Losing weight is not complicated.
As a statement, that sounds like an extremely tough sell.
However, when you break it down into its component parts, there is no one element of which pretty much anyone is not entirely capable. I defy anyone to argue that a set of things that pretty much everyone is capable of can ever really be defined as complex. Painless? No. Easy? Initially, no. But complicated? Not at all.
As a consequence, most of the time, I find it more than slightly irritating to hear the extraordinary list of excuses for what causes obesity and what magic potion, spell or miracle-diet is this week’s solution.
Partly because I’d put on a bit of weight and party as an experiment to prove what a load of bollocks the whole thing is, I have put my money where my mouth is over the last 12 weeks. The result? I lost half a stone without following any specific diet, joining a gym, or taking the advice of an ‘expert’. In the interests of full disclosure, I did do a fair amount of exercise, but as I will later explain, that didn’t make things easier, it made things harder. I also utilised technology (a few phone apps, a GPS running watch I already owned and a set of wi-fi scales) but the same result could have been achieved with an ordinary set of scales, access to the internet, a pad of paper and a pencil.
And no, I didn’t take a grey, sad-looking ‘before’ photo or a ripped smug-looking ‘after’ photo either, so don’t ask. Perverts.
There are a very small (again, I stress VERY small) number of people who have genuine reasons, physical conditions and disorders that have dramatic effects on their weight. Hypothyroidism, pregnancy and being on certain medications like antidepressants are a few good examples. The rest of us are probably one of the following:
– We don’t really know what we need to do to lose weight
– We don’t really care, deep down about losing weight
– We believe some of the misleading and confusing crap sold to us by the diet industry or the media
– We are LYING to ourselves
For a lot of people, its a combination. I’m oversimplifying for effect. But the reason I’m doing so is because it doesn’t matter why you are where you are, it matters what you need to do to get to where you want to be. And that, as I’m about to demonstrate, is really not very complicated.
Even though I loath blogs with numbered plans in, I’ve numbered the steps 1-5 below. Not in order of importance, but in order of the level on which you need to understand a basic principle and make a change. I consider this list definitive and exhaustive but I’m happy to be corrected as long as it’s by verifiable science.
When people say “I don’t know how I put on weight,” there is usually a very, very simple answer. Over the period of time that they put on weight, they consumed more calories than they burned.
If you put on weight over a period or failed to lose weight over that period then you:
a) Underestimated what you ate
b) Overestimated your exercise
c) Did a combination of the two
There are 3500 calories in a pound. A calorie deficit (burning more than you consumed) of 500 calories a day would lose you a pound a week. So in 14 weeks you’d lose a stone. It’s not rocket science, but it is physics.
Nowadays, you can use a whole host of phone apps to do all of the maths for you (MyFitnessPal being the most famous). The calories are on the packet of virtually every item that you eat at home and if you’re eating a takeaway or eating out then their are many resources online to help you make a guess. If like me, adding things up gives you a headache, then just round it up to the nearest 100 calories. That way you’ll effectively be working with numbers under 40 (unless its Christmas).
On the flip side, there are also a whole host of different apps that will record how many calories you burned (I’ve found ones that use your phone’s pedometer to add up your steps particularly useful). Again, if you find the adding up hassle, just round down to the nearest 100 calories.
Your BMR (or Basal Metabolic Rate) is the number of calories that you’d burn just by lying in bed all day. Searching Google will find you a BMR calculator in 0.49 seconds.
If you round up calories consumed and round down calories burned then you’ll only ever get pleasantly surprised.
So the magic equation is as follows:
BMR – Calories you burned today + Calories you consumed = Calorie deficit.
Can you do basic addition 3 times a day? Yes.
Can you type them into your phone after you eat or exercise? Yes.
Can you step on a set of scales and make a note of your weight at least once a week? Yes.
So far so good.
Underpinning the maths are the habits. Someone, somewhere has generated the myth that it takes about 4 weeks to form habit. Not true. For a habit to become second nature it actually takes about 66 days. In this time, things will get hard, then get easier.
The other issue is that the more you try to change at once, the less chance you have of changing at all. A study I’m fond of quoting (but can’t find the reference for) suggests that changing three or more habits at a time gives you a 5% chance of success. Two habits: 35%. One habit: 80%. That’s better than Sex Panther. The lesson: play the odds.
Time for another fun fact: calorie deficits are unpleasant. You will need to get used to being hungry in order to lose weight. There is no other way to lose weight than to create a calorie deficit and there is no way to live with one without learning to live with being hungry.
