The weight-loss world is more of a minefield than a Kardashian's dating life. Navigating the conflicting advice and parade of fad diets (hey, teatoxes) to cut a few kilos is one thing, but you also want to do it in a healthy way. And for it to be sustainable. Oh, and easy to fit into your life.
“Anyone can lose weight. Crash diet, cut kilojoules fast,” says exercise physiologist Drew Harrisberg. “There are so many ways to lose it, but keeping weight off long-term, that’s the hardest part and what everyone is looking for.”
With this in mind, we combed the science and tapped the experts for the strategies that’ve stuck around – for good reason. All so we could deliver you the most effective, sustainable strategies to help you reach your healthy, happy weight – and maintain it.
1. Power down portions
To see how our serves have grown over the past 50 years, check out your grandparents’ wedding plates or teacups, suggests Clare Collins, professor of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle. “You might think they’re side plates because they’re so small, but those were the real serving sizes,” she says. Why size matters in this case? A 2016 Deakin University study discovered that people who were given large plates ate 41 per cent more than those with a dish half the size. So, try this trick: buy your dinner set from an antiques store (or just scale down your choices in Kmart) to naturally reduce your kJ intake. “If you shrink your plates, you’ll think you’re just as satisfied with a smaller amount of food,” says Collins. “And your brain doesn’t know it’s been tricked.” Easy as.
2. Clue in to cues
We’re being cued to eat or drink everywhere, whether it’s by the Maccas ad on the bus stop or the two-for-one lolly bags at the supermarket checkout. Not ideal, since exposure to food cues significantly influences eating behaviour and weight gain, according to a 2016 study in Obesity Reviews. To manage your kilo-count long-term (and outsmart those sneaky food juggernauts), start to manage the potential pitfalls around you. “The more you are aware of [food cues], the more you can say, ‘Hey, I had a slip up today because this environment sabotaged me’,” says Collins. Recognising environmental triggers is the first step, and then you can find a strategy. “For some people it’s diversion (phone a friend or walk in the opposite direction); for others, having an alternative to the food cue (like an apple instead of a chocolate bar) really works.”
3. Head for the Med
For the grub as well as the European summer. The Mediterranean diet was ranked the best diet of 2018 by the US News & World Report, based on nine categories such as how easy it is to stick to and the likelihood of losing weight on it. The approach is characterised by heaps of veg, fruit, seafood and legumes, and smaller amounts of meat and dairy. Plus, of course, those healthy fats in things like fish and olive oil. “I use it as a tool for people who already consume a high-fat diet and just convert the types of fat to extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados,” says dietitian Stefanie Valakas. The other bonus? “It focuses on the social aspect of eating,” she adds. “Making [meals] more social will help keep your attention on how you’re feeling, rather than mindlessly eating.”
4. Join the breakfast club
Some pros recommend having the majority of our daily food at brekkie, while others reckon skipping your AM meal altogether will help you drop kilos (looking at you, 5:2). But, the general consensus falls with the first option. “In the long-term, having regular meals including breakfast is a really helpful strategy [for weight loss],” says Collins. She points to the National Weight Control Registry in the US, a longstanding study of people who have lost an average of 30 kilos and kept it off for more than five years. “[Eating breakfast] is one thing these long-term successful people do.” Chuck eggs or beans on your plate to dial up the protein: eating more of the macro, especially at brekkie, can support a healthy slim-down by keeping cravings in check over the day, reveals a 2018 CSIRO report. All that said, don’t force food down if eating first thing really isn’t your jam (on toast). “Some people might not feel hungry in the morning or it may make their stomach upset. If that’s the case, try a later breakfast or larger morning tea,” says Valakas. Brunch for the win.
5. Mind the scales
In the pro corner: weigh-ins can be useful motivators. In fact, a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found adults who weighed themselves daily lost more weight than those who didn’t. But, on the anti side, many experts are wary to recommend hopping on the scales every day. Weight management psychologist Glenn Mackintosh often notices that once clients take their focus off the numbers, they feel happier and less under pressure. “Learn to enjoy movement and healthy eating not as a weight-loss behaviour, but as a naturally healthy thing that our bodies are designed to do,” he says. If you stick with the scales, weigh yourself at the same time every day to reduce fluctuations, and be aware of patterns over time rather than letting a spike get you down. But if they make you feel demotivated or stressed, measure change via other factors: your jeans feeling looser, running up the stairs sans puff or feeling more energised.
6. Love lifting
Pumping iron may not blast the kilos like cardio (a 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found resistance trainers lost less weight than cardio bunnies), but that’s not a bad thing: what you lose in fat, you gain back in muscle mass. Why this helps with long-term weight loss? The higher your muscle mass, the higher your resting metabolic rate (that is, the amount of energy you burn doing nothing at all), explains Harrisberg. “Resistance training is a way of depleting glycogen from the muscle, which then makes space for the carbs you eat, rather than your body saying ‘OK, we’ve got excess, let’s convert it to fat’.” In short, more muscle equals more kJ-torching power.
7. HIIT it up
Yeah, you’ve heard it before, but interval training really is your superhero here. Researchers from the University of New South Wales agree it’s an effective weight loss strategy for women: subjects who did intervals for 20 minutes, three times a week, trimmed down faster than steady-paced exercisers who worked out for twice as long.
Intervals prompt excess post-exercise oxygen consumption – basically, because you’re working so hard during your sesh, you can’t breathe quickly enough and so your body works anaerobically (without oxygen). “It’s priming your body to burn fat later in the day to repay this debt that you’ve created during your session,” Harrisberg explains. Meaning you have an “afterburn” effect, torching kilojoules hours after you’ve finished training. Winner.
8. Be the tortoise
Crash dieting is a surefire way to derail your goals. “Your body wants to maintain homeostasis; it wants to stay the same. So if you cut [kilojoules] your metabolism goes, ‘we’re losing weight really fast here, we better slow the hell down’,” warns Harrisberg. The result? It takes on a snail’s pace – then struggles to adjust when you increase your food intake again. Hello, weight gain. So, make small changes to your diet that you can sustain over time. Valakas’ general rule is to aim for half to one kilo of weight loss per week. Slow and steady wins this race.
9. Eat mindfully
Mindfulness really does deserve the royal-wedding-level hype – it’s as good for your waist line as it is your head space. Just take the intel from a 2013 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: people who ate while distracted (watching TV or scrolling Insta) consumed 10 per cent more kilojoules during the meal and 25 per cent more later in the day than those who paid attention to what they were eating. Um, we’re sold – but how? “It’s about not seeing eating as another task on a long to-do list. Instead try setting a little bit of time aside for yourself to enjoy food,” says Valakas. Focus on enjoying each bite and tune into how you feel while eating. “Ask yourself how full you feel during the meal instead of feeling obligated to eat whatever’s in front of you. Eat until you feel content, not stuffed.” Got it.
10. Hit the sack
Sleep is a scientifically proven weight-loss strategy. A study in Nature Communications found people who’d had a full night’s rest preferred healthier foods than their kip-deprived companions, who craved junk. Need more? US researchers from Stanford University tested 1024 volunteers, and those who hadn’t clocked enough sleep had elevated levels of hunger hormone ghrelin and reduced levels of satiety hormone leptin – meaning they were more likely to eat more, more often. The takeaway? Switch off The Handmaid’s Tale and hit the hay. You know the tricks (dark room, no tech), but also try telling yourself to stay awake while in bed. Sounds weird, but a study in Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy actually reports that people who did this found it easier to fall asleep and had less anxiety about the process.
This article originally featured in the August issue of Women's Health magazine