HOW DOES WEIGHT LOSS WORK?: A PRACTICAL, NO-NONSENSE GUIDE TO WEIGHT MANAGEMENT.
Weight loss is a subject that attracts attention and controversy, probably because it is such a common goal, but such a rare achievement for people to get to their ‘ideal weight’ or goal physique. People care about weight loss for more than the health benefits: they tie their self-concept to their weight and physical appearance, making weight loss more than another form of physical self-care. As with anything else that attracts attention and people desperate to achieve their goals, the discussion of weight loss has been rife with charlatans and snake oil salesmen who offer miraculous solutions or cures – whether this is in the form of a new wonder-supplement or a new fad diet. I’m not a fan of this kind of marketing, so in this article I’m going to explain the absolute essentials of how weight loss works and how you can make it work for you.
THE FOUNDATION: EAT LESS THAN YOU USE
Calories-In-Calories-Out (CICO) has been one of the most hotly-debated topics in weight loss, stating that weight loss is a direct result of the following equation: Calories in – Calories out = weight change. If we look at any of the popular diets of the day – paleo, atkins, intermittent fasting, etc. – we notice that they all have certain weight loss abilities, because they all contribute to eating less calories!
The important distinction to make, however, is that CICO dictates weight loss, not healthy weight loss. You can lose weight by eating nothing but pizza and ice cream if you eat the right amount, but this will be ridiculously unhealthy. You need to eat less calories than you use but this is not enough to make sure that you’re healthy – eating the correct foods in the correct portion is the best way to improve health and burn fat. CICO is not a total diet prescription (IIFYM is definitely not a health-based approach) but it is a scientific fact about how the body’s energy storage system works, and it is the basis for weight loss.
PROTEIN IS KEY
Protein is a key nutrient and perhaps one of the only areas of diet that science has reached a consensus on: protein is good (within reason). Protein should be your second practical concern after the calorie balance: high-protein diets will improve muscle gain and weight loss, as well as improving recovery between training sessions and protecting metabolic health.
Protein sources are plentiful and varied, from fatty fish and chicken breast to protein shakes and protein bars. The best approach is to focus on quality and what you’re getting with that protein: avoid sugary supplements and aim for more whole foods or high-quality, minimally-processed supplementary sources. Estimates differ on the amount of protein necessary, but anything from 1g per kg of bodyweight is a good start and will keep you fuller for longer, making a calorie-restricted diet that little bit easier.
FATS AND/OR CARBS?: CUTTING THROUGH THE HYPE
If you’ve read anything else about health and fitness, you’re probably aware that there is a huge debate about carbs and fats, and their place in your diet. This is nothing new, dietary fats and carbohydrates were both demonised during the 20th century and many diets suggested cutting out one or the other in order to lose weight. The Paleo and Atkins diet are great examples of low-carb, high-fat diets and their popularity is the foundation of this competition between fats and carbs.
To make it clear, neither fats nor carbs are bad for you, and neither of them will cause weight loss or weight gain in the absence of the appropriate calorie balance. Certain saturated fats are bad for you (think butter, bacon, or butter-fried bacon) and certain carbs are bad for you (mostly white carbs, primarily refined sugars), but there are also great foods on both sides that can aid in weight loss and promote health. The quality and quantity of your fats and carbs are the most important aspects and eliminating one entirely is dumb!
So how should you decide how much of each to eat? The practical answer is you should eat enough carbohydrates to fuel the physical activity you do: carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy for mental and physical performance, whereas fats are necessary for long-term health and maintenance of the body. As such, your carbohydrate intake should reflect the amount of exercise and activity in your day – the more intense, prolonged exercise you do the more carbohydrates you’re going to need.
NUTRIENTS: OVERLOOKED, BUT ESSENTIAL
The foods we think of as healthy right now are healthy in respect of three major components that people often overlook: vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. Vitamins and minerals are crucial to health: when we look past weight loss and aim at the healthiest weight loss possible, vitamins and minerals are the first thing that require attention. There are 26 essential vitamins and minerals and they are found primarily in high-quality protein sources and a wide variety of plant-based produce (fruit and veg, primarily).
The best place to look for key nutrients is vegetables and high-quality fruit. Vegetables should be your priority because they are almost universally nutrient-dense and calorie-sparse: you can eat as much spinach as you want but you’re probably not going to be full before you reach 500 calories. Compare this with fatty or sugary foods, which provide lots of calories. The basic idea with nutrients is to eat a high volume of vegetables in the widest possible variety – this means lots of different veg with an equal variety of colours, textures and types.
DOES MEAL TIMING MATTER?
Meal timing has become relevant again with the popularity of intermittent fasting, so we have to discuss it. Fasting is a bit of a fad – the scientific evidence is yet to point to any conclusive advantages – but meal timing does have some importance during the day. However, we’re going to take exactly the opposite tact and say that you should be eating as regularly as possible, rather than fasting.
Eating a smaller quantity of food every few hours is a great way to combat hunger and be consistent with your diet, whilst also keeping blood sugar levels regular and maintaining energy levels throughout the day. You should eat a small meal at least every three hours, with a focus on protein sources and then as much fruit and veg as you can fit into your face.
Meal timing is actully a great way to simplify your carbs and fats, and here’s how you do it: eat more carbohydrates closer to your hard work/exercise times and eat less as you get further out. For example, if you’re working out at 3pm, you don’t need a breakfast that is high in carbohydrates (a better choice might be eggs and spinach, followed by a handful of berries). However, at 1-2pm you should be eating high-quality carbohydrates like oatmeal with fruit or granola – these will give you the short-term energy you need without all the nonsense sugars.
Weight loss isn’t nearly as complicated as you’ve been made to believe by the fitness industry. In fact, we’re going to sum it up in bullet points so you can keep an easy-to-use guide:
- Eat less calories than you use in a day
- Get a lot of protein from high-quality sources
- Eat good fats and carbs in proportion to the amount of high-intensity or high-duration exercise you do
- Eat as much of a wide variety of low-calorie, nutrient-dense vegetables as possible
- Eat more carbohydrates closer to exercise, and less when further away
If you follow these 5 simple steps you can achieve healthy weight loss without over-complicating the process. Always read the labels, always ask for scientific evidence!