An exercise scientist reveals the fastest, most significant way to lose weight with minimal effort

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So you want to lose a few pounds.

You've heard the mantra: "Eat right. Work out."

But when it comes down to it, which one of those things will make a bigger difference in helping you achieve your weight loss goals?

Is it really better to hit the gym four times this week or to order a salad instead of fries at lunch?

We asked Philip Stanforth, a professor of exercise science at the University of Texas and the executive director of the Fitness Institute of Texas, whether diet or fitness was more important for weight loss, and his answer surprised us.

"Studies tend to show that in terms of weight loss, diet plays a much bigger role than exercise," said Stanforth.

Here's why:

Exercise requires time and consistent effort, and it takes longer to see its results, said Stanforth. It also burns far fewer calories (and takes far more time) than most people think. Alternatively, there are several high-sugar, high-fat, high-calorie foods that we can cut from our diets to see a pretty big change in our waistline, sometimes in a fairly short time period. Stanforth puts it this way:

"You'd have to walk 35 miles to burn 3,500 calories. That's a lot of walking. But if you look at eating, a Snickers bar might have, say, 500 calories. It's going to be a lot easier to cut the Snickers bar than to do five miles of walking every day."

Several studies back up Stanforth's suggestion.

One large review of 20 studies involving more than 3,000 people published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014 found that high-protein diets and meal replacements (low-calorie substitutes for heavier meals) were linked with better outcomes in terms of helping people keep weight off after a reduced-calorie diet period when compared with exercise. And a 2011 review looking at the relationship between fat mass and physical activity in kids concluded that being active is likely not the key determinant in unhealthy weight in children.

Still, exercise may come into play later on. Other studies, for example, suggest that people who lose weight and keep it off eat right and work out regularly.

Plus, exercise has other benefits, from helping to boost our mood and protect our bodies from the detrimental effects of aging to helping us manage the symptoms of stress, depression, andanxiety. And building and maintaining muscle can often mean your body will actually burn more calories throughout the day.

So if you want to lose weight in 2016, consider adjusting your diet. And if you want to keep it off, get moving.

See images of the best diets for every budget:

11 PHOTOS
Best Diets for Every Budget
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An exercise scientist reveals the fastest, most significant way to lose weight with minimal effort
Named U.S. News and World Report's best overall diet for four years in a row, this diet is definitely worth investigating. The DASH Diet integrates whole grain foods, fruits, vegetables, low- or non-fat dairy and fish or poultry, while limiting high-fat foods, salt and red meat. While fresh fruits and vegetable will cost you, cutting most red meat from you diet will make this diet wallet-friendly.
While the Paleo diet (eating like our ancestors did) isn't usually thought to be a low-price option, there are some simple ways you can do it on the cheap. Paleo Diet Lifestyle recommends buying products like olive oil in bulk, choosing cheap cuts and buying bone-in meats and buying whole or canned fish.
Traditional Mediterranean diets are proven to be incredible for your health! Even better, according to LearnVest, if you choose an inexpensive olive oil and stay away from the pricier varieties of products like tuna steak and chardonnay, you can expect to keep your bill within reason.
People often report feeling better, mentally and physically, after giving up gluten. This diet can be affordable if you follow one rule: eat foods that are naturally free of gluten. Products made specifically for gluten-free diets are often pricey. Opt for frozen or in-season fruits and veggies to keep produce prices low.
LearnVest calls the vegan diet "a steal" if done smartly. Be sure to cook for yourself rather than buy expensive prepared vegan cuisine. You can also find tofu for just half the price of ground beef per pound.

The Atkins diet helps dieters lose weight by cutting carbs from their diets. To make this protein-rich diet budget-friendly, try underrated cuts such as chuck and sirloin, always buy whole chickens and experiment with pork.

This government-endorsed diet centers around lowering cholesterol and begins with setting calorie goals. These calorie levels and limits on dietary cholesterol should curb overeating and help keep you within your budget. Cutting fatty meats can also help your bill.
The flexitarian diet closely resembles a vegetarian diet, but when a craving for meat strikes, they indulge. Flexitarians not only weigh 15 percent less than carnivores, but they also save money by spending less on pricey meat.
Number nine on U.S. News and World Report's best overall diets, the Ornish diet focuses on the overarching way you eat, exercise and live rather than on the specifics of your diet. Since the diet is so individualized, most of the time, it can work with any budget. Still, planning ahead and buying in bulk can keep costs down.
This trusted diet can help you shed between 6 and 10 pounds in two weeks and 1 to 2 pounds each week after until you reach your goal. The diet concept is split into two concepts, "Lose It" and "Live It." Dieters are discouraged from dining out during the "Lose It" stage and encouraged to cook at home, keeping your wallet happy.
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