By now we all know that finding a healthier version of yourself depends on diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten the full truth when it comes to being healthy. We are fed the narrative that weight loss depends on spending 10 hours in the gym and eliminating one source of calories in our diet while doubling down on another. Admit it, every time you try a new fad diet, or commit to an exhausting new workout routine, you lose weight initially, but then eventually lose steam and transform back into your former self. Healthy, sustainable weight loss seems like something you just don’t have the willpower to do.
But, this is simply not true. We don’t have to overcomplicate the story, or feel guilty, to find a healthier version of ourselves.
Why is Weight Loss so Difficult to Maintain?
Maintaining a healthy body weight has always been associated with self-discipline and willpower. You count calories. Do portion control. Work out first thing in the morning three times a week.
Although weight loss may be accomplished by submitting yourself to these rigid, disciplinarian tactics, the minute you’re frustrated with your co-workers or get sick for a week, portion control goes out of the window. Exercise can easily take the backseat when you have kids ages 3 and 5, go through some financial stress, or have an aging parent to take care of.
The reality is that shedding the unwanted pounds is not the hardest part of weight loss. It’s keeping the weight off for good despite life’s occasional curveballs.
Is long-term weight loss really possible? Or should you resign yourself to the fact that you’ll eventually regain what you’ve lost?
Does it all boil down to having loads of willpower? Or is there more to self-control that’s involved in long-term weight loss sorcery?
Actually, no. Biology is at play. Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, an obesity researcher at Columbia University, says the difficulty in keeping the extra weight off reflects biology and not merely a pathological lack of willpower. Specifically, when we lose weight, leptin (the hormone responsible for food satiety) actually goes down when we lose weight.
However, all hope is not lost. We can aim for sustainable weight loss by using a few key strategies.
The Basics of Nutrition
When we think about adopting a new weight loss regimen, it’s important to remember that calories in and calories out ultimately dictate our weight loss. Therefore, diet is our best friend when it comes to finding the perfect balance to a nutrition program.
However, diet is not simply about calories. Food is where we get everything that our body cannot make for itself. The makeup of our diet keeps us from being malnourished, susceptible to illness, depressed, and unable to perform at the gym.
In order to understand exactly where our calories come from and what we need to consume to be healthy, we need to understand the basics of nutrition and the reason we need a balanced diet.
What are Macronutrients?
What you eat can be broken down into 3 macronutrients: Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats. Unless you have a specific medical condition, you need all 3 to maintain proper health and functioning. Without sufficient amounts of any of these sources, your body will not operate at peak condition. And without a proper balance of these nutrients during a diet program will hinder the success you achieve in reaching your goals.
When trying to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories from these nutrients than you expend. For example, if you determine that, between your Basal Metabolic Rate and your activity (from moving, eating, and exercising), you burn 2,000 calories per day, to stay the same weight you’d have to eat roughly 2,000 calories every day. However, to lose weight, you would have to place yourself into a caloric deficit. A caloric deficit indicates that you are eating fewer calories than you burn per day — i.e., in this case, potentially restricting intake to only 1,800 calories per day.
But as we already mentioned, though calories consumed versus calories burned ultimately determines success or failure in the weight game, is it all that matters?
Well, it depends.
If your goal is simply to lose weight, regardless of whether it be fat- or muscle-weight lost, then yes, calories are all that matter.
However, if you’re attempting to improve your body composition by losing Body Fat Mass and gaining Skeletal Muscle Mass, then no, calories are not all that matters. Balancing your macronutrients properly does.
Why fats were considered bad
Released in the U.S. in 1992, the food pyramid was designed as an easy way for people to remember which foods they should be getting their calories from and the relative importance of each. Carbs were healthy and good, and so they formed the base; fats were bad and placed at the top.
The fat category lumped everything together from healthy fats like Omega-3s and olive oil to saturated fats and sugar. This concept helped trigger the fat-free craze. Although this concept seems pretty normal to us now, at the time in the late 1970s it was actually considered quite radical – so much so that then-president of the National Academy of Sciences, Philip Handler, described the proposed shift as a “vast nutritional experiment.”
