Christmas is a time for friends, family and more often that not, overindulgence. And that’s great, but by the time New Year arrives you’re ready to make a change.
Losing weight is usually at the top of most people’s New Year resolutions. You may be tempted to try and kick start your weight loss by following a strict eating regime or by going onto the latest fad diet.
But if you want long term success, it’s probably the worst thing you can do.
Numerous studies have shown that the majority of people who lose weight through dieting, will put that weight back on. Sometimes you’ll put a little bit extra on, just to really kick you in the nuts.
Society is obsessed with short term results and wanting things now. Whether it is making money, losing weight or building muscle we’ve become brainwashed through marketing and social media to expect results straight away.
And that’s a problem. Because this makes people more susceptible to so called miracle diets, magic pills and more weird shit than you’d have found in Michael Jackson’s bathroom cabinet.
Thousands of Diets, One Big Problem
There are hundreds, if not thousands of diets out there. A quick search on Google will bring up the Atkins Diet, the Paleo Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Caveman Diet or my personal favourite the Cabbage Soup Diet.
Mmm cabbage soup. What could be better than living off of cabbage soup?
One of the biggest issues I have with the claims these diets make is this:
Weight loss does not equal fat loss.
The goal of any diet should be fat loss. But yet when you see claims of “lose 10lbs in 7 days”, this rarely ever means 10lbs of fat loss.
So if it’s not fat loss, what the hell is it?
Lets take the Cabbage Soup Diet as an example. I chose the cabbage soup diet because it’s quite simply insane. But if you’re desperately wanting to lose body fat, you’re willing to give anything a go.
The cabbage soup diet is very low in sodium as you’re not allowed to use salt. This means that a big chunk of the weight you end up losing will be water weight. As soon as you go back to a normal diet, you’ll put that weight back on in a matter of days.
As with most ridiculous diets like this, there’s often some unwelcome side effects. These can include light headedness, weakness and decreased concentration. And this isn’t coming from some crazy person on a forum, it’s on their OWN website!
So after a week of painfully dull food, depriving your body of important nutrients and dizziness, you don’t actually lose very much fat.
And surely that’s what you want to lose when you go on a diet. Not water, not muscle, fat.
The One Reason All Diets Work
Let’s imagine that you’ve been on the cabbage soup diet for a week and you’ve seen 10lbs of weight loss. We know it’s mainly water weight but you’re not to know this.
Thrilled with the weight loss, you decide to continue fighting the hunger and stay on the diet for a few more weeks.
What’s going to happen over the next few weeks? Well now the weight loss you see on the scales will be fat loss, and possibly a little bit of muscle too.
The reason this happens is the same reason that all diets work, you’re in a calorie deficit. Despite all the weird and wacky diets out there, you won’t find one that suggests you consume more calories than you burn.
Numerous studies have proven that in order to lose weight, you need to consume less calories than your body burns. From a scientific point of view, it doesn’t matter where those calories come from.
Back in 2010, a professor called Mark Haub lost 27 pounds in 2 months by restricting his diet to 1,800 calories a day. This was a reduction of around 800 calories a day to what he was consuming prior to the experiment. Nothing too surprising about those results you may think.
What did surprise a lot of people, was what made up those 1,800 calories. Around two thirds of what Mark was consuming each day was junk food. Twinkies, Doritos and Oreos were all part of his daily diet together with a protein shake, a multivitamin and a few vegetables.
Whilst I’d never condone copying Mark’s diet, it does illustrate that calories are king when it comes to weight loss.
So when someone starts pushing the next crazy diet in your direction, the elimination of certain foods or even an entire macronutrient isn’t why it works, it’s the reduction in calories you’re consuming.
Where it All Goes Wrong
Sticking rigidly to a diet is tough and there’s a couple of major challenges you face when you’re on one.
The first and most immediate challenge is being able to control your hunger. If you’ve gone onto a diet that severely restricts your calorie intake, you’ll how crippling that feeling of hunger can be.
When you’re overwhelmed by hunger you’ll find that your concentration plummets and you end up becoming pretty damn miserable.
But why does this happen?
Over time our bodies become accustomed to having a certain level of calories each day. When you drastically reduce this, your body will increase its release of appetite hormones.
Our bodies want to maintain homeostasis, which means that it will try to work against your attempts to reduce weight.
Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that we didn’t have such an abundance of food available to us 24/7. Our caveman ancestors certainly didn’t have the luxury of eating 3 large meals a day, every day.
