A healthy, sustainable approach to weight loss
Weight gain is both unhealthy and uncomfortable. The temptation is to go on “crash diets” or try wonder foods that promise to strip away the kilos. What the research tells us, though, is that these quick fixes lead to more weight gain in the long run. Here we discover some sustainable weight loss strategies that will help you lose weight for life.
When it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, restrictive fad diets rarely result in sustained weight loss. According to a University of California Los Angeles review of 31 weight loss studies, 83 per cent of people who were studied for at least two years had gained back more weight that they had lost. In fact, several of the studies indicated that dieting was a consistent predictor of future weight gain! The authors concluded that “most study participants would have been better off not going on a diet at all.”
Since each and every one of us is unique, a one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss is seldom an effective long-term solution. A holistic naturopathic approach to shedding kilos and then maintaining a healthy body weight is always tailored to the individual. This includes assessing medical history, as well as identifying and addressing any underlying health conditions that may be hindering weight loss. Common considerations include metabolic dysfunctions, digestive issues and, of course, diet and lifestyle.
The key to lasting weight loss is to find healthy and enjoyable ways to reach your optimal weight and sustain it. These practical tips will help you to create sustainable habits to ensure reaching and maintaining a healthy weight becomes part of your lifestyle.
Just eat “real” food
There’s no way around it. The food you eat every day is essential to both losing weight and sustaining that weight loss. Eating a balanced diet that’s sustainable in the long term holds the key to breaking the cycle of yo-yo dieting and creating lasting change. Rather than counting kilojoules or macros, focus instead on eating a variety of real, whole, unrefined foods. “Real” wholefoods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, meats, legumes, whole grains and unrefined fats like olive oil, butter, ghee and coconut oil. I like to call these low-HI (Human Intervention) foods: that is, foods that have had little or no processing and are as close to their natural state as possible.
The key to lasting weight loss is to find healthy and enjoyable ways to reach your optimal weight and sustain it.
With each meal, try to include as many vegetables as you need to feel full plus a serving of quality protein (about the size and width of your palm). Protein like meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and quinoa is important for maintaining weight as it keeps us full and provides a slow release of energy. Plus it helps to replenish fatigued muscles, enabling us to exercise longer and with greater intensity.
It’s important to avoid processed foods, refined carbohydrates (grains and especially sugar) and artificial sweeteners. These are not only damaging to your health, but can lower gut microbiome diversity and encourage the not-so-great gut bacteria to thrive — more on the importance of gut health for sustained weight loss later.
You can reduce the desire for unhealthy foods by making sure you are full up eating wholefoods, especially protein and vegetables. By eating solid, healthy meals regularly, you will crowd out the desire for junk foods
Lastly, variety is really important nutritionally to ensure you are deriving a broad range of nutrients from your diet, plus it keeps food interesting if you eat a range of wholefoods. Variety is also critical for the health of the bacteria that live in your digestive system — your gut microbiome — which thrive on a wide range of plant-based wholefoods.
Develop a healthy eating routine
You probably already understand the importance of eating a balanced wholefoods diet; however, willpower is just not enough to ensure this way of eating becomes a habit and part of your lifestyle.
Healthy habits need to be formed, starting with planning for success. Having your weekly meals and snacks planned out is really helpful for reducing the time you spend cooking, and will ensure you have a range of healthy meals and snacks on the menu.
Once you have your meal plan in place, create a shopping system that ensures you have all of the food you need in order to cook and eat well. If you only have healthy choices in your fridge and pantry, then these are the foods you will eat when hungry.
Knowing what meals and snacks you plan to cook means that you can shop for everything you need in one go, and less time spent shopping leaves more time for cooking and exercising. If you’re often tempted to buy processed foods at the supermarket, make sure you never shop when hungry or stressed, and perhaps consider online shopping options, or do the bulk of your shopping at a farmers’ market if that’s an option.
Learn to love to cook
The single most important thing you can do to improve your health and chances of maintaining your ideal body weight is to cook as much as possible of what you eat from scratch.
The food processing industry has given us options that mean we don’t have to cook in order to eat. They have also conveniently led us to believe that cooking is hard, time-consuming and messy and we’d be so much better off letting them cook for us or create shortcuts.
Rather than counting kilojoules or macros, focus instead on eating a variety of real, whole, unrefined foods.
However, food corporations cook completely differently from us, using ingredients we would never use. We don’t make a casserole and think, oh I’ll just add some monosodium glutamate to this or some high-fructose corn syrup. The food they make is not designed to serve your body well, end of story. It is produced using the cheapest ingredients, put together in the quickest possible way so that they can make the most money possible. It’s all about the bottom line. According to food author Michael Pollan, statistically, as the time we spend cooking reduces, rates of obesity and disease increases.
