The focus of today’s post will be sustainable weight loss; how exactly you can all lose weight and keep it off permanently. I had planned on doing a post about powerlifting, but one of the clients I’ve been ‘coaching’ through some weight loss over the past few weeks recently reached a point in his journey which serves as a great opportunity to talk about a few important things. Therefore, today we’ll explore some of the reasons why many weight loss attempts seem to fail - with a particular focus on compliance and plateaus, as well as some of the changes we can make to improve our chances of success. I’ll also share how we implemented some of these changes with Abbas and the outcomes we’ve witnessed as a result. As always, I’ll try to be mindful of context and open up to any questions (contact details below).
Over the past decade or so of me helping out at my parent’s gym, I’ve seen hundreds of people complain about wanting to lose weight and being unable to find permanent success with it. I’ve seen people make drastic changes such as eliminating solid foods completely, cutting out entire food groups from their diets, guzzling fat burning supplements and wasting away on the treadmill for hours every day. Now most of these people do end up losing weight in the short term - I’ve mentioned before that, when adhered to correctly, the majority of diets do work because they all work on the same basic principle of expending more energy than you consume. But I’d encourage you not to judge how effective a weight loss regime is simply by the amount of weight people lose, but instead by how much weight they actually keep off. After all, what’s the point of punishing yourself to lose weight only to rebound severely and have to repeat the same extreme process again - a process which is often incredibly damaging both physically and mentally.
What Goes Wrong:
So let’s get straight into it. The reason most diets fail is because they aren’t suitable for sustained weight loss; at some point they fall prey to either the issue of the plateau or compliance. Ultimately, either too much is changed too soon and once the body reaches a plateau there aren’t many ‘cards left to play’ to stimulate new change, or the dieter perceives the new regime as ‘too difficult’ and quits because not enough time was spent on properly developing the behaviours and habits required to improve one’s health and fitness. Falling prey to either one of these issues can massively knock your confidence and lead you to the belief that either dieting is pointless or you lack what it takes to follow a regime through, which can be disheartening and unpleasant.
Furthermore, it definitely doesn’t help that our bodies are wired against change. There are studies to show that there are specific biological mechanisms acting against us by promoting the regain of weight after it is lost, such as altered endocrine function, neural responses and energy metabolism. For example, the body may perceive each unit of food you eat as less rewarding than it did before you began dieting, and as such compensate by encouraging you to increase food consumption (via cravings and decreased ‘fullness’ after a meal) to make up for the shortfall.
However, I do not believe that this is the end of the matter. I think the practices we employ in losing the weight can have a huge impact on the extent to which we are affected by these mechanisms, and by shifting our focus away from a few things and onto others, we can put ourselves in good stead to keep the pounds we’ve shed off.
Calorie Counting - The Numbers Trap:
When embarking on a weight loss regime, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the world of calorie counting and I’d caution against this. To work out your planned calorie deficit you must know two things; the number of calories you burn and the number of calories you consume. Whilst you may be able to get a good estimate of the latter (assuming you measure your foods incredibly well), the chances of you knowing how many calories your body burns are slim; this number will rarely be more than a rough estimate from an online calculator, and a few hundred calories here or there is all it takes to completely miss the mark with your weight loss efforts.
Furthermore, people fail to understand exactly how much of a difference aggressive dieting and the loss of body mass has on your energy expenditure (as highlighted in the linked article above). So as the weeks pass by on your regime, the number of calories your body naturally burns will decrease, affecting your deficit calculations. Don’t get me wrong, I totally see the benefit in having a rough idea of your calorie intake and expenditure - I simply would recommend that you don’t make this the sole measure of your efforts because there’s a huge risk of the information being inaccurate and misleading.