Essentially, the Dietary Guidelines suggested that people eat less fat and get more calories from bread, grains, rice, pasta, etc. This was intended to protect Americans from weight gain and heart disease. This is why the “high carb, low fat” diet seems familiar and normal to you, and probably why you think eating fat makes you fat.
What was the result of this recommendation?
Beginning at around the time when the guidelines were first recommended in 1977 and their release to the public in 1980, the percentage of Americans classified as obese increase by almost 20% as they followed the government’s advice to cut fat and increase carbs. Why have obesity rates in the United States skyrocketed over the last 18 years? Because the idea that “fat makes you fat” is wrong. Fat is just another nutrient source, the same as carbohydrates and protein.
What makes you fat is taking in more energy (calories) in a day than you use. That’s called being in a caloric surplus.
Part of the reason people get confused and think that the fat they eat makes their body store fat is that we use them interchangeably to describe both body fat and dietary fat.
The fat that is stored by our bodies is more accurately called “adipose tissue.” Adipose tissue stores are made up of primary adipocytes or fat cells and are responsible, among other things, with storing excess energy for times when you’re not able to give your body the energy it needs on a given day. It is necessary for survival, and losing too much of it is bad for your health, as is explained in this 2013 study.
The fat you eat is dietary fat and is one of the three essential macronutrients your body can get energy from. Would you believe that people actually used to eat more fat than they do now and at the time obesity rates that were much lower? It’s true, they did, and it’s true – obesity rates used to be much lower. So if increased fat isn’t making you fat, what is?
Eating more calories than your body uses and needs in a day causes you to gain weight, and Americans continue to eat more and more calories with each passing year.
According to the USDA, from 1970 to 2000, the total number of daily calories that Americans ate increased by 530 calories, an increase of 24.5%. During the same time period, the percentage of Americans categorized as obese increased dramatically.
Americans started to eat more calories. This is surprising when you consider that carbohydrates contain less than half the calories (4 Cal) that fat (9 Cal) does, gram for gram. Shouldn’t shifting away from fats and towards carbs just reduce overall caloric intake, just by simple math? It doesn’t work that way if you just eat more carbohydrates. You see, consumption of a high carbohydrate diet can trigger something called “reactive hypoglycemia.” This is a condition experienced by people who do not have diabetes and are otherwise healthy. Among its symptoms is a feeling of hunger.
Guess what’s the best way to make that hunger go away? Eat more carbs – your body will be craving them. And since carbs were supposed to be the largest macronutrient source anyway, most people didn’t think twice about having a snack that consisted of bread, rice, or something else carb-heavy.
By advising people to eat less fat and eat more carbohydrates, the government actually made the obesity problem far worse. Recognizing the sharp increase in obesity, the food pyramid was revised in 2005 and ultimately retired in 2011 in favor of what the USDA now calls “My Plate,” which gives people a much better visualization of the relative importance of each food category by showing roughly how much space each should take up on a plate.
So I can eat start eating “fat” now?
If you’re smart about it, yes, but you still have to be careful.
Remember, it’s not the fat itself that’s making you fat; it’s the extra calories that you don’t need that makes you fat. While it’s very easy to eat extra calories on a carbohydrate-based diet, it’s also very easy to add on extra calories from a fat diet too.
At 9 calories, fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient by far. This means that if you’re looking to lose fat, the low-fat options are still fine choices – not because of their low-fat content, mind you, but because of their lower caloric content.
The fat isn’t making you fat due to just being fat; it’s the extra calories from fat (as well as all the macronutrients) that is causing you to gain weight.
What this means is, if you are responsible for your diet, you can choose foods that contain fat, guilt-free. You just need to be smart about your caloric intake throughout the entire day.
We just discussed that emphasis on high carb intact made American’s gain more weight. So, carbohydrates are bad, right?
While carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap lately because they are presumably fattening and unhealthy, some cultures with high-carb intake don’t have the same high obesity rates as the U.S. – where one-third of adults (and 17 percent of children) are obese. This is in contrast to Japan where white rice and noodles are dietary staples.
What are we to make of this? Are carbs truly evil? Or should you embrace more carbs in your life?
Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates act as the main source of energy because they are easily broken down into sugar (glucose to be specific) once they reach your bloodstream and are then transported to cells, tissues, and organs. Think of glucose as fuel.
