Updated: Sep 11, 2020
With 2/3 of the UK population now classified as overweight or obese, there has never been more available information about how to lose weight and get in shape. At some point in your life you’ve probably been on a diet to lose weight and maybe even experimented with some of the more popular diets like keto, paleo, vegan, Atkins, weight watchers etc. You may have even found success in the past but now that muffin top or spare tyre has made its way back to your waistline and you’re looking for some advice again. The good news is you’ve come to the right place and below is exactly what you need to know to lose weight and keep it off for good. The bad news is there are no quick fixes, miracle cures, or fad diets here. Just evidence-based advice that is proven to work for anyone.
In order to achieve healthy sustainable weight loss there are a number of core principles (or rules if you prefer), which you need to follow. The 4 core weight loss principles are:
You must be in a calorie deficit (i.e. your calories in must be less than you calories out).
Aim to lose no more than 0.5 - 1.0% of your bodyweight per week.
Eat a high protein diet (i.e. 1.6 - 2.2 g/kg/day)
Engage in resistance training (i.e. weight lifting or bodyweight training) at least twice/week.
While you may be able to achieve some levels of success by only following some of these core principles, for long-term results you need to follow all four and remain active once reaching your goal weight.
Now it’s all well and good to make these statements but you’re probably wanting to know why these principles are so key and why this advice may differ from the millions of other people’s weight loss advice you’ve heard before. This is where many so called weight loss ‘experts’ shy away from talking facts and the long-term results of their diet fads. Just about any crazy fad diet can induce weight loss in the short-term (< 3 months), but the evidence shows they all fail in the long term (> 2 years), often causing greater increases in total body fat accumulation overall. No matter how you do it, creating a calorie deficit will result in weight loss. But, could you follow that juice fast forever? How about never eating another carb your whole life? I didn’t think so. Thats why these diets fail long-term, as they’re all looking at how to just get the weight off quick to make money. What they’re not doing is helping you to put in place habits and behaviours that will maintain a healthy weight and stop the endless yo-yo dieting cycle.
Weight loss is the product of a negative calorie balance (i.e. Calories In < Calories Out). However, calories in vs calories out is not as simple as public health messages such as “Eat Less and Move More” would suggest. Calories in is simple enough, its the sum of all the food and drinks you ingest each day including alcohol. The calories out side of the equation however, is a little more complicated and is made up of 4 components:
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).
Exercise Activity (EA).
All together these 4 components make up your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). To help you understand, and help dispel some diet myths I will explain each of these individually and how much each contributes to your TDEE.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – this is the largest component of your TDEE, making up approximately 60 - 70% of the calories out part of the equation (however, this percentage may be lower in very active individuals). Your BMR accounts for all the energy that is required to run all your bodily functions including, pumping your blood around the body, creating hormones, thinking, breathing, etc.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – NEAT makes up approximately 15% of your TDEE but may be as much as 50% in highly active individuals. NEAT accounts for all the involuntary movements you make each day like using your devices, fidgeting, talking, moving around, etc. Your NEAT can actually decrease significantly when you become more active as an unconscious effort to be less active in your involuntary day-to-day activities to compensate for the energy you are expending through more regular exercise activity.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – this component is the energy used to digest your foods and accounts for 8 -15% of your TDEE. Some foods like protein use more energy to digest and can raise your TEF. However, there is limited evidence to suggest that this has a significant effect on weight loss and why so-called “fat burner pills” are ineffective at aiding weight loss.
Exercise Activity – this component is what is referred to when generic government advice says “move more” and accounts for 15 - 30% of your TDEE. Although exercise is only a small portion of what makes up how many calories you burn each day, it is still the area you can effect the most and increasing your daily exercise levels will have a much greater effect on weight loss than focusing on just eating less. Exercise Activity includes any voluntary physical activity. However, the intensity of the exercise engaged in significantly affects how many calories you will burn. Ideally, you should aim to exercise for at least 150 minutes at a moderate intensity or harder each week.
