Let's start with a simple equation:
Calorie output > Calorie input = weight loss
Calorie output < Calorie input = weight gain
Calorie output = Calorie input = no change
It is that simple, really, that's the truth.
Perhaps instead of ending this post here, I should actually address where it gets complicated. Losing weight is a simple equation, but it is not easy, we know this because there are a lot of people who can't do it.
If you want to understand a problem that's widespread in humans, you should go back to the origins of it. What does our evolution have to say about our problem of weight gain? Well, given that for most of our evolutionary history we would have been having a scarcity of food, rather than an abundance as our main problem, we have evolved to address the former.
How do we do this? Well, get in while the going's good and store fat for the lean times just around the corner. This is to say, when confronted with an abundance of food (like we have these days) we eat much more than we need. Add to this that food is considerably more appealing than in the past, and we have a problem.
Food sources that were high in fat would have been highly sought-after in our ancient past, packed full of calories. This is why we tend to like fatty food. Foods high in sugar would have almost exclusively been fruits; energy-giving and highly nutritious. Now, however, our taste buds are fooled by sweets, chocolate, biscuits, doughnuts, cakes, and more, that are essentially pretending to be fruits, and do an even better job in one respect, giving us all the energy we could ever need, minus the vitamins and minerals. If we eat doughnuts, cakes, and chocolate all day, with a few Big Macs thrown-in for good measure, we are sure to avoid starvation when food becomes scarce. Except food scarcity never happens, even for just a few hours.
Our ancient ancestors had to deal with times of very little food, they did it by eating lots and putting on weight when they could, then after some time with very little food, slowed their metabolism right down to try conserve what they had stored for as long as possible. You still have this basic survival mechanism.
Going on a diet of any kind that reduces calorie intake enough to trigger a big slow-down in metabolism, is going to harm your chances of losing weight in the long-term because the next time you feel like eating a bit too much - which is coming soon - you'll pack on the fat due to your calorie expenditure being much lower than normal. Dieting triggers that starvation survival mechanism, so if you want long-term weight-loss success or to maintain a healthy weight, don't go on a diet.
Will Power and Exercise
The truth is that even maintaining weight is difficult. Losing weight is even worse, so you will feel hungry, and you just have to accept this. The discipline required not to overeat or eat less than you need requires a high degree of willpower.
While exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, doing lots of it to lose weight doesn't work in my experience. Why? Because exercising hard requires a lot of will power and the amount of this you can exert on a daily basis is limited.
I have trained for numerous marathons and ultramarathons, and on every occasion I didn't lose any weight, and in some cases put weight on. It is almost impossible to resist high-calorie food when training for a marathon, indeed you actually need it. Try eating only good food when you need 6000 calories a day! You'll need those simple sugars and once you get the taste for it, it is hard to stop.
The best formula for weight loss is to exercise fairly moderately, in my opinion. The science now tells you that high intensity interval training is the best way, and in terms of pure fat-burning physiology they are probably right, but in terms of your psychology, high intensity training will drain you of your of the will to resist another trip to the fridge.
The best thing about exercise is that it is great for mental health, and you'll need this mental strength in order to get through the difficult times without succumbing to those biscuits again.
I believe we should all be doing some form of exercise every day. It doesn't have to be a huge workout; walking, riding a bike, weight training, a class of some kind, a sport, whatever, but do it regularly and find something you enjoy so it doesn't use up lots of valuable willpower to get yourself to do it.
Slowly, Slowly Catch a Monkey
Losing weight has to be done by reducing food intake, but as we know already, do this too fast and you'll trigger your survival mechanism and then just end up putting more weight on further down the road. With this in mind then, the reduction in food intake has to be done gradually.