Carbohydrates are classified into two types:
- Simple carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates are quickly absorbed into your bloodstream for instant energy because of their simple molecular structure. Think milk, honey, fruit juices, and table sugar.
- Complex carbohydrates
These carbs take longer for the body to break down into glucose because of their more complex molecular composition. Grains such as bread, rice, quinoa, and pasta are examples of complex carbs. Starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, and winter squash fall in the same category.
Not all carbs are created equal, and some have a greater effect on your insulin levels than others. For people with diabetes or insulin resistance, this is particularly important.
A food’s Glycemic Index (ranging from 0 to 100) indicates how a certain carbohydrate will affect your blood sugar and insulin levels. Foods that digest quickly are high on the index, while those that digest slowly are lower on the index.
Foods that are high on the GI scale, like potatoes and white bread, are quickly broken down. This is what happens when you go through an abrupt sugar rush but eventually crash down minutes later. Foods with a low GI, like sweet potatoes and whole oats, are digested gradually, resulting in a more predictable, steady rise in blood sugar levels.
The Verdict on Carbohydrates
Although low-carb diets were found out to be more effective than low-fat diets for weight loss, there are also conflicting research findings describing the existence of metabolically benign obesity — obese individuals who are not insulin resistant, have normal levels of circulating insulin, and have zero signs of early atherosclerosis.
The main point is you don’t have to go low-carb, zero-carb, or high-carb to accomplish long term weight loss.
Based on recent research findings and established facts, it makes more sense to be more mindful of the specific types and amount of carbohydrates (and the other macronutrients!) that make up the bulk of your daily diet.
It’s very hard to deny the role carbs play in keeping you full, energized, and feeling good overall. To a large extent, humans were designed to consume carbohydrates as an energy source, and when that source is limited and/or cut off, your body will not appreciate it – and it will let you know.
Should you cut carbs out of your diet? If it’s part of a general overall caloric reduction to lose body fat – which does work – combined with increased exercise, then yes. But simply hacking out an entire macronutrient source – any source – is not only going to be incredibly demanding on you but also ineffective and unsustainable over the long-term.
So how does protein fit into the picture? Well, as mentioned above, protein is one of the 3 basic macronutrients you find in your food.
To break it down further, proteins are made up of smaller units called amino acids. There are 22 amino acids, however, 9 of these amino acids are called “essential” — meaning you need to eat them because the body can’t produce them on its own. You can get these essential amino acids by eating protein-rich foods like eggs, meat, and fish, as well as vegetarian/vegan options, like nuts, seeds, beans, and tofu. Generally, you cannot get all the essential amino acids from just one food item, so eating a variety of animal and plant-based proteins is recommended.
But that’s not all.
Besides being something you eat, protein has its fingers in just about every structure and function of your body. For example:
- Antibodies: these proteins fight foreign “invaders” of your body, like in allergic reactions.
- Repair, maintenance, and structure: proteins are the main building blocks of your muscles, bones, skin, and hair.
- Hormones: chemical messenger proteins allow cells and organs to communicate. For example, Growth Hormone — which can affect your muscle gain and fat loss results — and Follicle Stimulating Hormone — a hormone important to your sexual health — are both protein hormones.
- Enzymes: while all proteins are not enzymes, all enzymes are proteins — and proteins are catalysts (“kickstarters”) for chemical reactions in your body.
- Transportation and storage: some proteins carry important molecules where they’re needed — think hemoglobin (red blood cells) carrying oxygen to cells, then carrying carbon dioxide away.
Clearly, protein serves many roles within the body. Therefore, not getting enough protein in your diet can have serious consequences for your health. Without enough protein, your muscles may begin to atrophy (waste)– taking Lean Body Mass (LBM), strength, and energy with them.
Any injuries you suffer will take longer to heal, as well. This is because wound healing relies on good nutrition, and good nutrition includes adequate protein. A strong connection between protein deficiency and slow wound healing has been shown.
Finally, not eating enough protein impairs your immune system, placing you at a greater risk of infections while reducing your ability to fend off disease once it takes hold.
Now that you know everything you never wanted to know about protein’s roles in the body, take a look at a few of the positive effects of increasing your protein intake and how that can relate to your body composition goals.