They’d often go days or even weeks at a time without a big meal before feasting on an animal they’d hunted. A lean caveman probably wouldn’t of had the best chance of surviving a cold winter!
Through years of eating and exercising habits, our bodies become accustomed to maintaining a certain size. It certainly doesn’t give a shit that you want to look better on the beach or feel more confidence when you take your clothes off.
The other huge challenge with sticking rigidly to a diet is consistency.
When something is new and exciting, it’s quite easy to stay disciplined. But once the novelty wears off and your willpower begins to wane, you begin to realise how unsustainable a heavily restrictive diet is.
This is especially true if you don’t actually enjoy the foods you have to eat. How many people do you know that’ve gone onto something like a juice diet that are still on it now?
Chances are they did it for a few weeks before having a huge binge on all of the bad foods they swore they’d never have again. Then the guilt kicks in a bit further down the line and they go onto the next crazy diet.
This is yo-yo dieting hell. There are people that can find themselves here for years or even decades. It’s hardly a surprise that a lot of these people end up developing a bad relationship with food.
Finding a way to avoid the ‘all of nothing’ mentality to food is a much more enjoyable and sustainable place to be.
A Step in the Right Direction
I could dedicate a whole article to what a more sustainable strategy to weight loss looks like, but here are a few important principles that will help you get on the right track.
We already know that calories are the most important element to weight loss. Therefore any approach to eating that aims to help you lose fat must put you in a caloric deficit.
If you want a very rough guide as to how many calories your body burns each day, multiply your bodyweight in pounds by between 10 and 12. An active muscular man would multiply their weight by 12 whilst a fairly inactive woman would multiply by 10.
Eat whole foods
Cutting out a lot of the highly processed junk food will make a huge difference to how you look, feel and perform on a daily basis. Often these foods are packed with sugar, lack fibre and contain way more calories than you’d expect.
These are often the type of foods that you can keep shovelling into your mouth, even when you feel full. Whole foods on the other hand are actually quite difficult to overeat as they leave you feeling satisfied and are full of fibre.
Fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and healthy oils are all great things to have in a diet. Aim to get around 80% of your diet from these food types and allow yourself to have an occasional treat from time to time.
Eat foods you enjoy
As we discussed earlier, one of the key reasons people struggle to maintain a restrictive diet is because it’s unsustainable. What good is a diet if you don’t enjoy the foods that you’re eating?
There’s a huge variety of foods out there and everyone has their own personal preferences and tastes. Work out which foods you enjoy the most out of the food types mentioned above and create meals that you actually look forward to.
Even if you have quite a narrow taste in foods, you can experiment by using different spices, herbs and seasoning to give you a bit more variety.
It seems such an obvious point to make but so many diets seem to ignore this. It shouldn’t be about being super restrictive but having an enjoyable and flexible approach to eating.
Consume More Protein
Whilst the vast majority of your regular gym-goers rarely fail to under consume protein, for the rest of the population it’s a different story.
Ensuring that you get enough protein will help you to feel satisfied after your meal. And if you’re feeling full, you’re far less likely to wolf down an unhealthy desert or snack an hour later.
Consuming enough protein will also ensure that you don’t begin losing muscle when the weight begins to come off.
I’ve left tracking to the end as I believe most people will find that they make progress without it. But if you’re still struggling to see any positive changes, it’s a great way to see where you’re potentially going wrong.
Tracking foods used to be a real pain, but thankfully there’s a number of great apps that make it easy. I personally use MyFitnessPal as you can scan the barcode of what you’re consuming and it will pull up all of the nutritional information.
It also does a great job of showing how your calories are broken down between meals and how much of each macronutrient you’re consuming.
Losing weight and improving your diet shouldn’t be about how fast you can lose weight over the first couple of weeks or months. Just like anything else in health and fitness, you need to view this as a marathon not a sprint.
Even if your eating habits are way off track, don’t try to change everything at once. Just begin implementing one change at a time rather than overwhelming yourself. This will help you to avoid the ‘all or nothing’ approach of most diets.
Don’t put yourself under pressure by giving yourself unrealistic targets and timescales. In fact, I wouldn’t even worry about what the scales say initially. What’s more important is you start implementing the habits that will help bring a long-term change.
Once those habits become ingrained you’ll find that not only will the weight start to come off, but you’ll feel better and perform better as well. Everyday life will become easier and you’ll have more energy to dedicate to the things matter most.