Let’s get straight to the point: dieting is hard. Really hard. Sure, having an on-call personal trainer, delicious meals that meet your every nutritional need (ahem) and an iron will make it easier. But really, how sustainable is it to shift some extra timber without becoming obsessive and then keep it off afterwards?
To help bring you the, ahem, ‘skinny’ on safe weight-loss, we spoke to a trio of experts: Huel’s own Daniel Clarke; Nutritionist Resource member Shannon Western; and Jo Travers, author of The Low-Fad Diet.
First of all, let’s tackle that oft-touted idea that those who do complete a drastic diet will put the weight back on in no time at all. Is this based in truth, or is it simply jealous sniping by the exercise-adverse?
“Scientific research tells us is that around 65-95% of people who diet will regain the weight they lost within five years," says Western. What’s more, she adds that the vast majority of these people – as many as 85% – won’t just regain the weight they lost after a crash diet, they’ll put on more.
This happens because our bodies are hardwired to make crash diets difficult. When you dramatically reduce calories, a cascade of physiological changes occur in your body. Your metabolism drops and energy is more readily stored as fat, in an attempt to fight what feels like a period of starvation.
But Western points out that a host of changes occur in your brain as well, such as the action of a hormone called Neuropeptide Y, which fills our minds with thoughts of all the delicious food we’re missing out on when we’re dieting. This makes drastic diets almost impossible to stick to (and is why staying motivated when losing weight is essential). When we inevitably return to our old eating patterns, our bodies are primed to put all the weight we lost straight back on again.
This rebound in weight can have an unhealthy impact on body composition too, as Travers explains. “When people lose weight a proportion of that loss is usually muscle. Unless you’re working out consistently, you can then regain fat but very little of the muscle you lost, leaving you with a higher body fat percentage than when you first went on the diet.”
This is one reason why ‘weight loss’ is a bit of a misnomer, really; if you’re dieting because you want to be healthier, then you should be thinking about your fat-to-muscle ratio instead. As Travers explains, excess fat around the middle can affect your metabolism and produces inflammatory compounds that increase the risk of developing type-2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Speedy weight loss, followed by speedy weight gain, often precedes another bout of speedy weight loss and, you guessed it, an equally speedy return to where you started. This ‘yo-yo’ dieting – so-called because the numbers on your scales keep going down, then back up again – is incredibly common, but also incredibly bad for you long-term.
“Studies have shown that yo-yo dieting could have negative effects on cardiovascular health and may even result in greater weight gain over long periods of time,” explains Clarke.
What, then, are the guidelines for a sustainable and healthy diet that will produce longterm results? “Men should aim for a 500kcal deficit per week to lose one pound of body weight,” Clarke explains. “Also, muscle burns more calories than fat, so the higher your muscle percentage, the higher your metabolic rate.” In other words, weights are just as helpful to your weight loss goals as the treadmill.
Clarke also points out that your body composition will change as you lose weight, and that women and men naturally have different calorific needs. It’s vital to take these into account if you want to make lasting progress.
To get started without making dieting feel like a chore, Travers suggests you begin by implementing small changes into your diet. A simple way to do this, she advises, is to ask yourself the question "Will the next mouthful be as good as the last?"
“Even with our most favourite foods we reach the point where the next mouthful won't be as good,” she says. “Once you start checking in with your body like this you can start doing what makes you feel good, like including more fruit and veg. This in turn feeds the bacteria that live in our gut which in turn communicates with our brain, helping mood.”
Of course, the key thing to remember is that your weight isn’t the be all and end all. If dieting is making you unhappy, what’s the point? Doing what’s right for you is where the ultimate progress lays.
With weight loss, slow and steady almost always wins in the long-term because it’s easier to stick to new habits than to keep chasing kilograms.
“We are not all the same so why should our diets be?” asks Clarke. “If you don't like spinach, don't eat it. If you want more green vegetables in your diet, try broccoli. Small, sustainable changes over time will be the best way to long-term results. Drastic short-term changes will lead to short-term results. Your goals also need to change with you and you need to enjoy the process.”
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