This text will unfortunately not give you the magic template to your dream body. What it aims to do however is to give you the structure that sets you up for a healthy, sustainable and enjoyable journey to better health and a happier life.
What is health?
Health is a relatively difficult term to define since it could mean different things to different people and in different contexts. Some just look at lab values to determine if they are healthy or not, others go by how they are feeling, how they look, or how they perform etc.
For the purpose of this text I will define health in the context of weight loss as something that is both beneficial with regard to physiology (lab values, performance on certain tests and the likes) and psychology (meaning it is a way to lose weight that keeps you and your loved ones happy, or at least sets you up for keeping this goal).
I also want to mention that going from an obese state to a normal weight state is one of the most beneficial interventions you can do for your health. By just losing weight (or more importantly fat) you become healthier.
Common for most weight loss diets is that we want to lose as much fat as possible and preserve as much muscle as possible.
Define your level of commitment
For a healthy fat loss, we want it to be sustainable, something that can be kept long term. In order to achieve this, we have to take the individual’s preferences and circumstances into account. There is not just one best way to lose weight, instead, aim to find a plan that you feel can fit your lifestyle and level of commitment. For example, if you only have a couple of hours per week to train and have to eat lunch at restaurants with your co-workers every day, then try to choose the most efficient way to train and find the healthiest alternative on the menu or suggest going to a restaurant focusing on healthy foods.
How to lose weight
A fundamental concept when losing weight is that you have to eat less energy than what you consume. That means you have to eat fewer calories than you burn. By doing so you force your body to utilize stored energy to fuel essential and energy consuming processes (e.g. heart beating, keeping temperature, moving, digesting food etc.). The primary storage form of energy in our bodies is in the form of fat, but we can also utilize stored carbohydrates in the form of glycogen or protein from, for example, our muscles.
For weight loss, diet interventions seem to be key, even though the addition of exercise is beneficial, exercise alone does not seem to result in a great weight loss as diet interventions (1). Exercise, on the other hand, is important for physical and possibly mental health as well. A combination of the two is therefore preferred.
In theory, everyone knows how to lose weight. Many say just eat less and train more. While that might work, it is a simple advice that doesn’t predispose the individual to a successful diet and long-term maintenance of the new, lower weight. There are several factors to take into account when designing a weight loss plan.
Below are 4 simple steps that can improve the diet for many individuals, result in fat loss and a sustainable healthier weight with improved well-being. Following these steps doesn’t require much time, effort or work, it´s just an easy way to in small steps reach a healthier life.
Go over and review your current diet, it’s not necessary to be super exact, just acknowledge what you usually eat, the amounts you eat and your daily routines, a food logging app like Lifesum can in this situation be of great help.
If possible, do a daily weigh in the morning before breakfast, after going to the toilet in order to get a relatively objective outcome measurement.
After a week or two of being more aware of your diet, weight, and habits, you can draw some obvious conclusions:
- Are you weight stable?
If yes, then by decreasing food intake, or switching to less calorie-heavy foods, decreasing meal size, removing a meal, etc you should lose weight (if you keep your energy expenditure equal).
- Gaining weight?
Then your calorie intake is a too high.
- Losing weight?
You´re in a calorie deficit.
Other questions that can aid you in creating a sustainable weight loss plan include:
- Do you consume a varied diet with lots of vegetables and fruits?
A varied diet with vegetables and fruits decreases the risk of having vitamin and mineral deficiencies as well as improving satiety.
- Where do you get most of your calories from?
Maybe this could be something you can decrease or cut out?
- What foods are the most calorie dense?
Calorie dense foods can be easy to overconsume.
- Do you usually snack?
Snacking is a great way to increase calorie intake without noticing it. Try to be aware of when and why you snack and prepare for it, e.g. by having healthy options available.
- At what time are you the hungriest?
If you have trouble focusing and have a hard time waiting out the hunger pangs, have a healthy meal or snack with you at these times.
- When do you train?
It can be a good idea to have a meal within or around 3 h of your workout.
