When discussing health and weight management, there are three major components to consider – nutrition, exercise and sleep. 

But which is most important? Before we answer that, let’s take a look at each component individually. Then we’ll talk about the ideal order of focus and the benefit in finding balance – a balance that works for you. 

Nutrition – Making time to plan your meals, shop for food and prep your meals will set you up for success. You’ll be less inclined to eat out, make poor dietary choices or skip meals entirely. Cooking your meals and preparing your snacks will also allow you to control your portions and reduce your intake of processed items. Plus, it’s more sustainable. In their recent study, Gardner et al. (2018) found a diet based on whole foods and cooking yielded more sustainable weight loss than a diet of restrictive nature.

Exercise – Recommended for stress relief, pleasure and weight loss, exercise is an excellent tool for overall health. It has, however, been shown to increase ghrelin levels (increases appetite), which can result in increased hunger post-workout. It’s important to find the type of exercise that’s right for you while utilizing proper nutrition to combat spikes in hunger.

Sleep – In their study, Taheri, Lin, Austin, Young and Mignot (2004) found short sleep duration increases ghrelin levels and reduces leptin levels (decreases appetite), resulting in increased hunger over subsequent days. They also found increased BMI was proportional to decreased sleep. Additionally, too little sleep often leaves you with an overall feeling of fatigue, making cooking and preparing meals more challenging. This often results in an increased frequency of dining out and increased intake of delivery or processed foods due to perceived convenience.

Still with me? Good. Now, let’s rank them.

  1. Sleep

  2. Nutrition

  3. Exercise

Contrary to popular belief, sleep takes precedence and acts as a foundation – affecting both nutrition and exercise (as well as hormones). Nutrition comes in second and exercise is a strong third (also altering hormone levels).

Think about it. Have you been restricting your intake and regularly killing yourself at the gym to not see results? Is your sole focus on eating nutritious foods? Or, maybe all you do in your free time is sleep?

Most of us focus on one, maybe two of the components above. And, more often than not, the two chosen are exercise and nutrition (in that order).

I get it. Life get’s crazy. And we get so set in our routines that we forget to take a step back, re-evaluate and adjust our behaviors. 

But it’s not as simple as eating less and moving more.

So instead of hitting the gym 5 days a week on 4 to 6 hours of sleep and poor nutrition, consider taking some time to also focus on proper intake and getting adequate sleep. Cook a meal for yourself. Prep lunch and snacks for the following day. Get to bed a bit earlier. Give yourself permission to rest.

Now, don’t get me wrong – all aspects, including exercise, are essential for a healthy and balanced life.

Just like everything else, sustainability is key.


Kelly Powers, MA, RD is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s Degree in Food Studies. She takes a holistic approach to nutrition and health, helping her clients implement sustainable behavior change to improve their life and relationship with food. Kelly is a recipe developer with a food blog which highlights real food, simple recipes and her life in Rome and San Francisco.

Learn more about Kelly and her services here –

Website: www.kellyepowers.com

Instagram: @kelly.powers

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Gardner, C. D., Trepanowski, J. F., Del Gobbo, L. C., Hauser, M. E., Rigdon, J., Ioannidis, J. P. A., … King, A. C. (2018). Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association with Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 319(7), 667–679. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.0245

Taheri, S., Lin, L., Austin, D., Young, T., & Mignot, E. (2004). Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index. PLoS Medicine, 1(3), e62. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062