The principles of weight loss are fundamentally simple if you use (burn!) more energy than you consume from food then you will lose weight, hopefully in the form of body fat. However, the reality of achieving weight loss is far, far more complicated and maintaining lost weight is another giant step that many people struggle with. In fact, most dieters regain all weight lost within a year.
This may seem like there is no hope, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and this comes from identifying factors that are likely to lead to being successful. Before we move on to those key points, I think it’s important to identify why people often fail in either their choice of dietary approach or why it doesn’t work for them in the long run.
Firstly, as an industry we have failed to get across the right message; fad diets, magic pills and the ‘blame game’ are much, much more appealing to most people, especially those who feel desperate and lost.
The common advice from a lot of PT’s is simply ‘well eat less and move more’. I think this disenfranchises and makes people more likely to choose fad diets and quick fixes because something so simple, shouldn’t be so hard, right? These quick fixes also tie into our desire for instant gratification so it’s a ‘no brainer’ for many people.
Secondly, it is increasingly popular for ‘Google PhD’s’ to blame all manner of things for why you can’t lose weight. It’s either your hormones, carbs, dairy, gluten, sugar or the time of day you eat that is the problem, nothing to do with calories or your eating behaviours.
This is again very appealing to many people because it means that if a person can’t lose weight it isn’t their fault, and let’s face it no one likes to be blamed for things they perceive as out of their control. This fits nicely with that way of thinking we ALL have from time to time as we don’t fundamentally want to admit we are the cause of our own problems!
Quite often removal of these foods or changes in eating habits attributed to removal or manipulation of one of the above factors will cause weight loss, and ‘eureka’ the Google PhD is ‘right’! It was ‘insert thing here’ that was the problem, not your fault or anything to do with calories and those silly irrefutable laws of physics!
But are they really ‘right’?
I will cover energy balance in detail another time and why many people misunderstand ‘calories in vs. calories out’, but for now bear with me because I’m about to demonstrate why all these approaches still rely entirely on manipulating calories!
Time for a thought experiment.
I want you to imagine your PT has told you carbs are the devil, or something about ‘insulin stopping fat loss’ (to sound clever, when they don’t have a basic grasp of endocrinology). So, you cut all carbs from the diet.
Now, write a mental list of the foods that contain carbs and especially sugar!
So, I imagine you have chocolate, biscuits, chips, sweets, pastries, breads and other tasty foods on that list somewhere?
If you remove them from the diet, those foods that are high in CALORIES (and fat but we’ll ignore that because our fictional PT doesn’t think fat calories count, but shh!), taste great and are easy to overconsume, then of course you are going to lose weight by reducing calorie intake! No magic here I’m afraid.
Throw those things back in your diet after weight loss and ‘bingo’ you regain weight and of course then it is ‘carbs’ fault, definitely not the extra calories you are consuming, and this confirms your PT was ‘right’ all along.
This is exactly the same for all of these kinds of strategies that sneakily mask the fact they have created a calorie deficit under the false pretence it is something ‘blameable’ that is the issue.
Thirdly, one of the advantages of these quick fixes are that their ‘dieting rules’ are simple to follow. The notion of a ‘healthy balanced diet’ is vague, counting calories and macronutrients is hard for the uninitiated and getting to the bottom of the nutrient values of foods and how they ‘fit’ in your diet is a whole lot of effort to learn about.
It is easy to see why a ‘simple rules’ approach is appealing, but unfortunately life doesn’t always let us live by simple rules, sometimes we want to have our cake and eat it and none of these strategies deal sufficiently with creating confidence and educating people in how to have a diet that fulfils the requirements of our physique goals, whilst balancing the reality of eating in a sustainable way to allow you to actually have a life and be able to enjoy ‘naughty’ foods guilt free.
You can 100% do this. But that comes with a price, and that price is having to spend some time engaging in educating yourself and realising quick fixes, no matter how appealing, have very little chance of success in the long term.
Fourthly, these don’t address why you gained weight in the first place.
Now we have ‘established’ (or at least we will continue to establish in future articles in some detail) that all diets work through creating a calorie deficit, the problem is that none of these approaches really deals with the causes of weight gain, and of course weight rebound after weight loss.
The reality is that our struggles with ‘weight’ are often habitual in nature and these can take a number of different forms. Here is a list and brief description of just some of the types of triggers and/or behaviours, that are often combined that cause people to overeat.
Mindless Eating: This includes grazing behaviours and those bites, licks and tastes we are simply not aware of or don’t ‘count’. This is quite often accompanied with a lack of attention to what we are consuming. Classic examples would be eating in front of the television or at the movies and ‘tasting’ foods when cooking.
