What’s the best way to diet and lose weight?
During my many years working as a nutritionist I’ve always shied away from the topic of weight loss mostly because I think it’s a hugely complex topic, which requires input from many disciplines and a unique skill set held by dietitians and nutritionists who specialise in this area.
I can tell someone what and how much to eat and devise menu plans and shopping lists to fit in with their lifestyle and food budget, which in some cases has been successful. However, on the whole my experience of helping people to lose weight has been frustrating and enlightened me to the realisation that, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. I know that if a client has me at their disposal to follow them around each day and cook every meal then i’ll get great results, but the reality is that when they leave, the onus is on them to make healthy food choices.
Losing weight takes a huge amount of motivation and commitment and the factors influencing food choice are hugely complex. It drives me absolutely bloody bonkers when I hear people say that losing weight is simple and just a case of eating less and moving more. This ignorance comes from a complete lack of understanding amongst those that have never had an issue with their weight. The problem is that being overweight is very visible and conjures up an unfair image of indulgence or greed as well as being associated with many other social stigmas and unfortunately society often has very little appreciation for the wider issues involved.
Mindset is a major component of losing weight and the psychological issues involved are becoming more apparent as being a key factor in compliance and long-term weight maintenance. One very relevant factor in the aetiology of weight loss is the link between food and mood, which often manifests as an emotional crutch, hampering efforts to lose weight. Some people put all their faith and commitment into diet plans to the point at which falling off the wagon represents a huge failure impacting on their ability to stick to the programme and sometimes results in binge eating and reverting back to old ways of eating. Tackling the psychological effects of food is something that needs to be addressed if this is getting in your way of losing weight.
Decision to lose weight
When it comes to losing weight, there are those that just want to shift a few pounds and others with a much greater amount of weight to lose to improve their health. In my experience it can be more challenging to shift the last few pounds and those with less weight to lose tend to get drawn to the abundance of diet fads. Unfortunately, for many people, the decision to lose weight is often made as a result of a health diagnosis that puts things into perspective but the positive here is that it’s never too late to reap the benefits. Many of the risks associated with being overweight can have a major impact on someone’s lifespan but just as damaging is the effect on long-term wellness and the number of years living with poor health. Being overweight or obese can mean living with joint pain, difficulty sleeping, tiredness, breathlessness and psychosocial issues such as depression, low self-esteem and feeling isolated, all of which make it more difficult to drum up the motivation to lose weight. On top of this, many of the conditions that often accompany being overweight or obese involve medication, which can have unwanted side-effects and become a day-to-day burden.
No hard and fast rule
There’s no hard and fast rule to losing weight and one size certainly doesn’t fit all. The key to long-term success has little to do with the speed at which you lose weight, but the habit changes made along the way, which often dictate the chances of keeping the weight off.
Weight loss is a minefield and there are some brilliant nutritionists and dietitians out there that can offer support and guidance. The support provided by weight loss groups such as Weight Watchers has also been shown to be a key factor in success, but if this isn’t your thing then approaching weight loss with a friend or work colleagues can have a similar impact. You can of course embark on a weight loss regime on your own but it’s important to do this in the right way and not get sucked into the hype around new diet fads.
Ignore what you read in the media as this can often cause confusion. Advice such as that telling you to cut out carbs, shun counting calories, eat loads of protein or avoid eating at certain times is fine in the context of certain methods of weight loss but these messages are good examples of our current obsession of defining diet and health by individual foods and nutrients. The negative impact of such messaging is that it has the potential to cause false ideas around healthy eating and labelling foods as somehow being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can detract away from the basic principles of eating well. Focusing on certain nutrients and positioning them as a key driver for weight gain also causes confusion, blurring the basics of healthy eating and making it seem more complicated.
Carbohydrates are one of the best examples of how we have become overly focused on individual nutrients and foods groups. The messaging around carbohydrates and health has become very negative and for some are viewed as being at the root of weight gain and disease. A diet high in carbohydrates can cause weight gain, diabetes and inflammation but it needs to be put into context to be fully understood. Whilst people attribute a diet high in carbohydrates to poor health, few actually define what this looks like, which has led to people taking the issue out of context.
