As a dietitian, one of the most popular questions I get asked is… “what’s the best way to lose weight?”
Having researched, written and advised on weight loss for around 8 years I can promise that quick fixes and fads don’t work in the long term. Instead here are five tried and tested habits that really do work. They’re simple, they’re effective and you can start them today.
Habit 1 – Keep a food diary (those who do lose more weight)
Eating amnesia is common – most of us have trouble accurately recalling what we ate yesterday, let alone last week. Studies show individuals underreport calorie intake by some 20-40% – and it gets worse the more overweight we are.
The only way to really know what you’re eating is keep an honest record. Yes it requires effort but it’s effective. Dieters who keep food records lose more weight than those who don’t – in some studies twice as much. It doesn’t need to be fancy – scribble in a notebook, or use a tool like My Fitness Pal.
The diary serves as a reminder of what you’ve eaten, helping to keep you on track – but it also uncovers the habits you need to change, such as eating when stressed, skipping meals and relying on snack foods, weekend excesses or alcohol intake.
Habit 2 – Eat a bit more protein
Eating more protein helps with weight loss for a number of reasons. Protein is nature’s appetite suppressant – it switches off hunger and keeps you satisfied for longer, which is a big plus if you’re trying to lose weight.
Protein also protects your lean muscle mass when dieting – the stuff you want to keep hold of. It would be lovely if 100% of weight lost during dieting was fat, but it is generally a mixture of both lean and fat tissue.
The best outcome is to preserve as much muscle as possible, because muscle burns more calories, keeps you strong and helps regulates blood glucose. In one study from Purdue University, dieters eating a higher protein diet lost less lean body mass and felt less hungry than those on the normal protein diet.
Start by making your protein portions a little bigger and spread them through the day- swap breakfast cereal for eggs, snack on Greek yoghurt, add some chicken or lentils to a salad or soup, and include a decent sized portion of fish, poultry or a vegetarian protein with your dinner – research suggests both veggie and meat proteins are equally effective.
Habit 3 – Quit doing other things when you eat
If you regularly eat at your desk, when watching TV or surfing the web it’s time to quit the habit. Studies show we consume more calories when distracted by activities like TV, reading or checking emails (ever reached the bottom of a pack of chips when watching TV only to think ‘where did that go?’)
In one study women asked to eat cookies while playing ping pong felt less full and wanted to keep on eating where as the group who ate the cookies whilst doing nothing else were satisfied after finishing.
Worse still research shows if we eat when distracted we forget what it is we’ve eaten – and go on to eat more later in the day. On the contrary, if you focus on your food without distraction, you’re less likely to snack later in the day. Start with one meal a day and work upwards, aiming to take 20 minutes to finish your largest meal.
Habit 4 – Change your environment
When we start a diet we go to great lengths to tap into our interval motivations, paying for diet plans and gym memberships but forgetting to invest any time in changing the environment around us. We expect willpower to carry us through when chocolate is staring us in the face. According to one study we’re three times as likely to eat the first thing we see than the fifth thing, so if you open the fridge and see chocolate before vegetables – guess what you’ll eat?
But it’s not just the fridge – if you sit in an office with a biscuit tin close by, chances are you’ll dip in at some point. The anecdote? Move temptation out of sight – donate biscuits, sweets and chocolates to others or move into opaque containers and out of your eye-line. Place fruit and vegetables at the front of the fridge and on your counter top to make the healthy choice the easy choice.
Habit 5 – Train with weights (you’ll get leaner, faster and stay that way)
Exercise is a vital part of weight loss – especially if you want to keep the weight off. Women combining a higher protein intake with exercise (twice weekly strength training plus daily walking) lost more body fat and less lean mass than those eating a higher carb diet with exercise.
Yep, aerobic exercise is great for burning calories, but the best exercise for preserving lean mass when dieting is resistance or strength training, where you work with weights – or your own body weight; think push ups, squats and lunges. A twice weekly programme, together with some cardio will see you get closer to your goal in less time.