Losing weight may be simple, but it isn’t easy.
Over the past six months, I’ve lost about 35 pounds, mainly through changing my relationship with food.
From why you shouldn’t cut out carbs to why the number on the scale means very little, I’ve learned a lot about how to make fat loss sustainable along the way.
Here are seven of the most important lessons I’ve learned about healthy weight loss.
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Losing weight is, in theory, simple. But that doesn’t make it easy.
The vast majority of people, and women in particular, are always trying, or at the very least wishing, to lose some weight, no matter how much, for health or aesthetic reasons.
If it were as easy as it appears on paper — that is, take in less energy than you’re burning — the multibillion-dollar diet industry wouldn’t exist.
Whether it’s a reality-TV star peddling a bikini blitz workout DVD, an influencer plugging laxative teas, or a tabloid claiming to have come up with a diet plan that will see you losing 10 pounds in a week, supposed quick fixes are everywhere, because we all love the idea of putting in minimal effort and getting results fast.
But the truth is, none of these things work. There is no shortcut, and anything that results in rapid weight loss won’t be healthy or sustainable. You didn’t gain 10 pounds in a week, so how could you possibly lose it that quickly?
Over the past five months, I’ve lost nearly 35 pounds, or over 15 kilos.
Like many, my weight has fluctuated over my adult life, but at the end of 2018 I was the biggest and heaviest I’d ever been. I felt sluggish, hated shopping, and barely fit into any of my clothes (smocks were life), but I don’t think I realized quite how much weight I’d gained until I had a body scan at the end of November.
I’d put on 11 pounds, or 5 kilos, since I’d last weighed myself the previous July, and seeing the number on the scale was the wake-up call I needed.
There’s nothing wrong with gaining weight if you’re healthy, but I wasn’t, and my weight gain was a reflection of the fact that I wasn’t looking after myself.
The weight had crept up over the years, as it so often does. I will always love to eat and drink, but as a 20-something living in London, I’d lost all concept of moderation or balance, regularly binge-drinking and overeating.
My diet wasn’t necessarily unhealthy, and I was very active, but I was simply consuming far too much, frequently eating to the point of pain.
I had an unhealthy relationship with food and my body, and that’s what I decided I would consciously work on come the new year — might as well capitalize on the “new year, new me” vibe, after all.
Losing weight wasn’t my main incentive, but it was part of the overall lifestyle switch I’ve successfully made. And that’s what’s made this time different to every other time I’ve lost a few pounds.
It was time to start putting myself, my health, and my happiness first. No restrictive plans, no strict rules, no thinking of myself as being on a diet, but rather approaching it as a journey toward creating a healthier, happier, sustainable lifestyle.
And it worked.
As a lifestyle journalist with a focus on health, food, wellness, and fitness, I was already well informed about how to live a healthy lifestyle. But there’s still so much I’ve learned this year, from how to train to how to deal with saboteurs (both separate articles entirely).
But perhaps the most important changes I’ve made have been regarding my diet. So here are seven lessons I’ve learned about how to eat to lose weight sustainably.
1. Cutting out foods just results in bingeing.
Cutting bread, sugar, or anything else you enjoy out of your diet is not a good idea as you’ll only end up bingeing on it. Do you want to cut those delicious foods out forever? Didn’t think so.
While you may think you “can’t do” moderation (stopping after a few squares of chocolate and not eating the whole bar), you can if you stop demonizing the food. There’s no such thing as “good” and “bad” foods, although, yes, there are more and less nutrient-dense foods.
For me, it’s also helped to think of foods in terms of macros — are they a source of protein, carbs, or fats? So a bar of chocolate is a carb, just like a banana or oats, and they can all be part of a healthy diet.
If you love doughnuts, you don’t have to give them up forever to lose weight, and this can make them easier to resist when your colleague brings in a box of Krispy Kremes — you know what they taste like, you’ll eat doughnuts at a later point in your life, you don’t need to eat one just because they’re there. But at the same time, if you really want a donut, just eat one and enjoy it!
If you feel like you’re punishing yourself, it’s never going to work.
2. Working out won’t result in fat loss if you don’t also address your diet.
Before I changed my lifestyle, I already worked out four to five times a week, doing a mixture of weight-lifting, dance classes, and netball. I was also active in my day-to-day life, walking at least 14,000 steps a day. But I was still overweight.
The past six months have shown me how much truth there is in the adage, “You can’t out-train a bad diet.” Or, more specifically, a diet that simply involves consuming too much.
Working out is great for you in so many ways, and it certainly helps the fat-loss process (more on that another time), but if you think exercise alone is going to see your weight dropping off, you may be disappointed.
