From introducing changes gradually to reducing your calorie intake, here are expert tips for losing weight – and keeping it off.
Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP and John Pillinger
If you want to lose weight fast, crash diets and bursts of exercise are not the answer.
The body likes slow changes in terms of food and exercise. For example, someone who hasn’t exercised for years shouldn’t rush into running miles each day or pounding the treadmill. Not only will the struggle likely leave you feeling disheartened and demotivated, you’re also far more likely to injure yourself and set your fitness levels back even further.
The same goes for people who suddenly start depriving themselves. Diets that severely restrict calories or certain foods can lead you to be deficient in the nutrients and vitamins that your body needs. Evidence often shows that once you inevitably give up on your new ‘diet’, you then often regain the weight and possibly more when going back to old ways.
However, this is not to say that if you need to lose weight you shouldn’t do so, but it is important to do it the right way.
How to lose weight
Your body uses food for energy. It stores any excess energy as fat. This means if you eat more food than your body needs for daily activities and cell maintenance, you’ll gain weight.
To lose weight, you need to get your body to use up these stores of fat. The most effective way to do this is to:
- Reduce the amount of calories you eat
- Increase your levels of activity
This is why experts talk about weight loss in terms of diet and exercise.
Here are 9 diet and exercise tips if you are trying to lose weight:
- Introduce changes gradually
Small changes can make a big difference. One extra biscuit every day adds up to a significant number of calories over a month and then a year. Similarly once the sugar hit of the biscuit goes you are left craving more – one is often never enough.
One extra biscuit every day adds up to a significant number of calories over a month and then a year.
You’re also more likely to stick to, say, swapping full-fat milk for semi-skimmed or making time for a healthy protein and fibre dense breakfast each morning than a diet that sets rules for all foods.
Any changes you make in your weight loss quest should be sustainable. The end game is to sustain these changes over months and years. Simply think of it as a lifestyle not a diet.
- Increase your activity levels
Someone who increases the amount they exercise, but maintains the same diet and calorie intake, will almost certainly lose weight.
No matter if you hate gyms – even light exercise, such as a short 20 minute walk, will be beneficial if done most days of the week.
Every single time you exercise more than usual, you burn calories and fat.
There are lots of ways to increase the amount of activity you do.
Here are some examples:
- Team sports, racket sports, aerobics classes, running, walking, swimming and cycling will all improve your fitness levels.
- If you need some motivation or just want to keep an eye on your activity, it could be worth buying a fitness tracker.
- Find something you enjoy that’s easy for you to do in terms of location and cost. You’re then more likely to build it into your routine and continue to exercise, despite inevitably missing the odd session through holidays, family commitments, etc.
- Get out and about when you can. Leave your car on the drive and walk to the shops. Try to incorporate longer walks into outings to the park, coast or countryside and take a picnic, so you’re in control of what you are going to eat that day.
- Every extra step you take helps. Walking up and down stairs uses the larger muscle groups in our legs and is great for burning calories. Always use the stairs instead of the lift, or get off the bus a stop before the usual one and walk the rest of the way.
- Use commercial breaks between TV-programmes to stand up and do exercise, or consider using an exercise bicycle in the living room while watching your favourite programme.
- Reduce your calorie intake
It’s not possible to reduce body fat while eating lots of food, cakes and sweets. This doesn’t mean you can never have any treats, but you need to learn how to limit these foods to small quantities – say, for special occasions.
In terms of weight loss, you can get your body to use up existing stores of fat by eating less and making healthier choices.
Eating 300 to 500 calories less per day should lead to a loss of between one and two pounds (0.5 to 1kg) per week. This is a realistic target. It may seem slow, but it would add up to a weight loss of more than three stone in a year.
Below are ways to reduce calorie intake without having to alter your diet significantly:
- Replace fizzy drinks and fruit cordials with water.
- Swap whole milk for semi-skimmed, or semi-skimmed for skimmed.
- Eat less lunch than usual.
- Make your own sandwich and limit the use of margarine or butter and full-fat mayonnaise (store-bought sandwiches often contain both).
- Choose healthier breads with wholegrains or make a salad with a good protein source such as chicken, fish or egg.
- Stop taking sugar in tea and coffee.
- Have smaller portions of the food you enjoy.
- Avoid having a second helping at dinner.
- Cut out unhealthy treats (such as sweets, sugary biscuits and crisps) between meals.
- Cut down on alcohol intake.
- Ditch crash diets
Reducing your calorie intake doesn’t mean crash dieting, which usually ends up with you either getting weaker or giving up in desperation. Quick-fix diets can lead to a yo-yoing effect of drastic weight loss followed by weight gain, resulting in a vicious cycle.
Quick-fix diets can lead to a yo-yoing effect of drastic weight loss followed by weight gain, resulting in a vicious cycle.
There are no shortcuts to losing weight in a healthy and reasonable way.
- Choose quality calories
It might not be so tough to reduce your intake if you are simply consuming a large number of ‘empty’ non-nutritious calories in cakes, sweets, biscuits and fizzy drinks.
It is important to replace junk food with healthier choices.
Fat contains the most amount of calories out of all the food types, so a good way to achieve a healthy calorie deficit is to cut down on fatty foods and eat more wholegrains, fruits and vegetables.
- Don’t skip meals
Don’t be tempted to skip breakfast – or any meal – to lose weight. While skipping a meal will reduce your calorie intake for that hour, it will leave you much hungrier later on.
Not only are you likely to overeat to compensate, but you’ll often make bad choices to fill the gap: a cereal bar is not as healthy as a bowl of healthy fortified cereal or as filling, leading you to ‘need’ something extra for lunch. Wholegrain toast with some avocado will score more healthy points than over-processed sugary cereal in the morning.
Irregular eating habits also disrupt your body’s metabolism, which makes it harder to lose weight in the first place.
- Keep a food diary
If you’re not sure what’s wrong with your diet, try keeping a daily diary of everything you eat and drink.
- You can use a notebook or an online diary.
- At the end of the week, review your entries for problem areas.
- Look out for processed foods, alcohol, fast food, roasts, creamy sauces, fried foods.
- If your diet seems largely healthy, look at portion sizes.
Once you’ve decided on what changes you’re going to make, write them down.
- Exercise: one 20 minute walk every lunch hour.
- Alcohol: none in the week, two small glasses of wine on Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
- Food: no chocolate or biscuits in the week, choose healthy snacks such as fruit, trim all fat from meat, eat no fried or fast food.
For each week list your targets concerning alcohol, exercise and your food plan. Each day should then be listed in a simple chart and items you have had should be written down. It is also important to make a note of your mood and any comments you would like to get off your chest for each day.
- Play the long game
It might take a week or two before you notice any changes, but they will steadily appear. After the first month you’ll be able to see the results and measure them in terms of looser fitting clothes.
Keeping your motivation up is one of the most difficult aspects of dieting. There will be days when healthy eating goes out the window, and there will be weeks where you may not lose any weight – or put a little back on.
This is normal for everyone – dieters or not – so don’t let it undo your plans to slim down. You’re not doing anything wrong, but you may need to look at your plan. Do you need to increase your activity levels? Make a few more changes to your diet? Put more effort into sticking to your current plan?
- Celebrate your wins
The other side of this is to make sure you celebrate your goals. While there’s joy enough in stepping on the scales and seeing them dip lower, be sure to mark long-term progress with a reward – such as new clothes or time off from domestic chores.
Celebrating is also a way to involve your nearest and dearest – it’s up to you whether you want their encouragement in the form of gentle reminders not to eat certain foods. But support from other people can get you through the bumpy patches.