My tip is to have your regular meals and gradually reduce your portions until you begin to lose weight. You should not expect the weight to fall off rapidly, perhaps just a kilo over a month. Along with slowly reducing portion sizes, you can also begin to gradually get into better food habits in other areas. Have a sweet tooth and like 2 or 3 sugars in your tea? Then cut the sugar by a quarter of a teaspoon every week; you'll be down to one or less teaspoons before you know it. Same goes for the butter you spread on your toast. These tiny little habits begin to make a big difference because you don't have to be massively over in the calorie input side of the equation, if you do it on a daily basis, to gain weight. As an example, if you ate just 100 calories over what you need every day, you'd put on nearly 5 kilos a year. Check out what 100 calories looks like in the link below (it isn't very much): https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/weight/what-does-100-calories-look-like
Food is Fuel: Stop Seeing Food as an Emotional Reward
Our relationship with food for thousands of years has been of fuel to enable us to live. Only in recent history has it been a genuine pleasure, and since this time it has been used as a reward more and more. It starts in childhood, you reward your children for good behaviour with ice cream, chocolate, or some sweets. You grow up with this psychology around food, but when you are an adult, you simply reward yourself, especially when you feel tired or depressed. It is the wrong attitude to food. Food should help you accomplish your goals and one of the most important goals in life is to be healthy and energetic and to be a good example to your children in this regard.
I write this a just a section in a wider article, but this is probably one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. I am not saying people should not find pleasure in food, merely that this shouldn't be the primary aim of eating. If you start shifting your mindset to seeing food as fuel, you'd be amazed at the changes you can make.
The Tough Bit - Hard Truths
There is only so much getting into good habits and slowly reducing portion sizes can do though, you have to face the fact that if you are past the age of about 30, you aren't burning calories like you used to, so your diet has to change. You have to grow-up.
What to I mean by, "grow-up", I mean that many people have to stop being so childish with their dietary habits. The hard truth is that if you are partial to a big slice of cake, doughnuts, and chocolate and you have a goal to lose weight - or even just maintain your weight as you age - you have to largely give this stuff up.
To give a personal example of this, I like to bake cakes and cookies every now and then, but even having a piece of cake once a day after lunch for a week, for example, makes me put on weight. I can easily get into the habit of doing this for a month, and poof, I'm 2 or 3 kilos heavier. In my early twenties I could eat 5 doughnuts after lunch play a game of squash in the afternoon and I'd put on no weight whatsoever. Now at nearly 40, if I so much as look at a doughnut, I notice the difference on the scales. More importantly though, I feel much better when I am not eating sugary food and not over-eating.
But what's more important, my general health and fitness, or having a minute or so of food pleasure? When you are a kid, you choose the pleasure, especially as you bear little cost for it. Now you're an adult, you simply must be mature enough to curb such impulses.
This all sounds harsh, and it is. I know myself how difficult it is to resist sweet food as I used to have an extremely sweet tooth myself. These days, instead of dessert I usually choose a big cup of coffee with only a little sugar. The tiny bit of sweetness satisfies my urge for sugar and the big cup of fluid makes me feel fuller.
Eat Nutritious Food
The ideal diet is something that is strongly debated. Some of the things that dieticians say we should avoid, as well as the things we should be eating, have changed markedly over the past few years, so it can be confusing. The best way to stop the cravings for bad food though is to eat highly nutritious food, with a higher proportion of fat, fibre, and protein over carbohydrate intake. I find that the general diet of most people is far too high in carbs, especially in those that are very sporty or fitness freaks. It is actually not necessary to eat loads of carbs to power your exercise.
Now everyone is different, so what food suits your body may be slightly different to what suits mine, but the principles are not so hard, so I'll leave you with a few simple tips to a healthy diet and to losing weight:
- Eat natural food with few ingredients.
- Avoid too many carbs, especially grains.
- Gradually decrease portion sizes.
- Avoid sugar.
- Exercise moderately and regularly.
- Rethink your diet habits. For example, start realising that dessert really is for kids (at least on a regular basis).
- Trick yourself into feeling full by drinking more (not alcohol or drinks loaded with sugar).
- Don't diet.
- "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper" - This is an excellent piece of advice.
- You only need 3 meals a day. If you really need a snack, have a small piece of cheese or some nuts. Not carbs.
- Try to notice when you are eating emotionally. Be extra wary of what you eat when you are upset, angry, or depressed. Exercise is a much better cure for sadness than food is.
- Think of food as fuel rather than thinking of it as pleasure or reward.
- Don't expect miracles on the scales in a short period of time.
- Understand that if you are losing weight, you will feel hungry. It is a sign that you are losing weight and your body is programmed to avoid this. The signal to eat was a matter of life and death in the past, it was needed to drive us to find food, which would often be very difficult, so it is a signal that needs to be strong. Turn this signal around from a negative to a positive that shows you are on the right track, so don't give up!