Now lets put this altogether and learn how to calculate your TDEE using some handy equations. While the most accurate way to measure your TDEE is in a special lab for 12-hours using a metabolic cart, this isn’t very practical. Therefore, these handy equations are a quick and easy way to do-it-yourself without the faff. First you need to calculate your BMR using one of the two equations below. If you know your body fat percentage I would recommend using the Müller et al equation, if you don’t then stick with the Harris-Benedict equation. Included are two examples for each using some fictional friends called Mr Couch-Potato and Ms Gym-Bunny.
Your TDEE will always be higher than your BMR and will depend on your daily physical activity levels. The activity factor will range from multiplying your BMR by 1.2 if you are inactivity/sedentary and in a desk based job up to multiplying your BMR by 1.9 if you are extremely active by working a hard manual labour job and engaged in very hard exercise almost every day. When selecting your own activity factor I would encourage you to be honest with yourself about your activity levels and if in doubt, select the lower option if you think you’re between 2 options. See the table below for the range of activity factors:
Now let’s apply these activity factors to Mr Couch-Potato and Miss Gym-Bunny.
Mr Couch-Potato: 1,906 kcal/day x 1.2 (Sedentary) = TDEE of 2,248 kcal/day
Miss Gym-Bunny: 1,295 kcal/day x 1.725 (Highly Active) = TDEE of 2,234 kcal/day
Your calculated TDEE is an estimate of your maintenance amount of daily calories i.e. the amount of calories you need each day for your weight to stay the same. To lose weight you will need to eat below your caloric intake, if you’re gaining weight then you’re eating above your TDEE.
“I’ve been eating only 800 calories/day and I’m still not losing weight!” Does this sound familiar? I’m sure you’ve heard someone say this before, or maybe you’ve even said this yourself. In this scenario, there is only one reason weight loss wasn’t happening. The person wasn’t in a negative calorie balance. Now before you get angry and think I can’t eat any less, or shoot off to the comments section in a mad fury, let me explain what’s happening here and how you can avoid it from happening to you.
When you drastically reduce your calorie intake you will usually experience an initial rapid rate of weight loss, which will be from mostly water weight stored with glycogen in your muscles and liver, along with some fat and possibly muscle. Once your glycogen stores are depleted your weight loss will slow down and any weight lost will be either fat, muscle or both. However, when you spend extended periods of time in a calorie deficit your body with adapt and try to be less wasteful, in order to preserve your fat stores (not much help to you when you’re trying to lose them). This survival mechanism to protect your fat reserves is sometime referred to as ‘starvation mode’. However, the effect this so-called starvation mode has on metabolic slowing is not as extreme as some diet hacks would like you to believe. Instead, this adaptation is merely your body trying to keep things just as they are (a.k.a. homeostasis). Your body has a ‘set point’ of how much body fat you like to keep in reserve. The longer you’ve had higher fat stores, the more accustomed you have become to this and the harder it is to lower your set point. (Note: harder, but never impossible). The average healthy adult’s body fat set point will vary no more than 4 -7 kg their entire adult life. Now, when you eat in a calorie deficit you become more and more efficient and the amount of fat you can lose each week gets less and less. To prevent this effect from harming your weight loss efforts you can introduce ‘re-feeds’ to your diet. Re-feeds are planned days where your caloric intake is not in a deficit but at your maintenance amount. This causes the self-defence mechanism against losing fat to switch off and your metabolism will not slow as much. The easiest way to add re-feeds is to eat in a calorie deficit 5 days of the week and eat at your maintenance for the other 2.
Coming back to our 800 calorie/day example, this metabolic slowing may be part of the reason for hitting a plateau however, the most common reason for not losing weight on such a drastically low calorie diet is... you we’re eating much more than 800 calories/day and may not have been aware of it. Whether it is not accurately tracking your calories, not including liquid calories like drinks and alcohol, underestimating portion sizes, unconscious snacking, or lying due to social pressures, there are many reasons why you may not be eating as little as you think. So, while you may think you are eating 800 calories/day and thinking this is well below your maintenance amount, you may actually be eating much more than your TDEE and as a result, no weight loss can occur.
