12 Evidence-based tips to help you lose weight!

By Helen Dady, BSc (Hons), Msc, RD.

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.

1.Awareness of Calories!

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.

2. Realistic Goals!

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.

3. Realistic Health Goals

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).

4. Portion size is key!

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:

  • 1/3 plate starchy carbohydrate (eg pasta, rice, potato, cous cous)
  • 1/3 plate protein (eg meat, fish, lentils, pulses etc)
  • 1/3 vegetables

In weight loss, to achieve a calorie deficit try aiming for the following adjustment in portion sizes:

  • ¼ plate starchy carbohydrate
  • ¼ plate protein
  • ½ plate vegetables

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.

5. Exercise- feel the burn!

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).

6. Up the fruit and vegetables

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.

Dine Fruits On White Background

7. Eat regularly!

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.

8. Check out food labels!

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.

9. Cut down on sugary drinks!

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.

10. Try not to exclude certain food groups!

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!

11. Have long-term goals!

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.

12.  Cut down on fat!

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.

Strategies for reducing your fat intake include:

  • Reduce added fats: try to reduce the amount of fats such as butter, margarine and oils added in cooking and preparing food.  As a rule, aim for no more than 1 teaspoon of added fats per meal to avoid excess intake.
  • Choose low fat dairy foods: a simple change such as replacing full fat dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheese) with lower fat products will help achieve a reduction in your calorie intake and assist with weight control. This change will also reduce intake of saturated fats  found in animal products, lowering blood cholesterol and therefore the risk of developing heart disease (7).
  • Choose lean proteins such as lean meat, poultry without skin, fish, egg, lentils and pulses.
  • Lentils and pulses  are lower in calories and fat than meat, and are high in fibre so make us feel full up. They are also a low GI food, which means that they can help to control blood glucose and reduce the risk of diabetes.  Try using lentils/pulses as a substitute for meat in casseroles and stews.

Useful Links:


(1): National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (2014) Obesity: identification, assessment and management: NICE guidelines [CG189]. Available at:  https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg189/chapter/1-recommendations  [last accessed 21/5/16].

(2): Department of Health (2013) Developing a specification for lifestyle weight management services: best practice guidelines for tier 2 services. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/142723/Weight_Management_Service_Spec_FINAL_with_IRB.pdf  [last accessed 21/5/16].

(3): National Obesity Observatory (2010)  Treating adult obesity through lifestyle change interventions: A briefing paper for commissioners. Available at: http://www.noo.org.uk/uploads/doc/vid_5189_Adult_weight_management_Final_220210.pdf  [last accessed 21/5/16].

(4): Ello-Martin, J. A., Ledikwe, J. H. & Rolls, B. J. (2005) The influence of food portion size and energy density on energy intake: implications for weight management. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82 (1); 2365-2415.

(5):  Rolls, B. J. (2014) What is the role of portion control in weight management?  International Journal of Obesity 38 (Suppl 1); S1-S8.

(6): Miles, L. (2007) Physical activity and health. Nutrition Bulletin 32; 314-363.

(7): Department of Health (2011) Start active, stay active: A report on physical activity for health from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers.  Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/216370/dh_128210.pdf  [last accessed 21/5/16].

(8): Joint British Societies 3 Board (2014) Joint British Societies’ consensus recommendations on the prevention and management of cardiovascular disease (JBS3). Heart 100; ii1-ii67.

(9): Threapleton, D. E. et al (2013) Dietary fibre intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: systematic review and meta analysis. British Medical Journal  347; f6879.

(10): Mela, D.J. (2001) Determinants of Food Choice: Relationships with Obesity and Weight Control. Obesity Research 9 (4); 249S-254S.

(11): Timlin, M.T. & Pereira, M.A. (2007) Breakfast frequency and quality in the etiology of adult obesity and chronic diseases. Nutrition Reviews 65; 268–281

(12): Farshchi, H.R., Taylor, M.A. & Macdonald, I.A. (2005)  Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and fasting lipid profiles in healthy obese women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81 (1); 16-24.

(13): Benelam, B. (2009) Satiation, satiety and their effects on eating behaviour. Nutrition Bulletin 34 (2); 126-173

(14): World Health Organisation (2003) Nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: Report of a joint FAO/WHO expert consultation. Available at: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/42665/1/WHO_TRS_916.pdf?ua=1 [last accessed 28/5/16].

(15): Astrup, A., Meinert Larson, T. & Harper, A. (2004) Atkins and other low-carbohydrate diets: hoax or an effective tool for weight loss? Lancet  364 (9437); 897-9.

(16): Wilborn, C. et al. (2005) Obesity: Prevalence, Theories, Medical Consequences, Management, and Research Directions. Journal of the International Sociaety of Sports Nutrition 2(2); 4–31.

(17): Moyad, M.A. (2005) Fad diets and obesity–Part IV: Low-carbohydrate vs. low-fat diets. Urologic Nursing Journal 25 (1); 67-70.

(18): Thomas, D. M. et al (2014) Effect of dietary adherence on the body weight plateau: a mathematical model incorporating intermittent compliance with energy intake prescription. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 100 (3); 787-795.

(19): Moehlecke, M. et al. (2016)  Determinants of body weight regulation in humans. Archives of Endochrinology and Metabolism 60 (2); 152-162.