Stress/Emotional Eating: A bad day at work, feeling home sick or down after a break-up are often accompanied with overeating. Food, in the short-term at least, makes us feel better and boosts mood. This can either be due to the direct pleasure we derive from foods but also quite often due to relationships with food we have developed since childhood, using food as some kind of tasty security blanket when things get tough.
Self-Loathing/Guilt Eating: Eating to punish yourself is really common. On a diet for example, a ‘bad’ day eating leads to feelings of guilt that then cause us to punish ourselves by you guessed it, eating more foods that make us feel disproportionately guilty relative to the ‘damage’** we have actually done to our diet and this can spiral into yet another failure of diet.
Self-Justification Eating: ‘I went the gym today, so I deserve this entire cake’, ‘it’s my birthday’, ‘it’s a wedding’, ‘it’s my aunties dogs christening’… there is ALWAYS a reason to overindulge. Now, some are of course more valid than other, and yes you should be able to enjoy foods and special occasions.
But did your 30 minute yoga class really burn 700kcal and deserve that KFC (other fast food outlets are available) on the way home? We enjoy cake and a good celebration as much as the next person, but do you really have to have a piece every single day?
This is a classic issue in big offices. It’s always someone’s birthday, someone always brings in cake or biscuits and it’s only one cookie… well until that turns into three or four ‘it’s only ones’ every day! In this case 4 cookies could easily be north of 300kcal and that calorie deficit disappears quickly if we aren’t paying attention or over time that 300kcal we aren’t considering leads to weight regain.
Environmental Eating: This is simply that we have programmed ourselves to eat a certain way in an environment without really questioning why. For example, we go to our favourite restaurant and without thinking about food choice we simply choose the most calorific items of the menu (because it’s tasty probably) as we have an expectation of how to behave in that environment.
Trips to the relatives and friends, even what we buy and keep in our cupboards, are going to have a huge pull on what we consume and quite often we never even stop to think that environment alone, especially combined with some of the other behaviours listed above, means that we are often more out of control of our habits than we realise.
To put all of the above into context overeating by 200kcal a day, which is fairly easy to do if we are at the whim of our habits, means that one lb of fat is gained approximately every 7-10days. This is why weight creeps on us slowly over weeks and months it is very rarely ‘one off’ episodes but a culmination of all these behaviours that allow us to gain weight. However, if we can acknowledge these behaviours and either adapt our eating or create new habits to overcome them, then we can stop this happening!
All of these behaviours when we break them down are irrational (but understandable!) if we can start to realise this and question those beliefs and behaviours then we can change. Easy? NO! Possible? Absolutely (but that’s a different topic for a different time!).
** A ‘bad’ day can easily be balanced as long as we acknowledge that one day or even a few days does not define our success. In fact, when you understand (through education) there are no real bad foods and how you can actually have your cake and eat it, then a lot of the guilt can be removed around foods and with time this can hopefully mean that we stop attaching as much emotion to the foods we eat and enjoy them in the context of our overall diet.
Finally, they don’t surround themselves with the right support.
Being around negative people, putting ourselves in situations where we are not being supported or even taken seriously with our efforts are all going to make something that is incredibly hard, even harder.
It can be difficult to identify who really has our best interests at heart, who is really going to listen to our struggles and not try to derail us through their own insecurities (this can be a very big problem). Not to mention that people out there are going to try an make a quick buck by offering support and solutions that are either not qualified, not capable or not willing to deliver.
As much as we will talk about individual responsibility being the key to success in weight loss (or achieving anything in life really) it is undoubtedly easier if you have the right kind of people in your corner… so choose who you spend your time with wisely and figure out who really believes in you, supports you and wants you to succeed.
So, now we have identified why people struggle to lose weight, we can use this to create an idea of what is going to go a long way to making you a successful dieter.
- A person who can focus on long term goals, not short-term gratification.
Weight loss is not easy, it takes time and patience. If your first thought is that you need to lose weight quickly without any understanding of the science of weight loss you are likely to set yourself up for failure.
Unrealistic short-term ‘wants’ are not the same as setting realistic goals. You will hit plateaus and at times life will get in the way. Being able to identify the need to delay gratification for long term benefit is very important.
Although we might want to eat an entire cheesecake now, those who can focus on the long term benefits from abstaining (or at least limiting) from the cakey goodness are much more likely to succeed.
We live in a world of instant gratification. Everything can now be ordered and consumed at the touch of a button. We need to identify this as an issue and really try hard to be outcome-focused and play the long game. What we want and what we need are often two very different things and it is not always easy to identify the differences.
This is why thinking about our eating behaviours is so important to understand how our brains and short-term emotions might not have our best long term goals at heart!
- Takes personal responsibility and doesn’t seek to blame others.