The take home message here is to be honest and realistic with yourself. You did not gain that weight overnight so expecting to lose it so quickly isn’t realistic. You also need to be more careful with your food monitoring, consider the occasional re-feed, and be aware that poor eating behaviours are very easy to miss so keep convenience and junk in the shop and away from idle hands. If you decide to have a treat, account for it in your diet, keep the portions sensible, and earn it by making a special trip to the shop.
Rate of Weight Loss
How quickly you lose weight can play a huge part in whether your weight will yo-yo back to your previous weight or end up even higher than before. Research shows that the optimum rate of weight loss is between 0.4 - 1% of total bodyweight per week. While you can definitely lose more weight than this per week, weight loss at a rate of greater than 1% increases the amount of weight lost from lean mass which ultimately makes it harder to maintain your weight after reaching you goal. Therefore, the slower you lose weight the more likely it will become permanent weight loss. Slower rates of weight loss are also less likely to trigger the before mentioned self defence systems that can make weight loss and maintenance much more difficult.
Here's an example. A moderately active, 87kg man wants to lose 7kg at a rate of 0.75% of his bodyweight/week. This would equal 0.65kg/week and take approximately 11 weeks to reach his target weight (assuming a linear decrease in weight and no diet breaks). Knowing the rate of weight loss required we can then calculate how many calories below his TDEE (2,888 calories/day) our man needs to consume to reach his goals. A good guide for this was proposed by Peter Baker & Layne Norton who suggest multiplying your weekly target weight loss in kg by 930 calories (assuming you are following all 4 core principles). For example:
930 x 0.65 = 605 cal/day deficit
Therefore, our man's daily calorie Intake Is: 2,888 - 605 = 2,283 cal/day
Please bear in mind that these calculations are an estimate and your own exact numbers may be around 200-300 calories above or below your own calculations or maybe more, particularly if you have a history of “yo-yo” dieting. For best practice, try the recommended calorie intake for 1 week, if your weight and/or waist is increasing, lower the number by 100 calories, if decreasing too quickly, raise by 100 calories. You will also need to recalculate this number every 4 weeks to adjust to your body composition changes. Remember, Weight loss cannot occur without a calorie deficit, no exceptions. Therefore, it is vital to keep a flexible mindset on these numbers and adjust accordingly.
Counting calories is not a desirable activity for most people. However, tracking your calories and macronutrients (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, and protein) intake early on in a weight loss programme can help you to understand what the correct portion sizes and food/drink choices that are needed to lose weight and then sustain a healthy weight post diet. An easy way to achieve this is by using a smart phone app like MyFitnessPal. There are other options available and I have no affiliation with Under Armour (the makers of MyFitnessPal), however, I have had good personal experience of using the app and my athletes/clients have found it very quick and convenient when tracking their intake. To help I have included links to the iOS and Android versions below.
MyFitnessPal (iOS) - https://apple.co/2qoOEMy
MyFitnessPal (Android) - https://bit.ly/22Cyisu
Note: I would not recommend syncing this app to any activity trackers as this may skew your target calorie calculations within the app.
