Nutrition, Sleep, Exercise: Which is Most Important for Weight Loss?

In my private practice in San Francisco, during the very first appointment with my clients I always ask them to order in importance what I call the three pillars of health to achieve a successful weight loss: nutrition, exercise and sleep. Unfortunately, most times, they rank exercise first, nutrition second and sleep last. During my years of experience, I can tell you outright that this is not correct.  


The best way to achieve a successful and healthful weight loss is to rank the three pillars in the following order: sleep, nutrition and then exercise. I have found this to be true after 20 years of working individually with clients, watching what helps them most effectively lose weight, independent research and writing four weight loss and health books. So, having all three of these pillars in the right balance will deliver sustainable results. However, this can be easier said than done for some, as most of our busy schedules and hectic lives can allow one, two or sometimes all three to fall by the wayside. This can be a big problem, especially for those looking to lose some weight.


Another thing I’ve found is that, if people have to choose only one, they normally pick exercise. Now trust me, I believe in exercise; I make sure to get it done at least five times per week and it makes me feel great. However, if I have to choose between exercise and sleep, I choose sleep. Why is that? We’ll get to that later, but for now, keep in mind that all three factors are important, but sometimes we have to prioritize one over all the others.


I remember one client telling me how he just couldn’t lose weight even after all the time he was committing to get to the gym after work. At the same time, he complained that he didn’t have time to eat correctly or cook for himself at home. So, I told him to cut down his gym time by half and only commit to going three hours a week. He was to spend that extra spare time to go food shopping and prep his meals and snacks. As shocked as he was by this recommendation, he did what I said and, sure enough, he started to lose weight.  


So why is this? We’re always told by the media and nearly everywhere else that exercise is key to weight loss. When some people eat bad food or too much food what do they do? Go to the gym to work it off. And where does sleep to come to play in all of this? Last time we checked, sleep doesn’t burn any calories, though I’m sure some of us wish it did. Here’s the science behind these pillars and why I prioritize them the way I do.


Sleep comes first and is the foundation. Studies are now showing that less sleep leads to increased hunger the next day due to lower levels of your hunger hormone known as ghrelin. When you’re sleep-deprived, your ghrelin increases and your leptin (which suppresses your appetite) decreases. So less sleep means you are more vulnerable to hunger pangs and binges.

Additionally, you feel more fatigued, have less energy and tend to care less about prepping meals and packing snacks which leads to you eating out more and making poorer choices in favor of convenience. Finally, sleep deprivation also causes a dip in testosterone and a rise in estrogen and cortisol which can promote more fat storage as well, especially around the waistline. For recommendations on sleep, check out this blog post.


Nutrition is second. You should also know that eating nutritious foods is not enough for success. You should keep track of what you eat, how big the portions are that you are eating and actually dedicating time to your nutrition. This means making time to plan your meals, shop for your food and prep your meals so you are prepared and less inclined to eat out or make poor choices. Making your own meals also gives you control of portions and content of fats and sugars.  


Last, but not least, is exercise. I highly recommend you exercise for health, stress relief, and enjoyment, but divorce the idea that it is the primary driver of weight loss. Why? For one, ghrelin spikes after exercise, so many of us become ravenous once we leave the gym and end up overeating. Secondly, it is important to remember that exercise only takes up an hour or so out of our day, whereas nutrition consumes the other 20 hours or so. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to invest more time in exercising than focusing on what we’re putting in our mouths or how much sleep we are getting.


So there you have it. Contrary to what you have heard, weight loss is about so much more than just eating less and moving more. There are hormonal, psychological and timing factors to also consider for successful, sustainable weight loss. Keeping the three pillars of sleep, nutrition and exercise in balance while making sure you prioritize them properly is the proven way to ensure success in controlling your weight.

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