Weight loss - what really works?

Clients sometimes ask me about weight loss - either as part of their recovery from injury, their training plan, or because it’s something they’re keen to work on. The trouble is, weight loss advice is a minefield. For every piece of useful advice out there, there are any number of fads, pyramid schemes and celebrity endorsed diet plans. Sifting the good stuff from the fantasy is tough to do.

On the one hand, you have the dull, sensible advice that losing weight is simply a matter of “eating less and moving more”. Which sounds fine, until the strict calorie controlled plan that you’ve put yourself on leaves you tired and hungry and you find yourself reaching for the doughnuts your colleague brought into the office.

No wonder people look for a special trick to make dieting easier. Low fat diets, low carb diets, points systems, meal replacement shakes, fat burning pills, juice smoothie detox plans - so many books, websites and marketing plans promise the results you’re looking for.

In this article, I’m going to do my best to cut through the bullshit, and talk about what I think actually works. I’ll get some disclaimers out of the way here early. Although I’ve done my homework on this one, I don’t have any nutrition or diet qualifications, so take what I have to say with a pinch of (not too much) salt.

I do have some experience of weight loss. As a professional athlete in a weight class sport, dieting is a big part of the game. Over the years I competed, I’ve worked with various nutritionists, dieticians, and talked to academics who’ve studied the subject. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with other fighters about dieting and comparing ideas. As a friend once commented: “competing in Mixed Martial Arts is a little like having an eating disorder, but with a bit of added violence”. (This isn’t a good thing.)

”I’ve been told that ‘weight loss is just about calories in versus calories out. Eat less and move more - it’s as simple as that.’ Is that true?”

On a basic level, there’s is a lot of truth to this. It’s not quite that simple, of course (the human body rarely is), but by and large, people gain weight because they’re eating too much.

So if that’s all there is to it, why do so many people struggle to lose weight? Why do people manage to lose a few pounds in the short term, but sooner or later end up putting it all back on? The question of why people eat too much is a lot more complicated.

“I have a condition that prevents me from going on a diet… I get hungry.”

In a nutshell, that sums up the real problem with dieting. What we eat is, in the long term, governed by our appetite. We can count calories and strictly measure our food intake in the short term, but our bodies have powerful feedback systems that work to keep our weight fixed. If you eat less, you get hungry. If you’re hungry for long enough, then sooner or later you’re going to snack. In the face of that, willpower is a limited resource.

The bad news is that you can’t achieve long term weight loss with a short term diet plan. You might have the idea that once you reach your target weight, you can return to more comfortable eating habits; but the reality is that once you do, you’ll start to put the weight back on again. The really bad news is that when people come off a calorie controlled diet, they tend to overcompensate by eating more than they did before - as though their bodies are trying to build up their energy stores in case another period of starvation comes along. The net result of dieting tends to be long term weight gain - on average dieters eventually gain back more than they lost in the first place.

So, here’s the challenge.

  1. Long term lifestyle change is needed for lasting results.

  2. If you’re hungry, sooner or later you’ll reach for that cookie.

Long term lifestyle change is hard. Anyone can go on a diet to get in shape for summer, or fit into that dress for a special occasion. But keeping it up month after month, year after year? That’s another problem entirely.

If you’re a weight class athlete, or a professional body builder, and what you’re looking for is a short term solution - a strict calorie controlled diet might work. At the top levels, it’s a necessity. But as a way of life, it’s flawed. And any plan that leaves you feeling tired, hungry or miserable isn’t sustainable.

”What’s the answer, then?”

Manage your hunger, not your food intake.

Not all calories are equal. By that, I don’t mean that some are “more nutritious” than others (although that’s true, it’s not the biggest factor here). I mean that some foods are much easier to overeat than others.

If you’re eating too many calories a day, then you’re going to have a problem - regardless of where they come from. That’s probably true whether you’re eating 4000 calories of spinach, or 4000 calories of M&Ms. But here’s the thing - I say “probably”, because I don’t know anyone who can actually eat 4000 calories of spinach in a day, even people who really like spinach. I can get through 4000 calories of M&Ms, and still have room for ice cream.

Likewise, it’s possible to lose weight while eating nothing but mars bars - providing you eat few enough of them. But you’ll be miserably hungry. Eat the same number of calories in chicken and vegetables, and you’ll be less so.

This is why all those “diet bars” that only have 99 calories, but the size and consistency of a polystyrene wafer, are such a terrible idea. Yes, they’re less than 100 calories each, but you’ll eat the whole twelve pack and then wonder what else you have left in the cupboard. They may be low calorie, but they’re energy dense - you can get through a lot of them without really noticing.

“Energy density” is an important thing to consider when it comes to food choices. An M&M is about the same size as a large pea, but contains almost ten times as much energy. Eat a few more peas than you intended to, and it’s unlikely to have much of an impact. An extra handful or two of M&Ms is a different matter.

”So, do you have a six week diet plan that I can buy?”