Calorie Quality - Fuel For Change:
Not all calories are equal - it matters where you get them from. The nutrient density of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, meats and fish make these far superior fuel sources than relatively empty junk foods. Remember, our bodies don’t just need calories, but a whole host of micronutrients to operate at the highest level - from iodine to create thyroid hormones which stimulate our metabolism, to vitamin C for growth, repair and immunity. Simply put, it’s foolish to think that the same person will have the same weight loss results whether they get their calories from junk food or quality nutrition as long as they simply maintain a deficit. Different foods have different metabolic effects and impact bodily functions in different ways, and oftentimes the wrong foods can promote insulin resistance, bloating, inflammation and a whole host of problems that can affect how effectively our bodies use the calories we consume and so how effectively we lose weight.
Furthermore, in my sleep post I spoke about how the quality of the foods we eat can affect the quality of our thoughts and actions. Not getting the right nutrition when dieting can lead to mood instability and impaired cognition. This puts your compliance at risk because now you may not make the most rational decisions - either you feel really crappy and seek comfort in snacks, or you convince yourself that the weight loss regime is pointless and give in altogether.
But there are two sides to this - it’s not only the bad foods that can leave you feeling crappy. Eating a strict diet of egg whites and boiled boneless and skinless chicken breast can put you in just as bad of a position in terms of your mood and performance. Whilst this may be deemed a ‘healthy’ diet by some, it’s important to realise that restrictive diets like these
almost always fail to cover your basic nutrient requirements in order to perform well. There’s a huge risk of rebounding severely here because your body will have been denied what it needs for so long.
They key take away here is - don’t overdo it. In the process of ‘over dieting’, you’re potentially shuttling out a whole host of required nutrients, leaving you feeling mentally and physically weak and ready to give up. Instead, eat a variety of whole foods as they appear in nature - don’t cut out egg yolks which are vitamin and mineral powerhouses, or red meats and oily fish which are often loaded with iron, b-vitamins and omega-3’s. Calorie density doesn’t take away from the fact that these are still incredibly healthy food options - just eat smaller portions so the calories don’t spiral out of control, but watch how much better you feel and perform when you feed your body the fuels it needs.
Plateaus - Too Much Too Soon:
A weight-loss plateau occurs when your body adjusts to your current routine - as you lose weight your metabolism slows and you either need to move more or eat less to stimulate new change. The potential problem here is that if you begin by already eating very little or doing hours of cardio a week, hitting a plateau will mean you have to work even harder at a level that can quickly become too difficult to sustain and even unhealthy to maintain.
The key to avoiding this issue lies in gradual change - make small adjustments to your routine and reap the weight loss benefits for a while before gradually making further adjustments and continuing this process until you reach your goals. A benefit to this method of progressive dieting and exercise is that it’s much easier to stick to the program. It’s pretty easy to start off by simply eating more whole foods or committing to an hour of exercise a week, and because perceived difficulty is relative, the next change you make feels much more manageable. You quickly build a solid foundation of healthy eating and exercise habits from which you can reap lifelong benefits.
Sitting Is A Disease:
You’ve all heard that cardio is simply a tool for weight loss and should never be the main driver, and this is absolutely true. It’s not sustainable to commit to hours of cardio a day and most people won’t be able to fit this into their schedules. But before you even begin to worry about how much cardio to do, I’d encourage you to make more subtle and effective changes such as increasing your daily steps and sitting less.
Seriously - don’t underestimate the wealth of benefits walking more can have on your health and fitness. There are more and more studies to show that the negative impacts of sitting all day, including increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems, cannot be undone by a single bout of exercise. The solution therefore is to spread your activity throughout the day, and the most efficient method to do this is to simply take more steps more often. Whether you’re trying to lose weight or simply improve your health, the daily recommendation is 10 000 steps, so start there.
Case Study – Abbas:
Prior to coming to me, Abbas had lost a significant amount of weight in a relatively short period of time; throughout Ramadan (a month of fasting) and the weeks prior, he had managed to come down from 109kg to 96.4kg. His goal was to reach 85kg, but in the weeks following Ramadan he found himself stuck at a plateau with half of the journey yet to go.
