It’s that time of year where social and traditional media are full of articles on weight loss – getting a ‘beach body’ or ‘burning fat’ and ‘toning up’ and ‘getting ripped’. In many cases, sadly, it’s about getting ‘ripped off’ (!) and there is truly very little evidence to justify buying creams and pills to help you lose weight. This article from Authority Nutrition has an excellent summary on the latest dieting supplements. The general consensus is that the benefits, if any, tend to be modest and there currently is no weight loss supplement or pill which truly works for weight loss. Mince alors! So what diet does work for weight loss?
Weight Loss is complicated
We-ll, says the no nonsense nutritionist in Paris, weight loss is complicated and certainly not as easy as ‘eat less and move more’ as many, many people will testify. Weight loss can seem like a hard, relentless and frustrating slog. And, the statistics indicate that *90% of people regain their weight within 3-4 years. Deep sigh. So if diets don’t work, what can you do instead? Here are a few thoughts and ideas which might help – a kinder, more realistic and effective way to manage your weight and your health.
Avoid gaining weight in the first place – aim to keep your weight within a 2-3 kg window.
Yes, I know, it seems brutally obvious and possibly not very helpful, but I honestly think it’s easier to aim to stay on top of your weight, rather than to let it steadily creep up. It’s that steady creep of 2-3 kilos a year over 10 years, which often results in people waking up in front of the mirror and wondering where those 20 kg came from! Five kilos is very roughly a dress size, so once that waist band starts to ‘bit’, it’s time to do something and no, buying the next size up is not the best option! Losing 5 kg is infinitely easier than having to lose 20 + kg. As for ideas to help your weight stay stable? Many people find that an ‘intermittent eating’ pattern is realistic. This means following a relatively healthy eating plan during the week, with slightly more relaxed weekends – a couple of glasses of wine, a meal out, a dessert. Another option is a lower carb approach, basing the majority of your meals around protein and lashings of vegetables, with the occasional slice of bread and pasta.
The best time in my opinion to weigh yourself is once a week, first thing in the morning. Women’s weight can fluctuate by 2-3 kg over the month, depending on water retention linked with the menstrual cycle, so don’t panic if it suddenly shoots up over night!
Avoid the Yo Yo
A study performed on post-menopausal women of normal weight found that the weight ‘yo yo’, a pattern of weight loss followed by weight gain, increased their risk of coronary heart disease by a whopping 66%. They did not find any additional risk for women who did not lose weight in the first place or for women who managed to lose the weight and keep it off. Why? Extreme weight fluctuations seem to increase stress hormones such as cortisol which in turn increase the risk of chronic inflammation. The burning question to ask yourself is whether your current weight puts you at a risk of chronic disease. If your body mass index is greater than 30, the answer is probably yes. If, however, your BMI is below 30 and you want to lose weight, you should ideally aim to a) simply set a goal of not gaining further weight or b) aim to lose weight and keep the weight off permanently.
Be aware of your set point
There is evidence to support the set point theory of weight control. This suggests that adults tend to have a relatively constant weight (with about a 2-5 kg window) determined both by their genes and their environment, provided, (and this is a big provision!) they eat a relatively varied and healthy diet. There’s a complex cycle of hormones and neurotransmitters which control appetite and metabolism, the rate at which we burn energy. The evidence then suggests that ‘bad diets’ seem to disturb this natural weight regulation cycle, and sadly, it is very easy to then ‘reset’ the set point higher, particularly if weight is gained steadily over a long period of time, but it is very difficult to ‘reset’ the set point lower. For example:
A’s set point is 70 kg, after 3 stressful months at work, the weight has crept up to 75 kg. A decides to lose weight and get back to 70 kg. It should be relatively easy for A to lose these 5 kg as the body’s set point is below the current weight and so their hormones/neurotransmitters will work to reduce appetite and increase metabolism to help A lose these 5 kg.
B’s set point is 70 kg and he currently weighs 65 kg. His hormones/neurotransmitters will start to increase his appetite and slow down his metabolism so B can gain weight and get back to his set point of 70 kg.
Back to A, over a period of 10 years, they gain 10 kg and their current weight is now 80 kg and they’ve also managed to reset their set point upwards to 80 kg. The problem is that A now wants to get back to 70 kg. It’s going to be hard as their body will fight them every step of the way – increasing their appetite and slowing their metabolic rate. Yes, A could try and bulldoze through it, but the issue is then going to be maintaining this new weight.
Be kind to yourself
We are our own worst critics! Constantly putting pressure on yourself to lose weight and feeling guilty for having ‘bad’ days, ecstatic when you have ‘good days’ and shaking with fear when you get on the scales, is not healthy for either your physical or mental health. In the ‘shouty me me world’ of social media world, it easy to get drawn into the quest for the next big diet or a new workout plan. I’d suggest focusing on doing things which quite simply make you feel good. Aim not to deprive or punish yourself, but put the focus on nourishing yourself. Find what works for you!
Build healthy Habits
This then leads nicely on to the last point. The body is an incredible machine and will run perfectly on a balanced and varied diet. Your diet does not need ultra-healthy all the time! It’s also important to underline that a healthy diet, even in the absence of any weight loss, helps to improve your overall health. Isn’t it then more logical to eat for your health rather than strict weight loss?! The key pillars of a healthy diet are not complicated – eat as many vegetables as you can, enjoy water as your main drink, try and vary your diet as much as possible so you cover all the food groups and respect your meal times rather than constantly snacking. Keep it simple and make sure it works for you! If you hate cooking, pick up a ready made meal and simply add a packet of salad to it. If you run out of time for food shopping, stock up your freezer with frozen vegetables. If you really dislike vegetables, try and find ways of eating them which work for you, such as starting your meal with a bowl of vegetable soup.
Behaviour change requires intrinsic motivation in the first place (ie you need to be motivated yourself, not because someone has told you to do it!). Then you need to replace the old behaviour with a new one. For example, if you come home after work desperate for a glass (or four!) of wine, replace the wine with a large glass of sparkling water and give yourself 5 minutes of downtime to get rid of the stress of the working day. Recognise the reward of this behaviour, which might well be waking up with more energy and a clearer head. Then, you need to repeat and reinforce this new behaviour so it becomes a routine ie during the week you drink sparkling water and the bottle of wine is only cracked open on a Friday night!
*Cadena-Schlam, L and Lopez-Guimera, G. (2015) ‘Intuitive Eating: An emerging approach to eating behaviour’, Nutricion Hospitalaria, 31, pp. 995-1002.