High Protein Diet
High protein consumption helps to maintain your lean mass (e.g. muscles). As muscle mass requires higher amounts of calories to maintain than fat mass, this will help to keep your TDEE at a higher metabolic rate and not drastically decrease as you lose weight. Protein is also incredibly satiating (i.e. makes you feel full), which will help with hunger cravings and with adherence to your calorie restricted diet. When we talk about a high protein diet I want to be a specific as possible as one person’s view of high protein may be another’s view of low or moderate protein intake. In the scientific community, high protein intake is determined as 1.6 – 2.2 grams/kg of bodyweight/day. This is double the government minimum recommendation of 0.8 g/kg/day. Protein consumption above 2.2 g/kg/day have shown no additional benefits in maintaining or increasing lean muscle mass whereas levels below 1.6 g/kg/day are insufficient in maintaining lean mass during caloric restricted diets. (note: if you are obese (BMI > 30 kg/m2) then aiming for 2.0 - 2.5 g/kg of lean body weight may be a better guide. As a reminder lean body weight = total bodyweight in kg - body fat in kg). Using our man from earlier, his recommended protein intake would be:
87 x (between 1.6 & 2.2) = 139 to 191 grams or protein/day
Resistance training (a.k.a. weight lifting, bodyweight exercises, or callisthenics) is recommended to keep the muscles in an active state, encouraging weight loss to come from fat and not muscle mass. Put simply, if the muscles are being regularly used then this encourages the body to lose body mass that is not in use i.e. your excess fat. All exercise is beneficial for weight loss however, resistance exercise is far superior for maintaining lean muscle mass. The aim for this principle is to engage in resistance-based exercise that stimulates all of the major muscle groups in both the upper and lower body at least twice/week. This is most effectively achieved by using compound exercise (i.e. exercises that use multiple joints of the body). An example of a compound exercise is a squat where the knees and hips must flex together to keep good form and generate force from multiple muscles groups simultaneously. I would recommend using a training program built around the “Golden Five” exercises which are all compound moves and will give you the most “bang for your buck” from your training sessions. The Golden Five are Squats, Bench Press, Deadlift, Pull-Ups, and Overhead Press. Another great way to engage in resistance exercise is by using High-Intensity Interval Resistance Training (HIRT) style exercise programs. There are endless options here for you to explore and I would recommend finding an option you enjoy. If you enjoy exercise you are much more likely to want to engage in it/stay consistent with it and not think of it as a chore.
Tracking Your Weight Loss
If you’ve ever measured your weight at different times of the day, or regularly for a few days in a row you may have noticed that your weight can fluctuate by 1 - 2% every day. This is quite normal and represents the fluctuations in your water weight (i.e the fluid inside and outside all of the cells in your body). Because of these regular fluctuations it is wise to track your weight in a more controlled way to limit the influence of food intake, bowel movements, exercise, etc. You may have also noted that sometimes you feel like you are getting thinner or your clothes are looser, but the weight on the scales hasn’t changed or maybe has even gone up. This is also normal, particularly if you are engaged in regular exercise and possibly gaining some lean muscle mass. With all these normal fluctuations in mind it is recommended to track your weight, waist circumference, and hip circumference at least 3 times/week throughout your weight loss journey. Calculate an average of your measurements at the end of the week and use this value to determine weight loss, weight gain, or no change. The best time to check your measurements is first thing in the morning after your morning urination and before eating, exercising, or anything else. For a detailed guide on how to measure each of these variables, see the pictures and descriptions below:
Your weight is best to perform standing tall with your weight through the heels, arms by your side wearing only your underwear or ideally naked.
Your waist circumference is best measured in a relaxed state, mid-way between the bottom of your rib cage and the top of your hip bone. For most people this will be approximately 1 - 1.5 inches (2.5 - 4 cm) above the belly button. Make sure the tape measure remains level all the way around and is untwisted and taught against the skin (unlike the women in the above picture).
The hip circumference is best measured standing up with your feet together and the tape measure around the middle or largest part of the bottom. Make sure the tape measure remains level all the way around and is untwisted and taught against the skin.
If any of these 3 measurements are trending downward then you are losing body fat and doing well. If the numbers are trending upwards or you record no changes in the measurements for 2 weeks in a row, then lower your calorie intake by 100 calories and/or re-calculate your recommended calorie intake using the TDEE calculations above.
There are numerous different types of diets spread across the internet, all claiming to be the best diet ever for your health and/or a miracle weight loss plan. However, there is one diet that is extremely well established throughout the scientific community as the best for reducing your risk of disease and promoting good health. This diet is called The Mediterranean diet and is based upon the local diet of some of the healthiest people in the world in rural Italy. The Mediterranean diet is illustrated by the below pyramid and based on the following principles:
All meals should contain 3 basic elements: cereals (1-2 servings per meal from breads, pasta, rice, couscous etc. preferably wholegrain), vegetables (2+ servings per meal), and fruit (1-2 servings per meal and the default dessert of choice).
Consume 1.5 – 2 Litres of water/day (note: these numbers are based on average weight for women and men respectively and may be higher for heavier individuals).
Moderate amounts of dairy (2 servings per day) with a preference for low-fat dairy or traditional healthier forms such as Greek yoghurt.