- Are you eating less healthy food options or can switch to more satiating foods?
g. are you having a croissant with dulce de leche and a coffee for breakfast? Instead, you could try switching this out for a fiber-rich bread with cottage cheese or an omelet. I.e. switch less healthy food options for healthier more satiating and less calorie-containing alternatives. Alternatively, switch to less calorie dense foods. For example, change banana for more voluminous less calorie dense foods like strawberries or change pasta for oatmeal etc.
- When do you prefer to eat?
Eating at regular times can be beneficial and it´s easier to plan for.
- Do you have many unpredictable days?
Sometimes it can be hard to plan out days but making sure to have healthy food options available increases the chance of a successful diet.
- Do you eat out often?
Try choosing the healthiest option on the menu or suggest a restaurant with healthy foods.
- What are the protein sources in your meals?
Eating around 40 g of protein per meal increases the chances of keeping muscle mass on a diet and increases satiety.
These questions give you an idea where your diet is and what you can change.
The Lifesum app also has a function where it can estimate your calorie needs and you can also choose a diet that fits your preferences, making it easier to stick to your plan.
Another way to estimate your maintenance calories: Multiply your weight in kg by 30-36 (~13.5-16,5 per lbs) to get a rough estimate of daily calorie intake. Use higher value if you are really active or really muscular. E.g. for a 90 kg person, 90 x 34 = 3060 kcal/day.
In step 1 you identified possible pitfalls in your current diet and what changes you could implement to make your diet healthier and initiate fat loss.
In step 2 it’s time to make these changes and note the results.
Start off with minor changes. This is preferable because it´s easier to implement changes and new routines gradually. Another reason is that you if you stop losing weight, you will still have actions to take in order to continue losing fat. Try aiming for a calorie deficit of ~200-600 kcal/day.
Review the effects of the changes (through weight and body changes, performance improvements, changes in the mirror, etc.). It can take some time to see any noticeable changes. Therefore, it can be advised to stick to your plan for at least a week to 2 weeks (fat loss is a long-term journey).
- Are you losing weight?
If not, go over the advice under step 1 again and make an additional change.
- Are you losing weight at an appropriate rate (~0.5-1 % of bodyweight per week, higher amounts if you have more weight to lose)?
If your losing too fast, increase calorie intake a little.
- Losing at a comfortable rate?
- Are you comfortable and happy with the new routines?
If yes, keep going. If no, review your routines and identify what you dislike and try making another change that you think you will be able to stick to.
Implement new changes if needed, usually after a couple of weeks of no progress or if the plan is unsustainable. See step 1.
- Determine your level of commitment.
- Find a suitable goal and plan for your specific level of commitment.
- Find a diet and training plan that fits your individual preferences, lifestyle and that you can stick to long-term.
- Prepare and plan your days.
- Have milestones on the way to your ultimate goal.
- Keep track of changes, e.g. weight, pictures, measurements, strength in the gym etc. to give some additional motivation and keeping track.
- Acknowledge that it isn’t always going to go according to plan and that you can’t prepare or foresee everything.
- Sometimes it will be hard and you have to do things you don´t really feel like doing.
- Enjoy the journey.
Diet advise in short
- Review your current diet, identify bad habits hindering weight loss.
- Create a reasonable calorie deficit (~200-600 kcal/day).
- g. by decreasing size of a meal, removing a meal, switching to foods containing fewer calories and more protein (eg crème Fraiche for quark), etc.
- Proper macronutrient composition according to your preferences, generally higher in protein while carbohydrates and fats are according to your preferences (don’t go too low on fats though since they are an essential nutrient).
- Be flexible, leave room for spontaneity. Rigid dieting is seldom a healthy and sustainable way of dieting.
Fredrik Wernstål is a final year medical student with a passion for nutrition, training, performance, and health. His goal is to help people reach a healthier and happier life by providing research-based advice.
Johns DJ, Hartmann-Boyce J, Jebb SA, Aveyard P, Behavioural Weight Management Review Group. Diet or exercise interventions vs combined behavioral weight management programs: a systematic review and meta-analysis of direct comparisons. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Oct;114(10):1557–68.