Are exercise and supplements the best choice for losing weight?

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Kat Barefield, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
No, reducing calories is by far the best single method for losing weight but exercise and diet is the best method of maintaining the loss. Effective weight loss supplements (and there aren’t many) fit into a weight loss plan when 1) the goals are aggressive because of a deadline, 2) the person has very low body fat, and 3) the user has had multiple attempts at weight loss using traditional methods.
Background on supplements and weight loss
The goal of incorporating a dietary supplement (or prescription drug) into a weight loss program is to assist the user in complying with the daily routine that leads to weight reduction. And, as with all human studies on meal replacements, the supplement ingredients must have safely demonstrated the potential to act in one or more of the following ways:
  • Help create and maintain a calorie deficit by increasing daily calorie expenditure when compared to a non-supplemented state
  • Raise energy levels that may make one more active throughout the day
  • Reduce the drive to consume food
  • Decrease calorie absorption
Meal replacements and weight loss
In all studies, meal replacements (MRs) bars and shakes used for 1 or 2 meals a day were shown to be an extremely effective aid to weight reduction and, in almost all cases, more effective than conventional methods of dietary restrictions. Additionally MRs have been shown to be just as effective as dietary restriction combined with drug therapy. Most importantly, continuous use of MRs may be the most effective means of all treatments when it comes to maintaining weight loss.

In my opinion nutrition is the number one factor.  Exercise is important and proper supplementation done correctly can also be helpful but nothing will compare to proper food intake.

Exercise can improve heart health, bone density and other factors but nothing will compare to the appropriate food intake.  I am going to use one example but many others can be given.

A traditional fast food meal or even family dinner will roughly be 1000 calories, now how long do you have to workout to burn off 1000 calories?  Usually 2 to 3 hrs.  Simply watching your food intake and keeping your portions more balanced will be more effective than anything else.  Yes exercise is important but you can manage your weight first and foremost by what you put in your mouth.

A general rule of thumb for someone who wants to lose weight is:

  • Lets say someone at rest burns 2500 calories per day
  • Lets say they want to lose 1 to 2 lb per week

If they consume 2000 calories per day they will lose 1 lb per week without any exercise added.  When they try and average 500 calories burned extra per day they will then lose and extra 1lb per week or 2 lbs per week.  

I put nutrition as the emphasis because if people do not monitor their nutrition like a hawk it is extremely easy to consume 2500 calories per day and many times it is more.  There fore by watching the food intake you can lose weight predictably and then adding in exercise you will lose even more.

So yes nutrition and exercise together are important but nutrition will be the number one factor in sustained fitness.  Also it is not good to exercise too much so if your calories are too high you will have to workout more in order to have the same calorie balance and that is not always good for your body.

Both options can be helpful when losing weight. It is always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program and especially before starting any supplement. With that being said, exercise has many benefits for weight loss and general health. Regular exercise will help you burn calories, build muscle and reduce your risk of many diseases. Supplements were created to add nutrients back into your diet that you may have been deficient in. There are a few supplements that can aid with weight loss, such as a multivitamin, Omega 3 supplement, and calcium/Vitamin D.  

Exercise and a balanced diet are the best choices for losing weight. Supplements (as their name suggests) may compliment a diet and exercise regimen when used appropriately, but supplements should never be viewed as the sole reason why anyone loses weight. The number of calories consumed everyday from the foods you eat and drink, and the calories expended through physical activity, far outweigh any potential benefits from a supplement. No matter what claims are made on the box (supplements are not FDA regulated in the same manner as pharmaceuticals), failure to eat a healthy diet and exercise while taking a weight loss supplement will most likely result in little to no success, a lot of frustration, and a thinner pocket book.

Lastly, before ever deciding to take a weight loss supplement, it will be extremely important to consult with your physician; especially you have been diagnosed with a chronic disease (heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis etc.) or allergies to avoid any unnecessary and potentially dangerous side effects.

The best choice is staying active and making wise food choices.  As long as you are in a deficit, you will lose weight.  I would recommend a multivitamin.  When you are in a deficit it is harder to get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs.  So a multivitamin can still give you that even when you are in a deficit.  It will keep your energy levels high and keep you focused on your goal.  Sometimes other supplements are needed, but before you jump into any supplement, carefully do your homework to determine if that supplement is the right one for you.   

Many people have jumped on the band wagon of supplements. Unfortunately with people’s daily lives and not eating properly, supplements do help but it is not the answer. Supplements were made to help you get the nutrients you needed when you were lacking something in your diet. However, if you have a proper diet and good exercise plan you can get all the nutrition you need and still lose the weight you want. Remember to lose 1 pound of fat you must burn 3500 calories. So if you can keep your deficit at 500 calories per day you will lose that 1 pound. Safely you should only lose from 1-3 per week. So be careful of what you take and make sure it is safe for you to do so. Always consult your doctor before taking any kind of supplement.

A combination of exercise and good nutrition are the best choices you can make to lose weight.  By moving more and eating less, thereby creating a caloric deficit, you will be able to drop pounds.  Supplements play a role in providing the body with nutrients that you might not get through diet alone, but should not be a replacement for proper nutrition and healthy exercise. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.