Extra Virgin olive oil forms a large part of the Mediterranean style diet and should be the primary source of fat and used for both cooking and dressing.
Olives, nuts, and seeds are great healthy snack options and another source of healthy fats.
Spices, herbs, garlic, and onions are great sources of micronutrients and add flavour and palatability to your meals.
Alcohol can be consumed at no more than 1 small glass of wine/day for women and 2 glasses/day for men, however, no not exceed 14 units/week (7 small glasses) and include at least 2-3 alcohol free days. Alcohol is not a vital part of the Mediterranean style diet and can be completely omitted if desired.
Fish and shellfish (2+ servings/week), white meats (2 servings/week), and eggs (2-4 servings/week) are all great sources of protein. A variety of fatty fish is highly recommended including salmon, tuna, mackerel, etc.
Red meat (less than 2 servings/week) preferably from lean cuts of meat and not processed.
Legumes and pulses (2+ servings/week) is another great source of fibre and plant proteins.
Potatoes (3 or less servings/week), while a great source of starchy carbohydrates they do have a high glycemic index and overconsumption may increase your risk of developing diabetes.
Sweet/sugary foods, heavily processed/refined foods, and unhealthy fats should all be consumed as little as possible with a guide of no more than twice/week. These foods are very calorific and heavily contribute toward excess weight gain due to their easy over consumption.
The Mediterranean diet does not only include food recommendations, it also includes a number of lifestyle elements that aid in maintaining a healthy balance in your life and encourage healthier eating behaviours and activity levels. These recommendations include: moderate portion sizes, being social, cooking, being physically active, and getting adequate rest.
While the Mediterranean style diet is the most scientifically validated diet to improve your health it is not the only diet that could work for you. Before starting any new nutrition plan you should ask yourself, “Can I see myself following this diet for the rest of my life?” If the answer is no, or you’re thinking I’ll do this just for a few weeks, or until my holiday/wedding/anniversary/etc., or to just lose the weight quickly, then your nutrition plan will probably fail to produce long term, sustainable results. It is with this in mind that you should consider the idea of flexible dieting and accept that the best diet for you is the one you can stick to. Flexible dieting doesn’t mean you can eat whatever you like all the time and still get the results you want; this is unrealistic and the kind of thinking that fuels short term fad diets and yo-yo weight loss and weight regain. The idea of flexible dieting is that you can allow yourself to have a treat meal, or a few drinks out, or a dessert here and there and as long as this is accounted for in your caloric intake then there’s no reason you can’t still make progress and improve your health. There is no such thing as a perfect diet and beating yourself up for wanting a piece of cake one day is not good for your physical or emotional wellbeing. This idea of everything in moderation is even part of the Mediterranean diet discussed above.
Weight Loss Supplements
The weight loss supplement market is a multi-billion dollar industry that is founded on trying to deliver “a quick fix” to help you lose weight. However, there are no quick fixes to long-term weight loss and to date there are no weight loss supplements that have shown a significant impact on weight loss compared to caloric restriction alone and no effect without a calorie controlled diet. There are only really 3 supplements with extensive benefits for weight loss which are protein supplements, creatine, and caffeine. While all of these are optional they may help with your efforts in the following ways. Protein supplements can help to meet your daily protein requirements which can be difficult at times from diet alone. Creatine can help to increase the amount of energy that is available for resistance training allowing you to workout for longer or at a harder intensity, both are very helpful to weight loss. Caffeine is a helpful stimulant that can help to increase your energy levels to get you to workout. Please note, despite what some supplement companies would like you to believe no supplements have a notable effect on fat oxidation (a.k.a. fat burning) or increasing your metabolic rate (a.k.a. your TDEE). So, my advice would be, save your money for the new clothes you’ll need to buy when you reach your new permanent healthy weight.
The following information has been adapted from my book Weight Loss for Everyone which is now out of print. For a more detailed guide to weight loss, nutrition, health and performance, check out my new book Eat Move Perform: Volume 1 - Nutrition & Supplements, which you can pre-order now from Waterstones (see link below).