Eating more protein helps suppress hunger and appetite for longer than eating the same amounts of the other macros (fats and carbs). This means that eating 100 calories from protein will leave you more satiated than 100 calories from either carbohydrate or fat sources.
- Metabolic Rate
Eating more protein has also been shown to increase your Energy Expenditure — i.e., the number of calories you burn each day. Several studies found that people eating high protein diets ended up burning more calories for several hours after eating.
- Body Composition
In addition to the points made above, eating higher amounts of protein can have positive effects on your body composition through more direct pathways. As alluded to earlier, protein is a far-spread component of your body. Consuming higher amounts helps protect your non-fat (read: muscle) body mass.
The Protein Verdict
To maintain your current muscle mass — or improve it — you need to eat enough protein. But you also need to eat fewer calories than you expend — and that’s not always easy.
The good news is, getting a higher percentage of your daily calories from protein can make all of that a little bit easier. It can help you reduce your appetite, improve your metabolism, and change your body composition, but don’t overdo it. Consuming 2 grams of protein per kg of body weight can cause adverse health problems in the long run. The best advice is to find your daily protein recommendation, and then bump it up slightly, while reducing the calories you take in from non-nutritive foods, such as processed foods or sugary drinks.
What’s the Best Diet for Weight Loss?
Life is all about balance, and it is important to remember that you need all three macronutrients to function properly. As we learned, protein does not just pack on muscle, it also acts as hormones, enzymes, and antibodies. Carbs are essentially the only energy source that our red blood cells can use, and without enough fat in our diets, we might gain weight by eating more filler foods!
Our bodies are well-refined machines that do not thrive on fad diets. They thrive when we obtain balance and variety in our diet. Ultimately, the best diet for weight loss is not complicated or high-tech. Focus on whole, unrefined foods, reduce red meat consumption, and eat plenty of vegetables. But, your food doesn’t have to taste boring. In fact, a rigid diet full of boring salads may make you more likely to rebound into unhealthy eating. Try a salad with leafy greens, quinoa or brown rice, sweet potatoes, avocado, black beans, and a homemade cilantro lime Greek yogurt dressing. You may be surprised how good healthy eating can taste!
What About Lifestyle?
Of course, there are other components than a diet that may hinder your weight-loss goals. In order to help you turn your weight loss story into a success story, you should consider the following:
Build a Community of Accountability:
Think Jenny Craig, Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS), and Weight Watchers. Or even that health and wellness spa near your workplace.
In a presentation at the 2016 Society of General Internal Medicine Annual Meeting, researchers at the Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus revealed their findings after monitoring 65,000 overweight or obese people who joined Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS) between 2005 to 2010. They found out that consistent participation in the program motivated overweight participants to sustain their new healthy weight after a year of massive weight loss.
These findings demonstrate that spending more time with a community who supports each other even after you reach your weight loss goals is one of the best ways to keep the weight off. The American Psychological Association even agrees.
Getting Enough Sleep
Have you noticed how you’re hungrier than usual when you only slept for five hours the night before? Before you know it, you’re reaching out the pint of ice cream in the fridge.
In addition, not getting enough shut-eye also makes your immune system go haywire. When you’re sick, you don’t feel like exercising, right?
Prioritize getting enough sleep for a week and notice how you feel and think about food intake, exercise, and your energy levels in general.
Consider HIIT if you’re pressed for time
Too busy to do your morning run or the usual hour-long swimming session? Enter the short, explosive moves of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
The reason why HIIT has become so popular is that it’s been proven to really work by improving VO2max and body composition in subjects of both genders across all levels of fitness. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Here’s a neat HIIT guide by the American College of Sports Medicine. If you’re not motivated enough to take a break away from your workstation (browsing Reddit on your phone doesn’t count!), this short video will!
Long-term weight loss is definitely possible if you rethink the way you view what healthy weight loss truly means. Instead of fretting over calorie counts and the number of jumping jacks you’ve done, pay special attention to the quality of your food intake and physical activity. Balance is always better when it comes to sustainability.
Remember, it is not about willpower, it’s about finding something that makes you feel good. Working out and eating food that fuels our body shouldn’t be done out of guilt. Love yourself and love your body, no matter where you are on your journey to health.