Don't Wait to Manage your Weight

An interesting scientific study says losing weight is harder than we think – but here’s how to make it work in your favour.

We know why it’s important to maintain a healthy weight. An easy way to see if you’re in the healthy range is to measure your body mass index, or BMI (try the nifty calculator at the bottom of this article). If you want to reach a healthier weight, then conventional wisdom is simple – cut 500 calories each day and lose half a kilo (about a pound) a week.

But actually, a scientific study by Hall et al (2011) published in the Lancet acknowledges, as do many experts, that this rule of thumb is oversimplified. For a start it doesn’t account for the body's slowing metabolism as the kilos pile on, making it harder to shift weight. Plus, we’re all unique; depending on our body’s composition of fat and muscle, we’ll lose weight at different speeds. So the conventional ‘rule’ can actually overestimate weight loss, leading us to give up more quickly because we think our hard work isn’t paying off. Plus, the study adds, weight loss eventually plateaus – you can't just keep on losing it steadily forever, or there'd be nothing left of you!

Plus, drastic cuts in your diet or yo-yo dieting can push your body into starvation mode. A study of 50 overweight people by the University of Melbourne (2011) showed that reverting to normal meals after stopping a very low-calorie diet meant the participants’ hormones started to work overtime, and their bodies clung onto fat cells. Plus it made them feel hungrier and more preoccupied with food than before.

Don't despair. Studies like these are good news –they tell us what works. At the start, yes, you’ll need to eat less, but you don’t have to crash diet. You can build small changes and easy swaps into your life instead.

  • Follow the principles of a balanced diet and you can’t go far wrong. Load up half your plate with veg, salad and fruit, and split the other half between foods containing protein and healthy fats like lean meat and fish or pulses, nuts and seeds, and wholegrain carbs such as brown rice, quinoa, oats or rye. Kick processed foods into touch.
  • Watch out for low-fat foods: they’re often high in sugar so they don’t taste of cardboard, and sugar gets converted to fat.
  • Relax around food: it’s okay to enjoy it! Healthy eating isn’t about banning foods. Just eat them less often and in smaller quantities – following portion sizes on packets, for instance. Eat enough (like two healthy snacks between meals), so you don’t eat rubbish.
  • Get your 150 minutes of exercise a week, whether it's Zumba, walking to work or weekend runs. Building muscle through weights burns more calories. Exercise can stimulate appetite so whip up something healthy and quick after a workout – like a veggie stirfry with tofu or chicken.

Interestingly, Hall et al’s study showed that, even after returning to a high-calorie diet, the weight loss effects of eating less can continue for a few months. Unfortunately, participants who thought they’d found a magic bullet eventually re-gained weight. So make sure you stick to healthy eating, even when the going is good!

Ultimately, it's easier to stay, rather than become, healthy. But it’s possible either way – and the process is gradual. You need to stick with it. The origin of the word diet is the Greek diaita: it means physical and mental health, and how what we eat can enhance our wellbeing. It's not complicated, it's not nasty, it’s a change for life. The good life.

NHS BMI calculator

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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