If your daily diet includes over-sized portions of sugary cereals and muffins for breakfast, huge white baguette filled with something high in sat fat for lunch and an extra-large pizza for dinner, all of which are accompanied by sugary snacks, soft drinks and hot beverages doused with sugar, then this is clearly not a healthy way to eat and goes against the basic principles of healthy eating. If you eat like this, then there’s also a very good chance that you’re unhealthy in many other ways such as lacking in exercise. However, this cannot be compared to a diet that includes a sensible portion of porridge oats for breakfast, quinoa and chicken salad for lunch and then a tofu stir-fry with brown rice for dinner, whilst also avoiding snacks and sugary drinks. These two diet examples both include carbohydrates and one is clearly healthier that the other but without putting this nutrient in the right context, people develop false ideas and the confusion around what foods they should be eating continues to grow.
Taking a small changes approach is a good way to start. Rather than becoming overwhelmed and trying to make dramatic changes to the way you eat, start by looking at your current diet and thinking about how you can adapt this to make it healthier. The basics of healthy eating still apply to weight loss in that you need to cut down on the number of calories you eat and insure that these calories come from nutritious foods that will help to keep you feeling full and reduce your risk of disease (lean proteins, healthy fats, vegetables and fibre-rich wholegrains).
These are just a few ideas of some of the changes you might think about making:
- Switch to low fat milk and dairy products
- Choose lower fat meats
- Avoid snacking or choose healthy snacks
- Use a smaller plate to control your portion size
- Make take-away food a treat and reserve to one night of the week (try making healthy choices)
- Reduce your alcohol intake and avoid binge drinking
- Gradually reduce your sugar intake in hot beverages and switch to low sugar food products and diet soda
- Limit fruit juice and smoothies to one-a-day
- Increase your intake of vegetables
- Switch to ‘brown carbs’ such as wholemeal pasta and bread, and wholegrain rice
- Work out your meal combinations in handfuls i.e. one handful of protein, one handful of ‘brown’ carb and unlimited veggies
- Check food labels; the reality is that many people don’t cook from scratch so choose foods that are labelled as green or amber on the front-of-pack
The accumulation of many small changes can have a big impact on your food intake and weight loss. Every small change also represents a change in eating behaviour that can have a greater impact in the long-term.
Diets are another approach and can provide a kick-start that some people need to achieve their weight loss goals. Diets are appealing because they offer a starting point and end goal as well as providing a set of rules to follow. The fact that you are told what, how much and when to eat also adds to their charm. Embarking on a diet can provide motivation, which is amplified by the availability of apps that can help to monitor and track your progress.
Putting very extreme diets aside, there is no single diet that can be said to be superior over another no matter what their marketing says. The most successful diet is only going to be the one that you stick with and this is influenced by the way you live your life. There are a multitude of diets out there, which will all tell you they are the best but just because your best friend or a certain celebrity lost lots of weight doesn’t mean you will. Do your research and figure out what diet will work best for you. If you know you can’t live without carbs then don’t try following a ketogenic diet (low carb). If you struggle with energy levels across the day because of a very busy work schedule, then fasting two days of the week may not be realistic. If your job involves long working hours and late nights entertaining clients then fasting for 16 hours could mean eating your first meal at 3pm, which is clearly not going to work. If the diet becomes a chore then your chances of sticking to it are less likely.
Whatever the outcome of your diet, you need to consider how you are going to take things forward once you have managed to lose weight. It’s not uncommon for the end of a diet to signify an opportunity to revert back to old eating habits but what’s the point in dieting if this is the case. This all goes back to the benefits of developing new eating habits that will help you to maintain a healthy weight. A diet worth its weight in gold is the one that teaches you ways to eat that encourage healthy eating habits.
Many diets talk about other health benefits such as increased energy levels, reduction in certain diseases or glowing skin, but you should keep your eye on the prize and these are all potential benefits of losing weight and not specific to that diet per se.
I have no answer to the question of what the best way is to lose weight as it is dependent on the individual. Losing weight is not simple and there are many factors that can impact on someone’s ability to do so and keep the weight off. What I can tell you is that finding a method that fits in with your lifestyle and encourages you to develop new habits around food choice is more likely to result in long-term success and that tackling the wider issues such as the psychologically around food may be hugely beneficial in some cases.