You’re not listening, are you? But now that you mention it… I sometimes joke with my friends that “the broccoli diet” could be the next big thing. Here’s the idea. You have to eat a kilo of broccoli every day, and then you can eat anything else you want.

I’ve not actually tried this, and I don’t recommend that you do - I reckon there might be a few uncomfortable side effects (at least for the people close to you). But the theory goes: by the time you’ve eaten a kilo of broccoli, you’re unlikely to feel much like overeating on anything else.

”What do you really recommend?”

I don’t like to be too prescriptive about this; if you’re the sort of person who likes very specific instructions then you should probably speak to a qualified dietician. But there are a few simple guidelines which I think go a long way.

Avoid sugar.

By that, I really mean added refined sugar - which is a spectacularly energy dense food. Throw it into a drink, for example, and you can get through several hundred calories without really feeling as though you’ve had anything at all. Heavily sweetened foods generally “feel” as though they’re less substantial than their calorie content would suggest. Fruit juices also count (because the sugars have been extracted from the pulp of the fruit); and so does honey, maple or agave syrup.

Avoid processed foods where possible.

Highly processed foods also tend to be energy dense. They are frequently high in refined simple carbohydrates and low in fibre, and easy to over-consume.

Eat more whole fruits and vegetables.

Whole fruits and vegetables contain fibre, and fibre is your friend when it comes to managing your appetite. Yes, they may contain some sugars, but because of the fibre that goes with it, your body is much less likely to underestimate it’s calorie content. Two large apples will fill you up better than a 200ml glass of apple juice. Eating more vegetables with a meal makes it less likely you’ll open the packet of biscuits mid-evening. Don’t like fruit and veg? Think about investing some effort in trying different varieties, and ways of preparing it. Developing a taste for them can really pay off.

Single ingredient shopping.

If you’re trying to change your lifestyle and lose weight, I reckon this is one of the best and easiest approaches to take. In simple terms, “single ingredient shopping” means that you only buy food that contains a single ingredient. (Allowing, perhaps, for a few exceptions.) You can eat whatever you like - providing you cook it from basics yourself. If you want chocolate cookies, that’s fine - but you’ll need to make them. Pasta? You’d better pick up some flour and eggs. For the majority of people, getting into this habit alone is enough to make a big difference to what they’re eating, which in turn affects how much they eat. We might find time to bake a carrot cake once in a while, but more often we’ll reach for an apple instead.

The difficulty with this approach is that a hectic schedule can make it hard to find time to cook, and if you’re rushing around and hungry, you’re more likely to think “sod it, I’ll just grab a flapjack or three”. Planning ahead can help; and try to have a back up option handy.

Go through your cupboards

I don’t keep biscuits in my house. That’s because as far as I’m concerned, biscuits only come in one serving size - by the packet. If they’re in the cupboard, I know that I’ll reach for them as soon as I get peckish, just because they’re there and it’s easy. Although there’s a shop just across the road that I could buy biscuits from any time, I probably won’t, because I don’t really want them that much. Most of us are fairly lazy when it comes to food. Most of the time we’ll go for the easiest available option. If it’s in your cupboard, odds are that you’re going to eat it sooner rather than later, regardless of what you’ve got written on your diet plan.

To recap

Losing weight is easy, but keeping it off is tough, because being hungry is something that you can tolerate in the short term while you’re working towards a goal, but is much more difficult to keep up indefinitely once you’ve got there.

If you want to weigh less, then you need to eat less - not just in the short term, but as a long term lifestyle change. Many people underestimate how hard this is.

Success comes down to managing your appetite and your hunger. That means also changing what you eat. Eating less of what you already eat will just leave you peckish and prone to snacking.

There are no easy answers. There are any number of weight loss plans and schemes and products, all of them promising amazing results with little effort (and if you buy before the end of January they’ll throw in a free unicorn). Yet all too often, people’s experience is of going from one diet plan to another, getting a few short term results before putting the weight back on, becoming discouraged and looking for another solution somewhere else.

We live in an environment where appetising, energy dense food is all around us and cheaply available. Lasting change is something that requires a continual investment of effort. Putting in place good habits will help; but temptation to slide back to the old habits will probably always be there.

”But I think people should love their bodies, and concentrate on what they can do, not on how much they weigh.”

I agree - which is another reason why I think short term calorie controlled dieting is a bad idea and perpetuates an unhealthy obsession with weight.

I wrote this article for people who, for whatever reason, do want to lose weight, but I think the same principles apply to general healthy eating. If your concern is to be fitter and healthier, then exercise is also going to have a big role to play - and that’s a whole other topic in its own right.

Disclaimer: this isn’t a referenced scientific article. It’s a rough attempt to make some sense of the overall picture. I’m trying to write something that is both broadly in line with the evidence, and actually helpful for people trying to lose weight. There’s a lot of complexity here that I’ve skipped over, and a lot of relevant physiology and psychology that I’ve not mentioned. I’ve aimed for the elephant in the room - from my perspective, the big reason why I see a lot of diets fail, and what you could try instead. It’s not, by any means, a complete account of the subject. Comments and criticisms are welcome, as always.

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