3. Upping your protein intake will help a lot.
It’s a complete myth that eating for fitness means plain chicken and broccoli with a protein shake on the side for every meal, but it’s true that keeping your protein intake up is important.
In fact, studies have shown that following a high-protein diet can help maintain muscle and boost metabolism, keep you feeling full when trying to lose weight, and reduce hunger.
“Eating a sufficient amount of protein when you’re losing weight is paramount in order to preserve lean muscle mass,” specialist registered dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine told INSIDER.
“Eating around 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight,” she said, “alongside resistance exercise, helps to maintain both muscle strength and metabolic rate” — the rate at which your body burns calories. “The digestion of protein also requires more calories in comparison to carbs and fat, and help to keep you feeling full too.”
I haven’t been counting macros, but I have been trying to eat at least 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of my bodyweight every day, and it hasn’t been even remotely painful, as there are lots of delicious ways to get your protein in (Greek yogurt, I’m looking at you).
4. Don’t fear fats — they’ll satisfy and keep you full.
We’re often told to eat complex carbs like whole-grain pasta and brown bread for slow-release energy and to keep us full between meals, but if you don’t ensure each meal has some fat too, you won’t be satiated and will be craving something else shortly after.
What’s more, eating fats are essential to our overall health.
“All macronutrients — carbs, protein, and fats — should be included as a part of a healthy and balanced diet, with some proteins and fats being essential to eat as without them our bodily simply couldn’t function. Essential amino acids as well as fatty acids need to be eaten as they cannot be made within the body,” Ludlam-Raine said.
“Fats in particular are essential in the diet as they help with hormonal function, vitamin absorption — A, D, E, K — and help to keep our hearts and blood vessels healthy.
“The predominant type of fat in our diet should be unsaturated, which is found in vegetables such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds, as well as oily fish.”
5. Cutting down on booze will make a huge difference.
While I’ve never had a drinking problem, London is a city that revolves around booze, so if you’re a sociable person you can find yourself drinking a lot just by being out and about. That was my life for a long time.
I did “Dry January” — going sober for the first month of the year — and felt so much better that I’ve drastically cut down my drinking since, and I have no doubt it’s helped me lose weight, not just because alcohol is so incredibly high in calories but because you always tend to eat more energy-dense foods both while drinking and the next day when you’re feeling somewhat worse for wear.
What’s more, drinking significantly less has definitely helped me get stronger and fitter. You don’t need to give up alcohol altogether if you want to lose weight, because if you enjoy a drink, that’s never going to be a sustainable way to live. But if you can cut down, it’ll help a lot.
6. The number on the scale means very little.
We all talk about “weight loss” and many of us have been conditioned to live and die by the scale. But, realistically, we should be aiming for “fat loss,” and the scale can’t measure that (even high-tech scales which claim to measure body fat percentages aren’t considered to be entirely reliable).
For women in particular, the number on the scale can vary wildly depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, when you last ate, and how big or salty that meal was (salt makes your body retain water), when you last went to the bathroom, and other factors.
You also have to remember that if you’re putting on muscle, that affects your weight too.
I’ve learned to detach myself from the number on the scale, seeing it as just one measurement of data and nothing more. Whether it’s gone up or down no longer affects my day, it merely allows me to see a general trend over months.
Instead of obsessing over the scale, take progress photos every month and log your body measurements using a tape measure.
7. Overall calorie deficit is what it comes down to, but it doesn’t need to be drastic.
Despite all the fad diets we’re bombarded with wherever we look, ultimately losing weight comes down to being in an energy deficit.
But you need to make sure that isn’t too drastic.
There are two reasons for that. First, if you cut your calories too low, your body will start burning your existing muscle as well as your fat, which isn’t what you want.
Then there’s the fact that living off 1,200 calories a day and being hungry all the time is horrible and unsustainable.
“Calories are king when it comes to weight loss, but it’s not quite as simple as ‘eat as few as possible,’ as our bodies don’t like to go without and will fight back by either ramping up appetite, which could lead to a binge, or by causing you to feel lethargic, which will cause you to burn fewer calories as you do less,” Ludlam-Raine said.
“A moderate daily deficit of 300 to 600 calories (created through a reduction in calories eaten and in addition to burning more through movement) is sufficient to burn 1/2 to 1 pound of body fat a week initially.”
The only way you’ll make lasting change is if you enjoy your lifestyle while you’re losing weight. Just try to make sure you’re eating a little bit less than you were before, the pounds will come off, and you won’t hate your life in the process.