Yo-yo isn't the way to go: how to eat for sustainable weight loss
Monday 7th January 2019
I'd like to introduce you to Angela. Having subjected herself to different variations of calorie-restricted diets for years, and regularly attending a twice-weekly spin class, as well as Body Pump and core classes, she still hadn't managed to get the results she wanted.
Angela is small in height with quite a large frame, and desperately wanted to lose weight. She had focused on finding a quick fix to a lifelong problem, but as time went on she became disillusioned, blaming her genetics, metabolism and anything else she could think of. She believed that no matter what she tried, she would fail, resigning herself to a life of dieting and weight loss plans. This started a cycle of self-pity, which led to short periods of comfort eating and excessive alcohol consumption, before restarting the cycle of eating next to nothing combined with hardcore exercise. This situation made her miserable and only added to her feeling of low self-esteem.
Angela's story may sound familiar; you probably know someone who is always on a punishingly low-calorie diet, who works out regularly but never seems to achieve their goal. This may even sound like your story - one of effort and restriction, but with minimal reward.
So why, if you are putting in so much effort, are you not achieving what you set out to achieve?
One of the main reasons is that calorie-restricted diets simply do not work. There are a multitude of studies that show that drastically reducing your calorie intake will actually slow down your metabolism. This means that in the short term you may lose some weight but, over time, your weight loss will slow and more than likely stop completely. The result is that you will end up eating next to nothing whilst possibly gaining weight. I have seen many people eating as few as 1500 calories but because their metabolism has slowed down, they are probably only burning 1300. This leaves them with a calorie excess, so they end up putting on weight.
This is where the hormone insulin comes in, high levels of which are associated with type 2 diabetes. Insulin essentially controls how your body stores fat. When you eat a meal, your body breaks the food into usable energy called glucose, either burning it straightaway, or storing the glucose as glycogen to be used when needed. When the glycogen stores are full, the surplus energy will be turned into fat. Imagine glycogen is the food in your fridge and fat is the food stored in your freezer. The food in your fridge is easily accessible whenever you need it. The freezer, on the other hand, is kept in your garage so is hard to access the food it contains and will need to be transferred to your fridge to defrost.
When you go on a low calorie diet your body will take from the 'fridge' until it is empty; to lose weight, though, you will need to delve into the freezer where the fat is stored. This is all governed by insulin; if you have high levels of insulin then your body will struggle to use fat as energy - the garage is essentially locked and insulin is the key. It doesn't matter how few calories you consume - if you have high levels of insulin, you simply won't be able access the fat meaning you won't lose weight.
This is why it is much harder for someone who has lost weight to keep it off. They have 'crashed dieted', without addressing their insulin sensitivity so their body is more likely to store the energy as fat and their metabolism is likely to be at rock bottom.
If you want to lose weight you will need to improve your sensitivity to insulin, and the easiest way to do this is to increase your lean muscle or to stop eating.
Let's look at increasing your lean muscle: lean muscle is like the coal that burns your fire. The more coal you have, the bigger the fire, and the more muscle you have, the harder your body has to work to maintain that muscle, increasing your metabolism in the process. The paradox is this: you need to eat adequate food to increase or maintain lean muscle. Add a good resistance plan and you will increase your lean muscle.
The second way to reduce insulin levels is to fast or only consume really low levels of carbohydrates. When you don't eat, the insulin levels in your blood reduce, and the same can be said about a very low carb diet. So if you go for a period of intermittent fasting, your body will become more sensitive to insulin, unlocking the garage so that food can be taken from the freezer and placed in the fridge to be used.
This, however, comes with a caveat: just as you wouldn't expect to run a marathon when you haven't even run for a bus recently, you shouldn't jump straight into intermittent fasting. It is important to first develop good eating habits, improving the quality and quantity of food that you are consuming. If you don't, you are essentially just on another diet. Although fasting has many health benefits, it is also extremely hard to do and is something that you should only use as a reset, to increase your insulin sensitivity, rather than as an ongoing way of eating. Otherwise, when you do go back to eating again you will just slip back into the same bad habits.
Instead, make small changes, gradually building momentum. You really do not need to make big, wholesale changes to your diet to lose weight initially - simply adding structure and improving your food choices will work. This is achievable and so should spur you on to continue to lose weight and reduce body fat. So what do you need to do?
For two weeks look at your routine and make a note of what each day involves. Over the two weeks you will start to see a trend in your routine. The purpose of this is to find out what will stop you from eating what and when you want to eat. You will then know how to structure your meals so that you are able to work round the more testing parts of your day. Keep a food diary. Make a note of everything you eat including the times; you don't have to be specific with what you are eating as you are not calorie-counting - you are just building an understanding of what is good and bad about your current eating habits.
This may seem slow but is absolutely crucial to successfully making a long-term change. You are essentially doing your due diligence on yourself to ensure that the route you take to change your diet is the right one to match your lifestyle. Once you have this information, you can start to structure small meals into your day to match your schedule. Plan what you are going to eat at the start of the week - this will save you time and ensure that you make the right choices. On average we make over 200 food choices daily; you can't get them all right so the only option is to reduce the number of choices you make. When you have built the structure and planned your meals then keep doing this until it becomes a habit. The latest research suggests this can take up to 66 days. You will lose weight but in a sustainable way.
Then, when you hit a plateau, implement periods of fasting into your life to help ease the transfer of the fat from the freezer to fridge, before returning to your healthier, 'normal' diet. Keep doing this until you get to your desired weight and body shape. Once there you can enjoy a life of good food without restriction.