The good news is that everyone who can cook has learned to cook at some point in their lives. Anyone can learn how to cook, and I assure you it’s not difficult, messy or time-consuming!
Make “healthy” delicious and doable
“Healthy” foods are so much more enjoyable when you can eat them for pleasure rather than out of obligation or because you’re “on a diet”. Once you know how to cook well, healthy foods become delicious. If you’re an inexperienced cook, start with following simple recipes, and as your confidence grows branch out to cook a variety of dishes.
Once you have a collection of recipes you really enjoy eating, consider cooking double portions and freezing them for next time you need a “convenience meal”. Another option is to set aside an afternoon to prepare a range of meals or snacks all at once. Bulk preparing meals is a great way to cook a collection of meals quickly and easily for those days you are too busy to cook. Once you’re in the cooking mindset, it’s a quick and easy way to set yourself up for success.
A positive “growth” or “can-do” mindset is essential for being able to make positive changes to your diet and lifestyle. It’s important to understand that creating a healthy lifestyle that becomes routine takes time and patience. Many people make the mistake of taking on too many changes and then become overwhelmed, frustrated and disappointed when they can’t maintain them or don’t see results instantly.
The single most important thing you can do to improve your health and chances of maintaining your ideal body weight is to cook as much as possible of what you eat from scratch.
So start with small changes. If you need to improve your diet, perhaps start by focusing on making one meal as wholesome and nourishing as possible. I’d suggest starting with breakfast, as it’s a meal that really sets up your day both nutritionally as well as mentally and emotionally. Studies have shown that adults and children who skip breakfast are much more likely to make poor food choices throughout the day and in the long term generally.
If you need to increase your level of physical activity, make an achievable plan and take it slow. You wouldn’t expect to be able to run 20km overnight and it’s the same making lasting changes to lose weight. The more gradually you introduce changes to your diet or lifestyle, the more likely they will become a way of life in the long term.
Plan to succeed
Having a well-thought-out plan with some moral support thrown in for good measure is important to achieve any goal, including losing weight.
Staying motivated is essential to reach and maintain your goal weight, and it can be tough at times. So to begin with, make sure you understand your “why”: do you want to lose weight to feel healthier, to look better or to have more energy? Whatever your motivation this is important: write it down to refer to in moments when you’re feeling discouraged.
Before undertaking any drastic changes to your diet or lifestyle, make a plan, either with the help of your holistic healthcare practitioner or make your own. Again … write it down and be specific. Include lots of detail such as what change you intend to make and exactly how you are going to do it, and also consider how you will overcome any perceived barriers.
For example, you’ve recognised you need to drink more water. You decide to set a goal to drink two litres of water each day. Really consider how you are going to achieve that goal. Your plan should include keeping track of the amount you are drinking, as glass by glass isn’t so accurate or habit-forming. It’s best to fill a two-litre bottle each day with the goal of finishing it by 5pm so a full bladder doesn’t interrupt your sleep. If you don’t enjoy plain water (this is a common barrier), add fresh lime, or perhaps find a non-caffeinated herbal tea you enjoy. Herbal teas make great long iced tea.
Perhaps there are certain processed foods you enjoy eating that you know don’t serve your health or weight loss goals. Challenge yourself to find healthier alternatives and change your mindset to focus on finding ways to make wholefoods as delicious as possible. For example, if you enjoy drinking soft drinks, you should find a replacement for those times you would normally have one. Water is the best option, but other healthier alternatives could include fresh lime soda, a sugar-free kombucha, kefir water or homemade iced tea. Or perhaps you have a not-so-healthy snack each afternoon — decide to replace it with a healthier yet satisfying alternative.
If you’re making changes that involve your family, discuss the changes you are planning to make and your motivation for making the changes. Having the support of your family or partner is really important for your long-term success. It’s also inspirational to others for you to model a commitment to leading a healthy lifestyle.
The gut: foundation for sustained weight loss
Eating a variety of wholefoods is not only important nutritionally and metabolically, but it also supports gut microbiome diversity. (For more detail see the article on the microbiome in this issue of WellBeing on page xxx.) Many scientific studies show that lack of diversity in the microbiome is common among overweight and obese individuals. Although the mechanisms aren’t fully understood, scientists agree that the gut microbiome plays an important role in regulating the activities of your gut lining, including nutrient absorption, appetite regulation, fat metabolism and even blood glucose control.
As well as digesting and assimilating nutrients from food, ensuring a healthy digestive system is vital for keeping many other systems of the body functioning optimally. I wholeheartedly agree with Hippocrates, the father of medicine, that “all disease starts in the gut.”
Working alongside a naturopath or integrative medical practitioner to optimise your gut health is advisable. You can also improve the composition of your gut microbiome by eating a good variety of whole plant foods like vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes. Encouraging biodiversity and nourishing the beneficial bacteria that help maintain a healthy body weight and metabolism is a really important foundation for sustaining a healthy body weight.
