There’s no denying it, weight loss is a hot topic! With so much information out there about what’s effective, it can be baffling to understand what could really work for you. This article sets out some evidence based tips that provide a good basis for planning weight loss.
I’m not an advocate in calorie counting per se, however an awareness of calories in different foods and how calories affect weight management can be a vital tool! Most effective weight loss plans involve reducing calorie intake so that intake is less than calories burned through physical activity. The recommended deficit in calorie intake vs calories burned for achieving weight loss is 600 kcal per day (1). Therefore if we are in weight maintenance, introducing changes that will add up to a reduction of 600 kcal calories consumed (or equivalent increase in calories burned), is likely to achieve the deficit needed.
It can be helpful to have a small number of goals to follow as part of your weight loss plan (1).
Often weight loss programmes recommend a SMART goal approach; meaning the most effective goals are: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time framed (2). For example, a SMART goal for physical activity could be: ‘I will walk in the park for 30 minutes three times a week’. Using SMART goals has the advantage that we can easily monitor whether we have achieved them or not. Also, they can be adjusted if new would like to increase the intensity of a goal, or if we find that a goal is unachievable/unrealistic. It is important to set goals that are realistic for you. In addition, it’s worth setting say 3-4 goals that will add up to achieving the overall calorie deficit of 600 kcal per day, to achieve the energy balance required for weight loss.
It’s really important to have a realistic target weight loss in mind when planning to lose weight. A realistic target can help to plan goals that are likely to achieve your aim, and avoid disappointment at not being able to achieve an unrealistic target. The down side of having an unrealistic target, such as achieving dramatic weight loss quickly, is that achieving it tends to require drastic changes that are not sustainable in the long term; so once these changes are stopped, the weight goes back on. Much better to introduce realistic, sustainable changes that are achievable and can be continued in the longer term.
Evidence suggests that, with a 600 kcal/day calorie deficit (see above), weight loss of 0.5 – 1.0 kg (1-2 lbs) per week and/or 5-10 % weight loss over 3-6 months, is realistic and achievable (3).
Even in a healthy, balanced diet, if our portion sizes are too big, this will still lead to excess calorie intake (4,5). For healthy eating, for a main meal the recommended portion sizes are:
In weight loss, to achieve a calorie deficit try aiming for the following adjustment in portion sizes:
The portion control approach has the bonus that we don’t have to deprive ourselves of any particular food group! The calorie reduction comes from reducing the complex starch and protein portions, which are more calorie dense, and filling up on vegetables, which will also help to make us feel full after eating.
Building in regular physical activity, or increasing your current level, is a great way to manage your weight. Often those who include exercise in a weight loss plan find results come more easily. Try to find something that you enjoy and can build into your lifestyle. This will be different for everyone, but examples include walking, an exercise or dance class, an online exercise video, cycling, gym, or gardening. It is recommended for adults to do at least 30 minutes of moderate or greater intensity activity at least five days a week, which can be done in one session, or broken down into sessions of at least 10 minutes or more (1).
As well as burning fat and enhancing muscle tone, exercise is also known to increase the resting metabolic rate, which refers to the calories burned while not engaging in activity (6). In addition, physical activity will have a direct impact upon controlling blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose (7,8), meaning that increasing exercise will independently reduce your long term risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as manage your weight! (7,8).
Increasing your intake of fruit and vegetables is a great strategy in weight management. The fibrous structure of these foods means that when we consume them in a meal with other foods, the overall amount of fat and sugar absorbed is reduced (9). It’s therefore worth consuming some with every meal.
Although fruit and vegetables are made of carbohydrates, because of their high water and fibre content, they generally weigh less per gram compared to other starchy carbohydrates (such as bread and pasta), so they are relatively low in calories. This means that we can fill up on them, which helps us to feel full without leading to excess calorie intake.
Aim for the recommended ‘5 a day’ as a minimum, but if it is realistic for you then increase this for enhanced benefits.
I can’t stress this highly enough! Studies have found that a regular meal pattern, especially including breakfast, is associated with reduced levels of obesity and overweight (10, 11). The benefits of regular meals for weight control may occur due to improved appetite regulation (12, 13), as well as through beneficial effects on metabolism, for example leading to more efficient burning of calories throughout the day. As a rough guide, it’s worth aiming for at least three meals per day including breakfast, and try not to leave gaps of more than four hours between meals.
Some people skip meals, even only eating once per day. This can lead to problems, as it may result in fewer calories burned during the day, as well and more intense hunger, making us more likely to consume high calorie snacks and larger meals.
Label reading can be an excellent way to learn about choosing healthier foods that will help you to manage your intake of fat, sugar and calories, and therefore manage your weight. Many foods now contain traffic light labels red on packaging, which are often thought to be the easiest to interpret. Generally foods with red label colouring for fat and/or sugar will be high in these nutrients, therefore higher in calories. These are best to be cut down on. Labels with green or amber colours for fat/sugar are generally healthier choices and will help you to manage your weight better.
Many of us focus on foods as our main source of calories, however it can be surprising how much sugar can be found in some popular soft drinks! For example, did you know that a 500 ml sports/energy drink and can of cola contain nine teaspoons of sugar! These are just a couple of examples! It is known that calories from sugary drinks (compared to solid foods) are less well detected by the body, and therefore can add to our calorie intake without the body registering them and adjusting appetite and further intake accordingly (14). It’s worth checking how much sugar is in a bottle/can of soft drinks when choosing by looking at the label (5 g = 1 teaspoon). Choosing ‘low sugar’, ‘no added sugar’ or ‘diet’ drinks can be a very effective way to reduce your calorie intake and manage your weight.
All of the food groups (eg fat, protein, carbohydrate, and dairy) are an important part of a healthy diet , and each has a role to play in maintaining our health. Many studies have found that the key factor in achieving weight loss is calorie restriction, regardless of whether this is through restricting carbs, fat or a combination of both (15). This means that balanced eating can be maintained in weight loss by focussing on reducing portion sizes, so that we can still include small amounts of ‘treats’ such as chocolate, biscuits, etc. Avoiding food groups altogether (eg cutting out carbs ) can have adverse consequences. These include the detrimental health impact of missing out on the nutrients in a food group (16) and increased cravings for certain foods, which means people can find that it’s unsustainable to maintain such an unbalanced approach (17).
Balanced eating can be more achievable and effective in the long run!
Maintaining a calorie deficit may not be sustainable in the long term and often people find that their weight reaches a plateau after a period of weight loss (18). It is worth building in a longer term weight maintenance strategy to plan how you will sustain the weight loss you have achieved and avoid re-gaining weight when you stop weight loss strategies. For example you may decide to aim for weight loss of 0.5 – 1 kg per week for 6 months, achieving 5-10 % weight loss, and then aim for weight maintenance for the next 6 months. In weight maintenance, we aim to consume equal calories to what we burn off (19). It may be necessary to continue some specific diet related goals to avoid going back to an eating pattern that leads to calorie intake exceeding expenditure. This could be achieved through a healthy eating approach. For example, weight maintenance strategies could include maintaining regular physical activity, following ‘healthy eating’ portion sizes, aiming for regular meals and continuing to avoid sugary drinks.
There has been much attention on added sugars in the media recently, however reducing your fat intake is a very effective method for losing weight (14). This is because fat in food has more than twice the calories per gram (9 kcal/g) compared to the other macronutrients (carbohydrate and protein both contain 4 kcal/g). This means that even small amounts of fat will be relatively high in calories, therefore cutting down on this nutrient and avoiding excess fat intake can have a huge impact and is essential for weight control as part of a balanced diet.
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