The Big Picture
Weight watchers, Atkins diet, Dukan diet, lemon detox diet, cabbage soup diet, over the past many years these diets have all come and gone, some worked better than others, yet obesity in the UK is still at an all-time high. 64% of adults among the UK are classified as either overweight or obese, a growth of 11% in the last 25 years. With more gyms, fitness spaces, access to personal trainers and nutritionists than ever, why are we still struggling to lose weight as a nation?
Science tells us that losing weight is fairly straightforward. It’s a simple calculation of your calories in vs your calories out. If you eat more than you expend, you gain weight, and vice versa. But is it that simple? And what other factors are at play here?
Little by little...
If we dive deeper into the 'calories in’ side of the equation, we realise how cultural norms can make it so easy to overeat, which can help us understand how all calories are not equal.
This typically manifests itself through small amounts of weight gain over the course of years until one day we try on an old pair of jeans and it becomes palpable that we need to take action. The first thing to highlight is your upbringing. Your eating habits will most likely have been ingrained into your hardware from your parents. Were you ever rewarded with ice cream for good behaviour? Comforted with chocolate when you were sad? If this is sounding familiar you might have acquired an early adoption of emotional eating, which is present throughout the nation and continues into adulthood.
We also know that willpower and self-discipline doesn’t always work, which is why your environment and the people you most spend your time with will heavily influence your actions. Every day, we have a finite amount of ‘willpower energy’, which is akin to the battery on your phone. The more you resist something, the more this reservoir of willpower decreases. Traditional office-based jobs these days are usually laden with biscuits and confectionery, involve entertaining clients with boozy lunches and late-night ordering as you’re working on a project. Making it through even just one day without all the excesses could be seen as an achievement.
In addition to the above, food of the modern day has become extremely accessible and palatable. Hundreds of thousands of pounds funds research that looks into the intricate combinations that produce food items that are highly rewarding and tap into our brain chemistry to desire more (ever stop after just 3 pringles...?). Coupled with the idea of ‘mindless eating’ where eating is no longer the daily ritual of breaking bread, connecting with others and savouring each bite.
On top of this concoction of beige food, our lives are increasingly busier. This can result in chronic stress and poor sleeping habits, again, leading to cravings and overeating. It has been proven that individuals who sleep shorter hours will have higher levels of hormones that govern feelings of fullness and hunger, feeding a vicious cycle of intense appetite and delayed sense of fullness. Coupled with elevated stress levels from working late hours or juggling a busy family life, the primary response of the body will be to turn to more caffeine, more sugar and more calories.
So, what can we do?
Planning ahead is always a smart move. How many of us arrive at lunch, hungry and empty handed? Typically, that's where things go wrong. This is the reason why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same thing every day. Psychologists propose that we all have a finite capacity to make decisions and by removing a simple decision such as what to wear, Mark is reducing any chance of ‘decision fatigue’ later in the day on more complex tasks. From a nutrition perspective this could involve batch cooking on weekends, or using a food delivery service, so that when Susan offers you cookies in the afternoon, you can easily say no.
Most new year’s resolutions fail because there just isn’t any level of accountability involved. Having somebody on board with you throughout your journey is one of the most critical aspects of keeping motivation high and sticking to your commitment. This accountability could come from hiring a personal trainer, or from something as simple as declaring your plan to friends and family or to your social media following. Needless to say, this is something that you should be doing for yourself, however having friends/family on board and/or a personal trainer who genuinely cares about your results will be a huge motivation.
Understanding the difference between hunger and appetite is also fundamentally important for anyone who wishes to be successful in long term weight management. Hunger can be described as a physiological need to eat to sustain life, whereas appetite usually refers to a hedonic desire for food. Eating to fuel performance and support optimal health should be our primary outlook on nutrition. This is where the guidance of an expert is invaluable to help you through the different stages of dieting, identify the correct portion amounts, provide constant feedback and help you increase your nutrition I.Q along the way.
The list below outlines the core foundation of any successful plan with a view to promote healthy weight loss and support long term weight management.
- Exercising a minimum of 2-3x a week
- Aiming to complete 8000-10,000 steps a day
- Getting 7-9 hours sleep a night
- Drinking enough water for your body
- Eating a well-rounded diet that provides adequate macronutrient/micronutrients
- Supplementation if necessary, to support increased demands
Putting it all together
Weight loss can be a daunting idea for some and can provide many challenging obstacles along the way. Many of us have become victims of the downward spiral of health that comes with working long sedentary hours, hectic social lives and indulging too much on holidays. Our ‘calories in’ side of the equation is continuously on a moving scale subject to the demands we place on our physiology and as the years go by our lack of proactivity will usually catch up to us.
Knowing your ‘why’ will be one of your most valuable assets before embarking on a weight loss journey. It could be that you’re recently engaged and planning for the big day. Or you’re approaching a milestone birthday and want to be in the best shape of your life. Or it’s a health-conscious act and you’re protecting yourself from cardiovascular disease as it runs in your family history. Whatever it may be, being equipped with this knowledge will propel you forward from the start line, pick you up if you fall down and spur you on through the finish line. Whether going solo or not, taking that first step is the most important step.