Rule number one for successful weight loss is this - don't go on a diet. Despite the fact that doctors and dieticians tell us the only way to lose weight is to eat less, study after study shows that the majority of the people who lose weight on a diet put it all back on, and more, within a year. Diets don't work - it's official.
The body can't be tricked into losing weight by giving it less to eat. Over millions of years we have evolved ways to hang on to our energy reserves (fat) when food is in short supply. Dieting trips us into starvation mode, forcing us to make adjustments to preserve our fat stores. Studies show that diets stimulate the production of an enzyme which the body uses to manufacture and store fat. Another effect of food restriction is to reduce our body's metabolic rate. So, long-term dieting forces the body to make more fat, and ensures that we don't burn it off as quickly.
Make mine a double portion
The essential ingredient for sustained weight loss is food, and plenty of it. Studies show that people who graze food throughout the day are less likely to be overweight than those who skip meals.Long term weight loss depends on regular fuel stops, so eat a breakfast, lunch, and an evening meal with snacks in between if you want. Hunger has no part to play in successful weight loss.
Apart from making us fatter, the other major downside to hunger is that it can push our resolve to the limit. The hungrier we are, the more appealing the ham and cheese croissant looks next to the tuna salad. It's nearly impossible to make rational, healthy food choices when your body is crying out for food.
Eat whatever you like
A lot of diets demand us to say goodbye to some of our favourite foods. Cream, butter, cheese, fried food, sugar and alcohol all get the heave-ho in just about every popular diet. The question is, do you really need to forsake these foods to lose weight? Okay, you know that certain foods aren't exactly going to speed the disappearance of your beer-belly, but as long as you keep the general thrust of your diet healthy, then there's no reason why you shouldn't indulge yourself from time to time.
On the occasions when you decide to go for something really unhealthy, don't be tempted to go for the low sugar, low fat, or low calorie option. The general rule with these 'healthy' foods is that whatever has been taken out has been replaced with something equally unhealthy to maintain palatability. So, if you're tempted by something naughty, then have the real McCoy, and enjoy it.
The real trick is not to dwell on the foods you shouldn't be eating, but to concentrate on the ones you should. As far as weight loss goes, it can really be much more about what you put in than what you leave out. One very simple and effective way to lose weight without deprivation is to eat more fruit and vegetables. This works because there's a limit to the amount we can eat, so by upping our intake of fruit and veg we naturally cut back on the less healthy foods.
So, eat at least a piece of fruit at breakfast, and have fruit in the mid-morning and the mid-afternoon as well. Make sure you eat a decent serving of salad or vegetables (potatoes don't count) at lunch and dinner. If you can't get your hands on salad or veg then have more fruit with your main meals. Even if you make no other conscious changes to your diet, just eating more fruit and veg will shift some weight.
Take that wheat away from me
Conventional medical wisdom tells us that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. In other words, the fattening effect of a food is determined by its calorific value, and has nothing to do with the form these calories take. Yet, for some individuals certain foods do seem to be more fattening than others, irrespective of their calorie content. So, it makes sense to fill up on carbohydrates like bread, potatoes, rice, and pasta, and keep high fat foods like butter, margarine, cheese, bacon and other fatty meats to a minimum.
Another reason why the effect of some foods on weight is not always related to their calorie content is something called 'food intolerance'. Food intolerance starts when we absorb food from the gut which has not been completely digested. Our body views these partially digested pieces of food as foreign, and will react to them. In an attempt to neutralise the undesirable food pieces, the body bathes its tissues in fluid, causing fluid retention. This means that you may experience a sharp upturn in your weight, not because of how much you've eaten, but because you've eaten something to which you tend to react. If your weight fluctuates by a few pounds from day to day, the chances are that you are food intolerant.
Finding out which foods you are sensitive to can require a bit of detective work, but there are clues to help you. If you tend to suffer from chronic catarrh or a blocked nose, milk and cheese are likely culprits.
Apart from dairy produce, the other major villain is wheat. Take a look at your diet and you may find that you are eating wheat in one form or another at practically every meal in the day. A wheat based cereal or toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta or bread with the evening meal is pretty typical fare for many of us. The problem is, this amount of wheat can overload our system, and this where the trouble starts.
Many of us will enjoy satisfying weight loss just by cutting out or reducing our intake of the foods to which we react. Soya milk sweetened with apple juice is a good substitute for cow's milk, and tuna or chicken make healthy alternatives to cheese as a sandwich filling. Good alternatives to wheat-based foods are rye crackers, rice cakes, rice, and cereals such as cornflakes, oat porridge and puffed rice.
Quick, send for the fat-busting nutrients
The chemical reactions that turn food into energy depend on the presence of certain vitamins and minerals. If we should get a bit low on any of these, it can slow the rate at which the body is able to liberate energy from food, thereby increasing the risk that some food will end up unused and then dumped as fat in the body. Taking a good quality multivitamin and mineral every day can actually aid weight loss by helping to ensure the efficient burning of food in the body.
At least a couple of nutrients seem to be of special benefit in weight loss. One of these is chromium. Chromium can help keep the blood sugar level from dropping, thereby reducing any tendency to crave sweet or starchy foods. Studies show that chromium can help the body lose fat too. Chromium comes in a number of different forms, with the best probably being something called chromium polynicotinate - 200 to 400mcg per day should do the trick.
