Five questions you need to answer for effective, healthy and sustainable fat loss.
“Weight loss is easy. Weight maintenance is hard.”
I can’t remember where I first heard this. But whoever said it hit the nail on the head.
Because it sums up most people’s experience of dieting pretty well.
Anyone can restrict their food intake for a few days… weeks… or even months to lose weight. But the harsh reality is that most - in fact, almost all - people return to their previous weight within two to five years.1
Or worse. Weight loss often leads to further increases in ‘rebound weight’ – leaving dieters with a bigger problem than they started with. Which can trigger increasingly drastic weight loss attempts - so the yo-yo dieting continues.
Here we’ll explain why most diets fail you – and what you can do about it.
The recipe for dieting success…
If you’ve had your fill of overly restrictive fad diets, it’s time to stop and think about why those diets have failed you.
And to use this knowledge to inform your methodology moving forward.
Before jumping onto the next method, there are some key questions to reflect upon. Including:
1. Was the diet restricting foods you enjoy all of the time…?
The notion that certain foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is destructive in the extreme. Yes, there are more healthful and less healthful foods. There are some we should eat a little more or a little less of to keep us feeling full, healthy and full of energy.
But when something is completely - and often unnecessarily – restricted, the moment you relax this restriction (or you break mentally) you are likely to binge on those foods. And then feel like you have failed.
Not only has this ruined the diet, or at least our perception of it. It further increases the guilt we have around certain foods - so the guilt-eat-guilt-eat cycle continues.
One of the key factors in successful weight loss is to understand that no food should be off limits. Yes, that’s right – no food. We can enjoy all foods in moderation with no emotion or guilt attached.
But the challenge for many people is breaking this guilt-eat cycle and understanding that calories matter. That cookie, piece of cake or meal out needn’t make or break your entire diet. So long as most of the time you are eating well and maintaining a calorie deficit you can enjoy the odd treat and still lose weight.
2. Was the diet just shifting the blame…?
One of the appeals of most fad diets is that they usually point the blame at something else. Rather than helping you to understand your relationship with food. Or highlighting your own behavior that may have caused you to enter a yo-yo dieting cycle.
That’s not to say eliminating certain foods can’t be effective in causing weight loss. It can. Because by default they create a calorie deficit. But if we don’t understand the need to take personal responsibility for our own food choices, there is a danger we may start to believe we are powerless. And try to shift the blame onto something else.
This can then have the reverse effect. Encouraging us to believe we can’t make changes. But in order to successfully change eating behaviors the first stage is to believe we can.
3. Was the diet trying to convince you of a magic solution…?
If the diet promises rapid weight loss, we must take a step back. No matter how much it plays into our innate desire for instant gratification, there is no quick fix. Successful dieters have to be willing to be patient and play the long game.
It’s not difficult to lose weight quickly for a few weeks. Even as much as several pounds per week. Aggressive dieting via severe food restriction rapidly reduces water retention, bloating and overall food waste which gives the illusion of fat loss. But in reality, it isn’t always the case.
The danger is that after the initial drop in weight you become disheartened at the first sign of a plateau [LINK TO PLATEAU ARTICLE]. Especially if you have been suffering up to that point. Creating a perfect storm for you to break your diet - leading you right back to square one.
Instead, we need to understand that weight loss is going to take time at reasonable calorie deficits. A 500 kcal deficit per day this equates to around 1 lb of fat loss per week.
It can be a challenge for many people to create this level of deficit depending on their current diet and lifestyle. Mix this in with the fact that fluctuations in water weight (especially for women during the menstrual cycle) can mask weight loss and lead to frustration.
To combat this, try to not let day-to-day fluctuations in weight stress you out. The bathroom scales can be a cruel mistress. Instead focus on other measuring techniques – such as a tape measure, progress pictures, or judging by the fit of your clothes.
4. Were you too focused on reaching an end point…?
Many people diet aggressively for a holiday, wedding or some other special occasion. But that isn’t always wise long term.
