Successful and not so Successful Diet-Related Weight Loss Strategies

We all have read them. Countless articles in magazines and sometimes even whole books on how to lose weight. We all have a friend or colleague who has lost weight and swears by the method they used. But how do we know what actually works and if it works for us? How many crash diets or latest celebrity advice have you tried, with more or less success? As you may know, if you have read my story on how I lost 30 kilos, there is not just one weight loss strategy, and there certainly is no wonder pill or quick fix (sorry to pop your bubble here, but if there was a quick and easy fix, we all would have our ideal weight!). Bodies are different in how they respond to certain foods (or lack thereof) and exercise, and WE are different in what strategies we feel we can sustain over a longer period of time and are suited to our lifestyle.

Some of these better known weight loss strategies were included in a study published in 2012 on eating related behaviours leading to weight loss in postmenopausal overweight women.¹ These women had to complete questionnaires over a 12 month period relating to dietary intake, eating-related weight loss strategies, self-monitoring behaviours and meal patterns. The women were on average 58 years of age and white and had a mean BMI of 31.3.

After 12 months, the women had lost an average of 10.7% of their initial body weight. The most common strategies to lose weight were the following:

Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Intake

It is probably not much of a surprise that we lose weight when we eat more fruit and vegetables, as they usually replace less healthy options. When we try to eat more healthy food we tend to make substitutions: for example instead of crisps, pastries and French fries we eat apples, salads and broccoli.

In my experience, the biggest problem with this approach is that some people don’t feel their appetite has been satisfied if they just have a salad or a bowl of cut fruit for a meal. And even if they can, sometimes it is not sustainable over a longer period of time. I would recommend to replace only snacks with fruit or vegetables. So instead of a pack of biscuits in the afternoon I would try to have an apple and some almonds. And instead of replacing whole meals such as lunch or dinner with only fruit and vegetable, I would try to add vegetables or fruit. So for example, eat a large salad first and then have a small portion of spaghetti. I think this strategy is much easier and sustainable for most, as it is not depriving you of anything you crave or love. It is just less, with a healthy dose of vitamins and fibre thrown in the mix.

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Decreasing Fat Intake

In the study, 88.6% limited their fat intake as a diet-related strategy. The other diet-related strategies were reducing the number of calories, eating less high carbohydrate foods, increasing fruit and vegetables consumption, eating less meat, cutting out sweets and drinking fewer alcoholic beverages. According to the result only the change in the percentage of calories from consuming less fat and eating more (!) carbohydrate foods were associated with weight change. That seems an odd finding at first, since carbohydrates have got a bad reputation recently (hardly any news or magazine article separates simple and complex carbohydrates unfortunately). But I would make an educated guess here and say this is the result of substituting; for example having rice instead of french fries or plain baked potato instead of loaded baked potato. With these substitutions you cut out a lot of bad fats, but you can eat more of the healthy option for the same amount of calories.

Again, I don’t think you should cut out fat or carbohydrates (or any food group for that matter) altogether. I think the most sustainable and easy approach would be to focus on consuming healthy fats and healthy (complex) carbohydrates, while at the same time making sure that the calorie intake stays within a certain target (that of course would be different from individual to individual and would also depend on activity levels).

Reducing the Number of Calories

There was a significant decrease in the total calories the women had consumed. Percentage wise they decreased the calories from fat and saturated fat, but increased the percentage of calories from carbohydrates (see my educated guess above under  decreasing fat intake). It is the most obvious, and in fact the only way to lose weight: To put it simply, calorie intake needs to be lower than calorie expenditure.

Keeping a Food Journal

Those ladies who had completed food journals within the first 6 months of the trial had lost significantly more weight than those who had not (or less consistently). The study states clearly that keeping a food journal can significantly improve weight loss outcomes,  but that it is very challenging for most people to do this consistently on a daily basis. However, apparently even modest adherence to this strategy may help to lose weight. I believe that as apps such as My Fitness Pal get further improved, it will get easier to keep a food journal. As with every other strategy it takes time to form this habit.

If you have read my personal journey on this blog, you know that I kept a food journal too. And for me it worked really well. I just became more aware of what I was consuming during a day or week. And I learnt how “calorie-rich” some foods were compared to others. But it is not for everyone, I understand that some people are put off by the effort it takes to look up food, count calories, weigh ingredients etc. To begin with, I would definitely recommend using an app such as fitness pal. If you are like me and your diet is not totally different from one day to the next, then, like me, once you have recorded everything for 2 or 3 weeks you have most meals covered and saved in your app and you just add them as you go (and eat).

Measuring Food

Eating-related weight loss strategies in the study included measuring food and skipping meals. The women who measured the amount of food that they put on their plate lost significantly more weight than those who did not use this strategy. While I am not sure how they measured their food and what their criteria were, I think a good approach is to always fill half of your plate with vegetables. That way you are making sure you are eating plenty of healthy food and are not just filling up on simple carbohydrates and protein.

Not Skipping Meals

I find it very interesting that in this study women who skipped meals lost less weight than those who did not. But it does confirm what a lot of magazine articles and nutritionists say, namely that skipping meals slows down metabolism and is often related to higher calorie intake. For example, one commonly hears that we should not skip breakfast as those who do will make up for it later in the day and for example eat huge dinners at night. I think skipping meals in this case is probably related to the ladies’ lifestyle; where there is no time to cook (or precook) meals at home, which leads to more (unhealthy) eating out and skipping meals.

Many people experience the opposite with an Intermittent Fasting (skipping meals) strategy (which I am currently trying myself, so stay tuned for a blog on this topic soon). Intermittent fasting is in vogue at the moment because it works for a lot of people. But this just confirms my whole point here: Different strategies work for different people. The most important thing for you is that you find out what suits your lifestyle and gets you the results you are after.

Eating Out Less Frequently

Switching to a healthy balanced diet can be difficult. If you have to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner at a restaurant, this change is even more challenging. Restaurants, fast food and take away outlets control the ingredients and cooking methods and often serve large portions. You are also exposed to the temptations of the mouth-watering smells coming from the kitchen and the extensive menu. So if possible avoid. If you can’t avoid, use the same strategies as mentioned above: Order vegetables or salad as a starter to make sure half your meal is healthy, and try to substitute unhealthy fats and simple carbs with healthier options.

Exercise

Interestingly enough there was no (statistically) significant difference between the group who also added exercise to their weight loss programme. This group had added 45 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic exercise five times per week to their other weight loss strategies. Even though the group adding exercise had not lost (statistically significant) more weight, exercise has other benefits than supporting weight loss. Even if it’s true that weight loss happens 80% in the kitchen and 20% in the gym, we must not forget: Exercise makes us happy (thank you endorphins!), strong, fit and beautiful (see my blog on how exercise keeps us looking young!).

¹ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3432675/

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