Another nutrient which has been shown to have fat burning properties is fat itself. Not the sort of fat that congeals in the grill pan after a Saturday morning bacon frenzy, but the fat that can be found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna and trout. Like chromium, fish fat helps stabilise blood sugar levels and can have beneficial effects on blood fats too.
And will you be wanting to see the dessert menu?
Eating out appears to present a vast array of pitfalls for the weight conscious. Restaurants seem to be awash with full-fat entrees and sugar-charged desserts. If you're not a frequent restaurant goer, then there's no point in fretting about the impact those meals out will have on your belly. It's what you eat most of the time, not some of it, that counts.
However, employing a few simple rules when dining out can really help to limit the damage. For instance, if you're eating European food, then kick off the meal with something salad based. For the main course have some meat or fish cooked simply such as roast chicken or grilled trout accompanied by a decent amount of vegetables and a few boiled new potatoes. Even if you go for the super-indulgent dessert, the overall balance of the meal is still pretty good. If you're going for pizza, pasta or lasagne then make sure you have a decent side-salad with it. The best option in an Indian restaurant is any curry which isn't of the creamy variety, plus rice and a salad if you can get your hands on one. In a Chinese, your best bet is a simple stir-fry, such as chicken and vegetables, and boiled rice.
The odd burger, fish and chip supper, or kebab once in a while doesn't necessarily spell disaster for your chances of shedding your gut, but it goes without saying that late-night fast-food frenzies should be kept to a minimum. If you're wondering what the healthiest fast-food option is then a shish or chicken kebab wins by a mile.
When it comes to alcohol, the big question is, do we need to lose the beer to lose the beer belly? Well, despite its name, the beer belly is not usually caused just by a few too many pints, but by a combination of factors, which relate to diet and exercise. What this means is that adjusting other lifestyle factors could mean you may be able to lose your gut and keep the beer. However, the general rule is that to get the same amount of alcohol you need to consume far more calories if you drink beer than if you opt for other forms of alcohol. Gin or vodka with tonic or fruit juice aren't too bad, and if you want a bit more volume a spritzer is your best bet. If you're drinking with a meal, then a glass or two of wine is unlikely to do much damage.
Not a lot of exercise does you good
There's a popular misconception that losing weight with exercise means countless hours spent on a treadmill or exercise bike. Actually, the amount of exercise we need to take to help shift a few pounds isn't very much at all.
If you are not very fit the most appropriate forms of exercise are the relatively low intensity activities such as swimming, brisk walking, jogging, rowing, and cycling. For a fat burning effect, the exercise should be hard enough to get you breathing hard, but not so hard that you are unable to hold a conversation. About half an hour's exercise, three or four times a week is enough to get things moving.
If you work to a busy schedule, a very time-efficient way to get your exercise quota for the day is rebounding (mini-trampolining). Ten minutes on one of these is probably as good as half an hour pounding the streets, without any of that nasty jarring effect that running can have. Plus, you don't even need to put a foot out of your front door. Rebounders can be bought in good sports shops for about £40.
The chief aim of an effective weight loss programme is to dispense with fat. However, there is always a risk that when we lose weight, some of it may come from us burning something other than fat, such as muscle. Studies show that on a low-calorie diet almost half the body weight lost can come form the body cannibalising its own muscle tissue. (Another good reason not to go on a diet). Muscle is the furnace in which fat is burned so the less muscle you have, the lower your metabolic rate, and the harder it is for you to shift your excess weight. So, while good aerobic exercise is what you need for effective weight loss, resistance training can have some value too.
Again, as with the aerobic exercise, we don't actually have to do much to preserve our muscle mass. A few sit-ups and press-ups each day will certainly go some way to ensure our muscles don't dwindle to nothing.
And if you're feeling especially keen and decide to lift some weights, you can forget all that heavy stuff. Low weights and high repetitions are the way forward for you.
Oh, and one more thing about exercise. When you exercise can also affect how much weight you lose. Several studies show that exercise revs up the metabolic rate, not just during exercise, but for a period of 18 hours afterwards. So, exercising in the morning means that we burn more fat all day. However, working out in the afternoon or evening is less effective because the metabolic rate drops when we get into bed, and several hours worth of fat burning effect can therefore be lost. So, for the best results, do your exercise in the morning.
Lie back and think of pies
Odd though it may seem, there are healthy ways to lose weight that don't require us to change our dietary or exercise habits at all. Massage, for instance, can help weight loss because it can help shift toxins that can stagnate in the body's lymphatic system and add to the body's tendency to accumulate excess weight. Helping the body to rid itself of these toxins with a technique called 'manual lymphatic drainage' assists weight loss, enhances overall wellbeing, and requires you to do nothing more than lie there and take it.
Another way to speed up toxin elimination is by taking a sauna. A lot of people think that saunas work by promoting fluid loss through sweating. The fact is, just drinking a couple of glasses of water after the session and all the weight lost through sweating will be back again. However, like massage, saunas can speed up the elimination of toxins from the body, this time through the skin. For this reason, saunas can actually help to take the sweat out of losing weight.
© J. Briffa Dr. 1997 Men's Health. 3; 1; 42-45.