Diet vs. Exercise: What’s More Important?

NF-Diet vs. Exercise

When trying to lose weight, which is most important: diet or exercise? The vast majority of those surveyed believe that both monitoring food and beverage consumption and physical activity are equally important in weight maintenance and weight loss. After equally important, people go with exercise, and then diet. As you can see in my 2-min. video Diet vs. Exercise for Weight Loss, most people get it wrong.

Note the caloric expenditure equivalencies I present in the video are assuming no dietary compensation–something seen quite dramatically, for example, with nut consumption. Given how hard it is to work off food, let’s make our calories count by choosing the most nutrient dense foods, as detailed in my 4-min. video Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score.

Another misconception is that weight alone is a good predictor of disease risk. Body mass index is better since it takes height into account, but it doesn’t describe what or where that mass is. Body-builders can have huge BMIs (especially since muscle is heavier than fat), but that doesn’t mean they’re obese.

As I document in my 2-min. video Keep Your Waist Circumference to Less Than Half Your Height, it is now accepted that health risks can be determined as much by the relative distribution of the excess fat as by its total amount. It’s not so much body fat, but visceral fat–abdominal fat, the fat around our internal organs–that most increases our risk of dying prematurely. Waist circumference takes care of both the “what” and “where” of the weight, so the best metric may be waist-to-height ratio. Move over BMI; we now have WHR.

The target is to keep our waist circumference to less than half our height. Take a cloth measuring tape and measure halfway between the top of your hipbones and the bottom of your ribcage. Stand up straight, breathe deep, exhale, let it all hang out and that measurement should be half our height. If it’s not, we should consider cutting down on our consumption of meat, as I cover in my video Meat and Weight Gain in the PANACEA Study. It may also help to cut back on refined plant foods, such as white flour products. Three servings a day of whole grains, however, was recently associated with a slimmer waist in the Framingham Heart Study.

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image credit: Helga Weber / Flickr

  • Nooch

    Check out “saggital abdominal diameter” as a measure of diabetes risk.

  • AmazinglyWell

    I know you don’t mean it this way, but the phrase “muscle is heavier than fat” causes confusion. Muscle is NOT heavier than fat, it is more dense than fat. A pound of muscle and a pound of fat weigh the same…. 1 pound! But the muscle takes up less space. Love your blog though! As a health coach I visit your site multiple times a day and refer everyone I know to this resource!!!

    • Kartoffelmao

      Well, its an expression. When people say it, they mean that muscle weigh more than fat per volumetric unit.

    • Christallin

      Thanks for making that correction. I don’t know why people still promote this fallacy and I was disappointed to see a doctor stating this hooey.

  • rjs

    Based on my own experience, and I realize it’s only anecdotal, cutting my whole grain consumption to one serving per day caused me to lose 7-8 pounds. I replaced the whole grains, however, with more vegetables, legumes and fruits, not with refined grains, meats or oils.

    • stacy

      Sounds similar to the fuhrman diet!

    • Kartoffelmao

      Off course you did. You exchanged calorie dense grains for lower dense calorie foods like vegetables, legumes and fruits, hence you ate less calories and got in a negative calorie balance that made you lose weight.

      • Kat

        Not necessarily true. I’ve eaten higher caloric foods than grains and still lost weight. For me, it’s more about protein than carbs.

  • My waist is a bit wider than my height and I have been vegan for 13 years. Where do I go wrong? Not enough exercise and eating while I am driving, and I drive a lot. I have started to change my snacking habits to carrots and raisins. We shall see what this year brings.

    • The exercise is an important component but the nutritional is much more important. The important concepts are explained well by Dr. Doug Lisle in his video, How to Lose Weight Without Losing your Mind, view for free at For a more in-depth explanation you should order and view Jeff Novick’s DVD, Calorie Density Eat More Weigh Less and Live Longer. Order off his or Dr. McDougall’s website. So you want to eat foods that are lower in calorie density. To check out calorie density you can log onto the website, CRON-O-METER, find a food and enter 454 grams(the number of grams in a pound) and check out the calories. You will see that the carrots are 186 kcal/pound and raisins are 1357 kcal/pound. Take home message more vegetables… generally around 100 cal/pound and be very cautious with dried fruit. However avoiding things with labels is a good idea since processed foods often contain alot of sugars and fats. For help reading labels you might enjoy Jeff Novicks DVD, Should I Eat This. You will be more successful if you understand the important concepts and their application. Good luck.

  • Now that we’ve figured this out, I’d like to know just *how much* more risk a person like me has, who is two inches off of her ideal waist measurement, but eating healthy and exercising often. I mean, surely there are some biological outliers where someone’s waist is normal and healthy without it being less than half their height?

  • Judy

    I’m new to your blog. So far, I like the information, but I do not like being referred to videos. I’d much more like to see the information in print.

    • RalphRhineau

      Almost invariably, a kind volunteer has transcribed the videos you’re being referred to. Just look for a URL link titled <>. On my computer, it appears to the right of the video and on my cell phone it appears immediately below the video. Of course, if you avail yourself only of the transcripts, you’ll miss the graphics, and graphs, that the good doctor presents. But, given that he offers all this for *free*, I don’t see where we have much room to grouse.

      So, whether you watch the videos or read the transcripts, it’s like going to Burger King… you *can* have it your way (just healthier!)

  • Joe Pyle

    Dr., I recently started to become vegan and am wondering what to eat for breakfast. I was eating a bowl of oatmeal with rolled oats, and bran, but then heard about the benefits of not eating grains. Can you please point me in the right direction for a tasty breakfast that’s filling? BTW, I am now training for a marathon. thank you so much, you’re my “go to site” for health!

  • George Avalon

    I’m new to this blog, but I was wondering where i can find the gal with that cute little mole on her lower abdomen… :)