Updated: May 24
A combination of multiple lockdowns restricting our movements and then Christmas New Year season in the middle of that has left a few of us (me included) carrying a little more weight than we were so here are a few things to be aware of if you are also looking to lose some weight.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ diet. It’s strange that we accept and appreciate that everyone has different preferences when it comes to things like music and fashion, we never say to people ‘I dress like this so you should dress exactly the same way’ and yet with diets and food that’s people tend to do. Everyone is individual in lots of ways that will affect how a diet may or may not work: tastes, preferences (such as vegetarianism) lifestyle, body type, family traditions and commitments. I would encourage everyone to get curious and be willing to try different things, but always filter with questions like “how well would this work for me? Can I see myself adopting this long term?”.
Most of us who want to lose weight want to keep it off for the long term so I would caution to be prepared that the initial stages might feel slow. Taking two to three weeks to figure out habits that you can work with long term is worth the frustration of perhaps not seeing results straightaway. After all, ‘Easy come, easy go’.
The body needs to be in a calorie deficit. How you get that is down to personal preference but any diet type can work if adhered to.
Not losing weight is a sign that you are probably not in a calorie deficit.
Restricting calories can result in the body subconsciously moving less. So bringing your energy output down in line with your energy input. You might inadvertently be consuming more calories than you realise. Human memory is not always reliable, for instance, at the end of the day when you're deciding whether to have that extra something you may have forgotten something from earlier in the day. Tracking intake, either by using an app or a piece of paper, can help but will work best if you write things down as you go through the day.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Including lots of fruit and vegetables in the diet is beneficial as they have lots of vitamins and minerals and micro-nutrients that the body needs to help keep you healthy and well. Plant foods also have a high water and fibre content which makes them really filling. Typically lower in calories than some other foods they are generally ‘good value for calories’ as well as being inexpensive and easily available.
All the macronutrients, carbohydrates, fats and protein, are important in the diet. For weight and fat loss consuming sufficient protein is especially helpful. Protein can help with feeling full and satisfied after a meal and is important in helping the body recover from workouts and maintain muscle mass even in a calorie deficit.
The recommended amounts can vary depending on goals and but for general health and fitness aim for 20g-30g of protein 3-4 times per day. Foods such as meat, fish, eggs are high in protein but bread and things like baked beans have a decent amount too (note: 30g of chicken will not equal 30g of protein, so always double check labels!).
It’s important to note that ‘weight loss’ and ‘fat loss’ are not exactly the same thing. In a highly restrictive calorie deficit the body is likely to be losing muscle mass as well as fat as it prefers to hang on to fat stores. Regular resistance training, adequate protein intake, and a moderate (rather than severe) calorie deficit helps preserve muscle mass so that any weight loss is more likely to come from fat stores.
Sleep, Stress, Hydration
Three non-food factors that can make a difference to how successful weight loss attempts will be:
Feeling hungrier and less satisfied after a meal on a day following a bad night’s sleep might be familiar. Being under slept (less than 7-9 hours every night) has been shown to affect hormones related to appetite and feelings of fullness after a meal, meaning you might unintentionally eat more, so it’s worth focusing some effort on improving sleep quality.
Being stressed can also affect weight loss, this might also be a hormonal response (it’s thought that cortisol which is triggered in stressful situations is related to increased abdominal fat) or a behavioural response (some people will use food or alcohol as a coping mechanism, although not all, some people may eat less when stressed).
Hydration is a factor as it can help with feelings of fullness, and being well hydrated may affect metabolic function, i.e. triggering the body to convert stored energy (fat) into fuel to be used.
Exercise and Fat Loss
Muscle is more ‘metabolically demanding’ than fat. So the body uses more energy maintaining 1 lb of muscle than it does maintaining 1 lb of fat. This is why very low calorie diets trigger muscle loss as well as fat loss and why good PTs will recommend resistance exercises as part of a fat loss plan. The more muscle a person has the higher their daily maintenance calorie intake will need to be so working on keeping the muscles big and strong helps boost metabolism. Two to three workouts a week working all the major muscle groups (legs, chest, back) is plenty.
Cardiovascular exercises (walking, running, dancing) are also helpful, for health reasons and, because they help burn energy. However, they only burn extra energy while you are actually doing them and when you stop moving the body returns to baseline level. Many factors affect the amount of energy used during a workout, including individual body composition, duration and intensity of the workout. Longer duration and higher intensity workouts (think running or spin class) will use more energy but these can also cause stress to the body, especially if done to excess, so it is important to include a variety of workout intensities in your week.
Yoga and pilates, low intensity exercise, may also be helpful for fat loss but this is most likely due to the benefits of helping to reduce stress and improve sleep quality. These do also help keep muscles strong.
Nutrition is not my area of expertise and the guidance that PT's can give is limited to general advice so if you are curious to learn more I highly recommend checking out the Precision Nutrition website where there is a load of great free content.