinners take a lot of extra effort to burn off. Nobody has time to walk 25 minutes every time they eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup. This is why diet trumps exercise if you have to pick one.

But, research has proven an obvious but important point: A 2012 randomized controlled trial of about 400 overweight, middle-aged women found a lifestyle change combining diet and exercise led to greater weight loss than diet or exercise alone. Here’s what their weight loss progress looked like after 12 months:

  • Diet-only group lost an average of 8.5% of their body weight.
  • Exercise-only group lost an average of 2.4% of their body weight.
  • Diet and exercise group lost an average of 10.8% of their body weight.
  • Control (no diet or exercise) lost an average of 0.8% of their body weight.

Even though all the participants were given a goal to lose 10% of their bodyweight, only the diet and exercise group met that goal. Because losing weight can be challenging, it’s best to approach it from more than one angle.



To build better habits that’ll help you lose weight, employ a strategy that combines both diet and exercise to increase your weight loss and keep it off in the long run. In my experience, people who want to lose weight don’t merely relegate their goal to seeing a smaller number on the scale. What they really want is a leaner, fitter physique that makes them look and feel better. For that reason, an 1,800-calorie diet paired with burning 300 calories through exercise is the better choice. Here’s why:


When you lose weight it comes off as water, fat and muscle. One way to combat loss of valuable lean muscle is to take up strength-building, resistance exercises, which experts recommend you do at least two times per week. Use weight machines, free weights, resistance bands or even your own bodyweight.


You’re able to feel more satisfied on an 1,800-calorie diet. While you should always make room for the foods you love, having an extra calorie buffer may make you feel more at ease. This gives you a psychological leg-up to keep going, resulting in more weight loss in the long run.


Even if your total calorie goal is the same at the end of the day, working out gives you physical and mental perks outside of just weight loss. This includes stress relief, mood improvement, better self-esteem and healthier heart and lungs. Go, endorphins!


It takes a lot of grit and determination to reach a weight-loss goal, which is why the key for success is making the journey as enjoyable as the destination. Losing weight is more than just getting down to a specific number on the scale. So celebrate your non-scale victories! Share them with us every Friday on Facebook and read about all the inspiring folks in our community who are on this journey with you. Need more inspiration? Read the 9 signs of progress that aren’t a number on the scale. We look forward to reading yours!

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.


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