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AICR HealthTalk

Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: In order to lose weight and turn my fat to muscle, should I focus on exercise or diet?

A: For weight loss, you’ll need to pay attention to both. But fat and muscle are actually two completely separate tissues that can’t turn into one another. That means you are looking at two separate goals: losing excess body fat and increasing muscle. Diet and exercise are important to both goals, each in different ways.

Research suggests you’ll probably achieve more weight loss with changes in eating habits to decrease calorie consumption than with exercise alone. That’s because cuts in calories consumed tend to add up more quickly than increases in calories burned. You can cut your calories by changing drink choices, food choices, portion sizes or some combination of these. Unfortunately, though, weight loss tends to include both loss of fat and some muscle. And that’s where exercise can help.

You will burn more calories when you add regular physical activity in your life; this makes it easier to maintain weight and can slowly lead to weight loss. Add some activity into your daily lifestyle if you haven’t already. If it’s already there, you can increase the calories you burn through faster pace, greater challenge or extra time. Physical activity – especially when it includes some form of strength-training exercise two to three times a week – can help you at least maintain your current muscle while you lose weight. It’s also important that you eat a healthy diet with enough protein and other nutrients, and watch that you don’t cut calories too low. Include lean protein foods like beans, poultry, lowfat dairy or fish at each meal.

To estimate the appropriate number of calories you need for weight loss and maintenance over time, try the Body Weight Simulator from the National Institutes of Health. The bottom line for healthy weight and body composition: it takes both healthy eating and physical activity habits, as neither one can take the place of the other.


The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has contributed over $105 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the field, and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF).

Published on 05/11/2015

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