Although short term goals are important to keep us accountable. We need to be careful that once we reach this goal, the whole process of getting there hasn’t been so traumatic that we feel the need to remove the shackles and revert back to our previous (bad) food habits.
Instead, use key dates as landmarks on your journey rather than seeing them as an end point. A more gradual approach might mean it takes a little longer to reach our goal. But it might also take the pressure off and allow us to enjoy the process more.
Adopting a longer-term, more sustainable approach and learning how to diet in a less restrictive way can help to reduce the negative associations with dieting. After all, nobody wants to break their diet and end up back at square one. Or the whole thing to be a negative experience.
5. Did you learn anything about nutrition…?
It is natural to try to find a simple solution to weight loss. That’s why the ‘blame game’ is so appealing, creating simple dieting dos and don’ts - “avoid this”, “only eat that” etc.
But just a little bit of nutrition education could give people the tools they need to make much more informed decisions about which approaches and methods they should use to achieve a healthy weight. The sheer volume of conflicting information out there is one of the biggest problems people face. What really works? And who do you believe?
Well, it’s tricky. But there are a few basic rules to follow.
- Basically, if you are offered a magical solution or quick fix, or if a diet is based around leveling blame - red flags should appear.
- Credentials can help identify whether someone knows their stuff, but not always. Even some highly qualified medical doctors have a shocking lack of nutritional knowledge. It’s not their fault, it’s just not something they are taught.
- Looking for experience and results can be useful - before and pictures are always good. But also potentially misleading… Yes they may lost weight, but did they keep it off?
- Look for balanced information - or at least a range of viewpoints – that doesn’t blindly apportion blame. But instead understands that weight loss is a complex issue that requires education, support and changes of behavior.
All this will take time. Time you might not feel you have. But in the long run, doing your homework and learning about nutrition will inform your decisions. Helping you choose a dietary approach that works for you. Giving you the best chance to sustain your weight loss over the long term.
Did this address any of the reasons you gained weight – or regained weight – in the first place…?
This is by far the most important question to answer.
For most people unwanted weight gain creeps up on them over time. The body is actually pretty good at regulating food intake. Although we know that overeating can lead to fat gain, gaining weight is usually caused by consistently overeating by small amounts over a long period of time.
Understanding – and getting a grip on – this is the key to helping you lose weight. And keep it off.
Many eating behaviors are tied to our emotional state. Some have a tendency to overeat when stressed or feeling down, for example. The way around this is to acknowledge it and look at finding ways to deal with your emotions without resorting to comfort eating.
If you are a social butterfly then the issue might be alcohol, or perhaps the fear of missing out on events. Both can create a risky environment where you’re more likely to overeat or over-drink your calories.
Again, identifying these patterns and questioning why you choose certain behaviors will allow you to create strategies to change them. Is this easy? No. But for many people this is the most effective way to lose weight and keep it off.
Many people are sold on fad diets because they are looking for a quick fix. Or are driven by reaching a goal weight or size.
But this approach is not going to help you lose weight effectively. Or keep off the weight once you’ve hit your target.
Sustained, healthy fat loss requires an understanding the basics of nutrition and an understanding of your role of your eating habits.
As hard as it is to swallow, it is your behavior that is the key to positive change and avoiding the cycle of yo-yo dieting.
Tracey J Devonport, Wendy Nicholls and Christopher Fullerton, A systematic review of the association between emotions and eating behaviour in normal and overweight adult populations, Journal of Health Psychology, 10.1177/1359105317697813, 24, 1, (3-24), (2017).
Aimée Ekman, Theorizing failure: explanations regarding weight regain among people with fat bodies, Social Theory & Health, 10.1057/s41285-017-0056-z, 16, 3, (272-291), (2017).
Elfhag and S. Rössner Who succeeds in maintaining weight loss? A conceptual review of factors associated with weight loss maintenance and weight regain, obesity reviews (2005) 6, 67–85