January is the most common time of year for people to try to lose weight. Between the extra eating over the holiday season and New Year’s resolutions lots of us are looking for effective ways to slim down.
At the same time it may be harder than ever to lose weight, for two reasons. First, the processed food industry continues to add excessive calories to our food (see my previous post on avoiding fat, sugar and salt). Second, the diet industry aggressively markets solutions that are profitable for business owners but which provide little or no benefit to its customers.
To understand why most commercial weight loss programs don’t work it’s important to remember that our weight is determined by how many calories we take in and how many calories we burn. If we eat and drink more calories than we need for basic bodily functions and to move around, we gain weight; if our nutritional intake is less than our needs, we lose weight.
Dieting focuses on changing what we take in. Those who market specific diets to lose weight generally promote these concepts:
- Certain foods or food combinations will accelerate our basic metabolism and lead us to burn off more calories than when we eat our customary diet. There is no research evidence to support such claims.
- Calories aren’t all created equal so we can lose weight by changing how much of our diet is made of up of each “macronutrient” – fat, protein or carbohydrate. However, an analysis from September 2014 that combined 48 earlier studies (http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1900510 ) showed that there was no meaningful difference between low-fat or low-carb diets in achieving weight loss.
- Using manufactured meal replacements composed of a low-calorie but balanced mix of nutrients can yield safe and healthy weight loss. While this claim is true the problem lies with maintaining the weight loss when the person resumes eating normal food. Calorie intake almost invariably rises and with it the person’s weight.
Enough about what doesn’t work. What does?
Essentially, finding a way to lower our caloric intake while not feeling hungry or deprived of food.
A new way to do that comes from a study published in February 2015: it involves increasing the proportion of dietary fibre in your food. That’s effective because little of the dietary fibre we eat can be converted into nutrients we can absorb, meaning that it fills our stomach without adding calories. Vegetables and legumes (dried beans and lentils) are the foods with the highest fibre content.
But last year’s study is an exception because it involves changing what we eat. In contrast, most recent nutritional research focuses on ways to limit how much we eat. Three key tactics to control intake are:
- Prepare meal plates away from the table instead of placing food platters, casseroles etc. within reach so eaters don’t have easy access to second helpings
- Serve food on smaller plates because when people eat identically-sized portions on large or small plates they report feeling more satisfied when the portion is on the smaller one
- Eat only from a plate and only at the table – no grazing from the fridge and cupboard and no eating food from the packaging, both of which prevent us from accurately judging how much we’re taking in
Beyond implementing ways that you serve your meals, additional strategies to help lose weight need to focus on reducing our food and drink’s caloric content, getting adequate sleep and exercise and satisfying our hunger impulses. Ten strategies to achieve that are:
- The battle for what you eat at home is won or lost at the grocery store; what you don’t buy you can’t eat
- Avoid restaurants and their excessive portions; when you do eat out learn to feel okay about leaving your plate unfinished
- Don’t drink your calories – avoid soda and juices and make water your primary liquid
- Speaking of water, drink plenty of it and try to drink a glass before a meal to help feel full
- Eat breakfast – skipping it leads to greater total daily food intake
- Make your evening meal lighter and don’t eat after supper
- Get enough sleep – reduced sleep leads to weight gain
- Exercise, knowing that 30 minutes of walking each day is all you need (see Exercise benefits: The best treatment that money can’t buy)
- Eat slowly to give your body time to send the signal that you’ve eaten enough
- Don’t keep eating until you’re full; try eating just until you’re no longer hungry
Giving the advice on how to lose weight is easy; the hard part is disciplining ourselves to take the steps that I’ve listed here.
But if we limit our portions, make it harder to gain access to extra helpings and snacks, reduce our intake of high-calorie processed foods, and add some additional exercise and sleep, then most of us should be able to meet our weight loss goals.