I need to lose weight. Where do I start?


National Obesity Week takes place from 15–19 October in South Africa. We have discussed the risks of being obese in previous articles. Now, our dietitians gave us a number of suggestions on how to start the road to weight loss. 

Find a solution that works  

Weight loss is difficult to achieve and sustain, and we are confronted by MANY diets that offer easy, effortless, and fast success. These diets are often rigid and prescriptive in their approach, and as they may not address the eating habits that cause the weight gain in the first place, we often find ourselves regaining the weight we have lost. 

Face the facts

The key to successful weight loss is to identify the habits that contribute to your weight gain and develop the knowledge and skills to adopt healthier lifestyle habits in the long term. The three components of change are:

  • Nutrition
  • Behaviour modification (changing to habits that promote weight control)
  • Exercise that you will enjoy, and is time and cost effective. Walking on weekends is always a good start.

Whether we like it or not, it's always about the kilojoules

Apart from nutrients, all foods and drinks provide our bodies with energy measured in kilojoules. In order to lose weight, we must provide our bodies with LESS energy than it requires. This energy deficit causes our bodies to use their fat stores as a source of energy, which is when we start to lose weight.

A good eating plan should prevent feelings of starvation or deprivation, which can cause us to give up and return to our previous unhealthy eating habits.

Get an individualised eating plan

There is no such thing as a "one diet fits all" eating plan. We are different in what we require to lose weight, as age, gender, height, activity level and amount of weight to lose all play a role. Even more important is that the plan needs to take into account your budget, current lifestyle/work constraints, culture and what the family eats. Bearing this in mind will facilitate adherence. It is recommended that you consult with a dietitian for an individualised plan based on your unique circumstances.

Contact the Association of Dietetics (ADSA) www.adsa.org.za for a dietitian in your area. You can also contact Weigh-Less at www.weighless.co.za to join a group in your area.

What about carbs?

Most of the diets restrict carbs to restrict calories. The notion that carbs are bad and proteins are good is wrong according to the laws of physiology.

However, optimal blood sugar regulation is vital to lose weight, and both the type and quantity of carbs play a role. Avoiding all sugar and flour and incorporating small portions of whole grains have been proven to be effective in controlling blood sugar levels. The fibre in whole grains promotes good gut health and research has shown that people with good gut health absorb fewer calories from food.

Losing weight is not only about healthy eating

Choosing healthy foods unfortunately is not enough to create a calorie deficit to facilitate weight loss. Additional factors essential for success are how much we eat, when we eat and why we eat. An eating plan that does not promote portion control is unlikely to be successful.

Check out metabolic abnormalities

In some cases, an underactive thyroid or insulin-resistance (pre-diabetic) can hinder successful weight loss. Seek the help of a dietitian and medical doctor to assist you in this this regard.

Set attainable goals

As the challenge may often seem overwhelming, set a realistic goal of what you can achieve in a six to 12-week period. This give you a sense that the process will not carry on forever, During the process, adopt the approach of taking it one day at a time. Use the SMART formula to help you: S (small); M (measurable); A (achievable); R (realistic); T (manageable time frame).

The success of achieving each goal will help you to stay motivated and keep the process going

Accountability – keep a daily food diary

By keeping a detailed food dairy, you’ll become aware of what, when, how much and under what circumstances you eat. The sooner you learn to identify behaviour patterns and/or emotions that can sabotage your weight-loss efforts, the sooner you can devise strategies to manage them. (For example, you might discover that you snack while cooking, or automatically grab a chocolate when you feel stressed, or snack something in the car after grocery shopping.)

Manage your triggers 

Keeping a diary helps to identify internal triggers – such as cravings or negative emotions and thoughts – that may cause you to overindulge.

External triggers on the other hand are just as powerful, and they include the visibility and availability of tempting snacks and food and mindless snacking while watching television or overeating at social events and restaurants. Your dietitian or Weigh-Less group leader should be able to help you develop coping strategies so that you can manage your response to both internal and external triggers.

Restructure your thoughts

Successful weight loss is not an easy process and it is all too easy to give up. Don’t fall into the trap of listening to your negative voice saying, "This is too hard", "I love food too much" or "I am destined to be fat".

Cognitive restructuring is a process whereby you challenge the validity of negative thoughts and replace them with positive thinking. You will soon discover that what you think is not true. You do exercise discipline in most other areas of your life, and all you need to do is apply the same skills when it comes to food. 

Lapsing and getting back on track is part of your success

Losing weight and keeping it off, is a process of learning, adapting, lapsing and getting back on track. As lapses are inevitable, it is the way you are managing them that counts.

We often respond to a lapse with an all-or-nothing approach, taking the view "I’ve ruined everything I've achieved" when, in fact, all you did was make a wrong choice.

The best approach is to expect it accept it (drop the guilt), forget it and get back on track at the next meal (not the next day or Monday).

To lose weight does not mean that you must comply 100% of the time. A lapse may not necessarily be due to a lack of willpower, so don’t let it derail you. 

To stay focused and motivated requires frequent contact and support

It can be difficult to achieve healthy eating skills on your own. To start off, make a commitment to see your dietitian or Weigh-Less group leader on a weekly or two weekly basis to acquire and reinforce these skills.

Over time, as you master the situation, you will need less support and may find your family and friends can help you to stay focused and motivated.

People who successfully lose weight frequently report that constant support from a "buddy" or health professional helped them to persevere, persist and exercise patience when they wanted to give up. Although personal contact is always best, even telephone support or an internet buddy are more effective than trying to do it alone.

In conclusion 

Key skills for successful weight loss

Researchers have found in a weight-loss study where the participants lost an average of 30kg and maintained a minimum weight loss of 13.6kg for five years, participants applied the following key skills:

  • Follow a nutritionally balanced eating plan with appropriate portions of all foods.
  • Don’t weigh yourself daily, as fat takes a while to disappear. Daily fluctuations reflect water changes – remember that 60% of your body consists of water.
  • Exercise (walking) for approximately one hour a day, every day. Aim for 10 000 steps.
  • Eat breakfast – and don’t skip meals.
  • Only snack when meals are delayed or when you can wait for the next meal. Avoid snacking due to the power of habit, expectation or the visibility and availability of foods.
  • Adopt realistic weight-loss goals.
  • Recognise that weight control requires ongoing commitment.
  • Confront your problems and find solutions; don’t use food as a coping mechanism.
  • Learn to enjoy “treats” without guilt by controlling their frequency and quantity.
  • Use the support of family, friends and health care professionals to manage lapses.

Image credit: iStock

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