I can’t stress enough how important being adequately hydrated is not only for losing and maintaining weight but also for keeping you feeling energised, motivated and focused. Sixty per cent of your body is composed of water, and it plays a role in pretty much every bodily function from thinking to burning fat.
Studies have shown a positive correlation between increased water consumption and weight loss via a couple of mechanisms. Several studies have hypothesised that when the stomach senses that it is full, it sends signals to the brain to stop eating. Water takes up space in the stomach leading to a sensation of fullness, and this can reduce hunger.
Mild dehydration which triggers thirst is often mistaken for hunger by the brain. So drinking a glass of water before reaching for something to eat may help to temporarily satisfy the appetite and curb unnecessary snacking.
Some research also suggests that water increases calorie burning and also increases lipolysis (fat burning) because water is required to metabolise stored fat and carbohydrates. Water also is essential for the functioning of our digestive system and the removal of toxins and wastes, both of which are essential for weight loss.
Lastly, ensuring that you’re hydrated before and during exercise is critical for endurance. Water helps the muscles, connective tissues and joints to move fluidly as well as supporting the lungs, heart and other organs to work effectively as they increase activity during exercise. Being adequately hydrated allows you to exercise longer and with more intensity, which obviously benefits weight loss.
Stress management is critical
Managing stress is critical for both losing and maintaining a healthy weight. According to a 2017 study by the University College London, people with persistently high levels of cortisol were more likely to be overweight or obese. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It has an important role to play in enhancing your reactions and improving your survival in stressful times, but when consistently elevated it plays havoc with your health and ability to maintain a healthy body weight.
Managing stress is critical for both losing and maintaining a healthy weight.
Consider the stress responses as cavemen and cavewomen. Living in these times, your main stressors would have been three-fold — war (territory takeovers), drought and famine. The modern human, however, experiences many more stressful events and with much more frequency. So where the cave-dweller produced cortisol in these (rarely) stressful occasions, we now produce it often. When being “stressed” becomes chronic for many people and cortisol levels remain elevated and unchecked, a number of common health problems may result, including poor sleep resulting in poor energy levels and also weight gain.
To allow you to sleep, your cortisol levels drop at night time. So when they are chronically elevated, deep sleep is not possible – this heightened awareness is a primitive response to war or threat. Good in the short term (for a cave-dweller needing to keep alert for any impending attack) but exhausting in our modern world where every night finds elevated cortisol levels and disrupted sleep patterns. As you can appreciate, it’s difficult to feel motivated to exercise or cook a healthy meal when you’re always feeling tired.
In a primitive person stressed by drought, famine and war, elevated cortisol allows the body to store fat, especially abdominal — that is, to build a larder for tough times ahead. It also promotes the storage of extracellular fluid to prepare for drought. We’d refer to this as fluid retention or bloat. The older you are the worse this becomes as, in primitive times, the elderly were last in line for scarce food. So elevated cortisol reduces your metabolic rate and acts as an antidiuretic to store fat and fluid.
When you are feeling stressed, you’re also certainly more likely to make poor decisions around your health and as a result perhaps have less time to exercise or prepare healthy meals. Or perhaps you turn to food for comfort?
For all of these reasons it is really important to find ways to manage your stress levels. This may involve reassessing your lifestyle and your priorities. Many people benefit from meditation or listening to guided self-hypnosis to manage stress. If you’re feeling perpetually hungry, perhaps consider whether you are thirsty, bored, tired or emotional. Dig deep, really connect to your senses and learn to listen to your body.
Regular movement of any kind is essential for your health, wellbeing and long-term weight goals. In order to lose weight and keep it off, finding a form of exercise that you enjoy and that feels good to you is essential. Whether it’s a brisk walk, a fitness class, yoga, swimming etc … just find something you enjoy and move regularly.
Additionally, build incidental movement into your life. Whether it be parking your car a little further away from work or at the shops or taking the stairs instead of the lift, these forms of movement all add up. Using a stand-up desk is another way to build in strength and fitness.
You should also rethink your idea of rest. Next time you’re feeling a bit tired, instead of hitting the couch to watch Netflix, take a walk. It is the best way to invigorate your brain and body.
The bottom line
A study by the National Weight Control Registry examined the characteristics of over 6000 people who maintained a weight loss of 13 kilograms or more for an average of five years. They found that most were motivated by medical conditions or social triggers such as embarrassment at being overweight, and they were committed to making behavioural changes. Most of them used some combination of diet and exercise to achieve and maintain their goal weight. They also tended to cook at home and eat breakfast, and watched less than 10 hours of television weekly.
The key to maintaining a healthy weight is to create a sustainable lifestyle that supports your health and wellbeing.