From hormones to calorie intake to exercise, a host of factors affect the numbers on your scales. By understanding them all, you can take a healthier and, hopefully, happier approach to weight loss
By: Tom Ward
As anyone who’s ever tried to lose a few kilos knows, weight loss is a tricky old thing. It isn’t as simple as cutting out bread and chips and booze. Nor is it about endless cardio or forcing yourself through HIIT workouts three times a day. Healthy – and most importantly, sustainable – weight loss is something else entirely.
To help you get started on the path to a leaner tomorrow, we asked expert nutritionists – including Huel’s own lead sustainable nutrition executive, Daniel Clarke – to talk us through the real science of weight loss.
We’ll assume you understand the (extremely oversimplified) first step: eat better, move more. You know the drill. You cut out the crap, start hitting the gym, running, going to kettlebell class, and things start to change. Brilliant. Suddenly, a few weeks in, things are no longer moving as quickly as you’d like. Why?
It might be that you’re weighing yourself too frequently. Your body is not a machine – daily fluctuations are completely normal, not a sign that you’re doing something wrong. We still don’t understand much of what goes on in our bodies, so weight loss is often unpredictable. But you can give yourself a fighting chance by taking a look at your calorie intake.
“The big reason why people’s progress flatlines is because you aren’t adjusting your calorie intake to your weight,” says Clarke. Say you start out at 90kg, taking in 2,500kcals per day. That might be right enough of a calorie deficit for your body to start burning stored fat. But a few weeks in, you could be down to 85kg and because you weigh less you’ll no longer need as many calories. Stick to 2500kcals and naturally, your progress will slow.
Typically, Clarke explains, men and women need to eat 500kcals less than their maintenance calorie levels to lose weight. Do this and you should shift about 1lb (0.45kg) of bodyweight per week. Huel can help here, since every portion is exactly 400kcals, making it easy to track precisely how much you're consuming. Better yet, since Huel is nutritionally complete, all your nutritional needs are covered – from protein to phytonutrients – without you needing to figure out precisely how much of what kinds of food you should be tucking into.
But how do you know how many calories you actually need to fuel your workouts? “The simplest thing is to Google ‘calorie counter’,” says Clarke. “There are loads online, are all roughly based on your age, height and weight, as these all impact weight loss. It’s a blunt object, but it is a good guide. You can use this to track your weight loss and work out if you need to adjust anything along the way.”
Good advice. But what actually happens to our bodies as we lose weight? Specifically, aren’t our bodies built to cling onto fat as we restrict calories? “This doesn’t typically apply,” Clarke explains. “If you’re eating the right number of calories and exercising, the body can’t ‘cling on’ to fat. It’s not magic, you will lose weight.”
However, hormonal shifts – like those that occur during the menstrual cycle – can impact weight loss. Oestrogen can cause water retention during a period, while in the build-up, spikes of the hormone progesterone can cause food to be digested more slowly than normal, leading to constipation and bloating. When your period begins, progesterone levels drop, which can increase bowel activity and also lead to bloating. Naturally, this isn't the best time to step onto the scales if you want an accurate reading.
“Where hormones play a big part is around hunger,” says Clarke. “One week, you might suddenly fancy fatty foods a lot more. Or you just want to eat more calories. It varies, is natural, and you can’t really control it.”
In fact, a good deal of weight loss is down to genetics. Take, for example, that famous last stubborn bit of fat. For some of us this might be on our belly. Others might have it on our hips, thighs, arms… anywhere, really. “People have particular body areas that they find it difficult to lose weight from,” says Clarke. “This is genetic. We don’t have control over it. And it’s also impossible to lose weight in just one area.”
The key is not to give yourself a hard time if things aren’t progressing as you’d like. “Weight loss plateaus are a very normal part of a weight loss journey,” explains consultant dietitian Ro Huntriss. “We liken a successful weight loss journey to one that looks like a staircase, in that you have periods of loss and then periods of maintenance, so it is important that plateaus are normalised.”
Huntriss goes on to explain that it’s important to have realistic expectations. “If you hit a plateau and you don’t know why it’s happening, take a step back and consider both your nutrition and your activity levels,” she says. “You could consider completing a food diary for a week to see if you can identify things that you could change to achieve that calorie deficit.”
Above all, it’s vital not to see weight loss as the ultimate goal in and of itself. As Clarke explains, losing weight should be part of an overall, healthy approach to fitness. Most of the time we forget this, and when we talk about losing weight, we’re actually talking about losing fat. “We don’t really want to lose muscle,” Clarke says. “Gym exercises promote an hour-glass figure, but you won’t achieve that through weight loss. You need to put on muscle to shape your body.”
The answer is to decrease body fat and increase muscle. In other words, a balanced and healthy approach to weight loss instead of just trying to fit into your old jeans at the expense of your health and happiness.
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