So the main habit you will really be learning is ‘going hungry’.
But…you don’t have to go hungry all the time while you’re losing the weight.
Personally, I prefer to go hungry on weekdays and then eat pretty much what I like (within reason) at the weekend. That means that by Friday I have 2500 calories to spend but if I spend them all at the weekend then I will not lose any weight that week. This works out as about 1500 calories burned weekly which equates to about half a pound a week (almost exactly my rate of weight loss).
Another side note of interest: exercise does not make it easier to lose weight. Exercise makes you healthier and means you can eat more (which is one of many great reasons for doing it) but it also makes you more tired and hungry in return. If it sounds like I’m suggesting that you don’t exercise then I apologise but in the interests of honesty it has to be said. There are lots of reasons why exercise is brilliant and I am the most vocal advocate on the subject that you are ever likely to meet. But if you think that more exercise will make losing weight easier then you’re virtually guaranteed to be disappointed.
Can you get yourself to change one behaviour every day for 60 days?
The research (and your own life history) says yes.
The next obstacle is where I think most people fail. They know what they need to do in order to get what they want and on normal days, when everything goes to plan, they will succeed.
However, a habit is really one main habit and several mini-habits that cover the majority of things that ‘will go wrong’.
As an example, below are a list of triggers that interrupt the main habit and a set of suggestions for smaller habits to deal with them.
– Coming home from a stressful day at work (phone a friend, have a hot shower, take a nap)
– Eating out a lot with friends (eat less at other meals that day, skip starters and desert)
– Can’t stop once you start eating moreish snacks and foods (keep fewer snacks at home, buy ones that come in small packs)
– More tired than usual when you are supposed to be going to the gym or out for a run (make sure you go anyway, but do a shorter session)
– Reached your calorie limit but there’s still food on your plate (throw it in the bin, cook less in future)
– Eating when you’re bored (switch the food from high-calorie to low-calorie; fruit or veg)
– Screwed up for a few days straight and tempted to give up (don’t play catchup, think about the huge long-term benefits, remember that every meal is an opportunity to make a difference)
– Losing motivation and sight of why you’re doing it (keep a diary / log of your progress, take before / during / after photos)
The truth here is though that everybody’s triggers are unique and the counter measures should suit the individual. All it takes is a small amount of imagination (or the initiative to steal someone else’s ideas).
Can you notice patterns in the triggers that cause you to eat more or exercise less? Can you write them down or type them into a word processor and click save?
Can you come up with or steal simple ways to deal with these triggers?
If you really want to lose weight then you can and you will.
4. Long-term lifestyle choices
There is no point losing weight if you’re only going to put it back on. That would mean enduring pain for no reason. If you’re going to bother to change then you need to make that change permanent and to make it something that is part of your life.
This also means: don’t give up something you aren’t prepared to give up forever.
It would be silly to try and stop eating carbs and only eat rabbit food for the rest of your life. A life like that would be miserable.
And here’s the thing: you don’t have to stop eating anything, you just have to eat less of it.
Behold! The magic of reducing portion size.
Do you want the benefits of a healthy lifestyle for the rest of your life?
Are you willing to integrate changes to your every day routine into your life indefinitely? In other words, are you willing to change not just what you do but who you are?
If yes, then you can choose to lose weight.
5. Hunger vs Desire
Really, it all boils down to what you actually want. If you want the short-term result of looking good in a selfie on the beach in a few weeks time then the disciplined nature of sensible dieting and exercise is probably not for you. You probably aren’t going to manufacture the extraordinary tolerance of discomfort required overnight in order to improve your holiday snaps.
If you want to be healthier, fitter, more energetic and slimmer on the other hand and you aim to change your life, at a manageable rate, for good, then you’ll probably stand a better chance of making it happen.
The other advantage of this is that once you’ve reached your goal, you’ll have learned all of the skills and habits to maintain it.
Do you want to achieve your goal more than you want to temporarily stop feeling hungry?
Are you willing to get used to being hungry five days out of seven in order to achieve your goal?
If the answer is a genuine, heartfelt, soul-searching yes then all the rest is possible.
Armed with the things above, ignoring very special exceptions, the only thing that stops you from losing weight is how honest you are prepared to be with yourself.
As with so much of success in life however, that’s the real sticking point.
Be honest with yourself and the rest falls into place.
If you aren’t prepared to do that, then don’t be surprised that you don’t achieve your goals.