It’s time for some tough love.
Yes, tracking calories can be hard. Yes, nutrition can be confusing and take time to learn. Yes, our friends and families eating behaviours impact on us. Yes, stress increases our drivers to eat. Yes, we might not have time…. Etc. etc. etc.
I would say in my experience a high proportion of those who struggle to lose weight simply do not take enough personal responsibility for their actions. I wish there was a way of sugar-coating this, but blame culture is rife in all walks of society.
Ultimately, although there are reasons (some more valid than others) why you might lose control of your eating and exercise habits, all responsibility starts and ends with you. If you are not working on educating yourself, working on your positive mindset every day, staying outcome-focused and are constantly looking for barriers, difficulties and the easy way out then you will always fail because you are always looking for an excuse. Be honest with yourself about your limitations, then take action and do something about them.
- Engages in education.
This is a really big one. When it comes to our approach, tracking macros is important for many reasons. Being able to identify what you are eating, how much and when are all important to address not just how to create an energy deficit to lose body fat, but also look at eating behaviours and habits that need addressing to be successful in weight loss and weight maintenance.
IT IS NOT EASY.
One of the most frustrating things as a coach is when people quit because they can’t ‘get’ something straight away. This is not because the person is not capable, far from it, but they are so negative on themselves that the only route they can take is one which is so easy as to not require any effort.
They will not even ask for help or support, try to do any research on any of their struggles, never read an FAQ or bother to give themselves the time of day to focus on a problem and try to find a solution… that they are more than capable of.
If that sounds like you, then be honest, is weight loss something you want to achieve or is it just something you like the idea of? If you are serious about changing your life then start engaging in the process, celebrating the small wins (like learning how to track, or what protein is for example) and seeing the bigger picture of the opportunities to learn, not barriers to fail.
You owe yourself that time and if you haven’t got 30 minutes a day to focus on learning about your health and your mindset, then in my honest opinion you really need to give yourself a little more credit and a lot more respect. You owe it to yourself.
- Be patient.
Once you have the hang of tracking, creating a calorie deficit is easy. However, just because you are in a deficit does not mean that a) weight will fly off overnight and b) even if you are losing fat that the scales will always be a nice steady linear drop.
Menstrual cycle, lack of sleep, salty foods and many other factors can cause scale weight to stall even when fat is being dropped. This is why changing dietary approaches every five minutes fails and that you need to give yourself a few weeks of consistency before making any crazy adjustments in your approach.
I also think it is very important to identify other ‘wins’ so that we don’t get too stuck on weight. Focus on other things… did you make better choices that week? Did you learn something about nutrition? Did you have more energy and focus in the gym or at work?
Good nutrition and exercise habits will give you so much more than simply weight loss and maintenance of a healthy weight after, it will help you perform better in all aspects of your life. Start to recognise those positives as well and it gives you more opportunities for success and positive thinking that a simple number on a scale!
Ultimately, you didn’t gain unwanted weight overnight and you are not going to lose it that way either. So instead of setting yourself up for disappointment and becoming even more frustrated and down on yourself, give yourself the respect and time to make the required changes and focus on the long-term of losing weight in a way that fits with your lifestyle, allows you to identify what habits were derailing your efforts in the first place and learn to not just how to lose weight, but also how to keep it off in the long run and define your success in more than just kg and lbs.
- Looks for the right support.
I’ve already discussed why support is important and that some people may (often unintendedly) not have your best interests at heart.
Identifying the correct support is challenging, but here are a few things to look out for!
Are they trying to sell you a product that will solve all your problems immediately, or are they being honest and telling you that there is ‘work’ to be done?
Are they making you feel bad about yourself, guilty and feeling useless, so you become reliant on them emotionally, or try to take you down to their level, or do they make you feel like you have self-worth and you can achieve anything?
Are they trying to get you to feel powerless and blame other factors, or do they empower you and encourage you and support you to take personal responsibility?
Are they always negative, is everything hopeless and make you wallow in constant self-pity, or do they raise you up, tell you to think positively and are there for you either individually or as a community when things aren’t going to plan?
I think that’s about it for this article, and I appreciate that is a lot to absorb, but I would strongly encourage you to start thinking about the issues we have discussed in this article and identify which ones are most likely to be affecting you and your efforts.
The main thing is once you have identified those issues, is to start working on them! Action breeds results. We can ask the universe for anything, but without putting in the hard work, the chances are all we’ll get back is an echo of disappointment.
Finally, remember, every perceived failure is an opportunity to learn. It can be different ‘this time’ no matter what has happened previously and we hope the Live Like Louise team and community can help you learn, offer you support and help you create a sustainable nutrition and exercise approach that works for you.
Thanks for reading,