The problem was that he had already reached a pretty serious level of restriction. He had employed a calorie counting approach to his weight loss and was now averaging 1100-1200 calories a day, a number I really didn’t want someone of his height and build to be going below. A further issue was that he was fairly loose with the source of his limited calories; his food log showed that he’d often indulge in brownies, flapjacks and crisp packets. He did, however, run for up to an hour a few times a month, but his average activity level was dragged down by days of serious inactivity.
The solution therefore was obvious. We would employ a regime of progressive dieting and exercise, increasing the intensity gradually every two weeks to avoid any further plateaus. Weigh-ins would occur weekly and the results would influence our decisions over the coming weeks. To ensure compliance, we would track everything together on snapchat and a shared Notes document. Every meal and workout would be snapped to me, screenshots of daily steps and cardio sessions would be shared, and a checklist in the Notes folder we both had access to would be updated daily if Abbas slept his 8 hours, drank his water and complied with the meal plans and workouts.
6 checklist items were ordered by priority, so sleep was of the greatest importance and the home weights workouts came last. I’ll explain how exactly we worked on each point in more detail now.
1 - Sleep:
This one should be pretty obvious to you all by now after my post dedicated to sleep. We aimed to get Abbas to sleep roughly 8 hours every day, and to go to bed and wake up at regular times to improve the quality of his sleep. Thankfully, Abbas was pretty good at this and we quickly moved on to other habits.
2 - Water:
It was very important to us that Abbas kept adequately hydrated. We wanted him to drink enough to help flush toxins and regulate all his bodily processes. He would also be working out and sweating, so it was important we replenished the lost fluids and electrolytes. Ultimately, we decided 3 litres a day would be a sensible goal given his height and build. Drinking only water also meant we weren’t consuming any liquid calories, which wouldn’t be very filling and ultimately leave him craving more.
3 - Meal Compliance:
Previously, Abbas had been severely restricting calories and making poor food choices. We quickly changed this and introduced a nutrient rich diet of whole eggs, chicken, meats, fish, rice, almonds, yoghurts, spinach, carrots, peppers, bananas, apples and mangoes. We almost doubled his calorie intake in the first week alone, and Abbas questioned how he could possibly lose weight considering he was now eating more food than he had ever done before. We spread 3 meals and 3 snacks throughout his day, each roughly 3 hours apart, so he would always have something to keep him going. We divided his protein intake across his meals, timed his carbohydrates so he wouldn’t sleep on them at night, and prioritised the intake of simple sugars (from fruits) after his workout sessions when such an insulin spike was desirable. Abbas’ body and mind were now fuelled with quality nutrition, which would improve compliance and make the weight loss process more sustainable.
With regards to the progression of his diet as the weeks went by, we had planned to decrease his carbohydrate consumption gradually, but always prioritise him exercising more instead of eating less. I’m a big fan of being more active instead of consuming less whenever possible. Whether your goal is weight loss or not, it’s pretty obvious that someone who consumes and processes 4000 calories a day is a completely different machine to someone who consumes and processes 1000. I attribute a lot of my success with maintaining strength whilst losing weight, both in myself and my clients, to the fact that I feed the body enough to fuel greater workloads, which ramps up the metabolism whilst keeping us energetic, full and essentially really happy. We applied the same principle to Abbas, and so we were cautions of decreasing our calories too much and instead focussed on gradually increasing workloads to shed off the fat.
4 - Required Steps:
We wanted Abbas to move more but do so in the easiest and most effective way possible. Getting him into the habit of taking more steps every day was an incredibly easy goal for him to achieve, but something that would ultimately benefit his health for the rest of his life. And so we set up a very simple progression here - we would aim for 10K daily steps and increase by 1K every two weeks. Just this increased walking alone would decrease his risks of heart disease and diabetes, whilst improving his workout recovery and mood. Once the weight loss was complete, we would aim to continue the habit of taking at least 10K steps a day. Here are screenshots showing his average steps before the program, and once he began:
5 - Daily Cardio:
I was convinced that the above changes would be more than enough to kickstart Abbas’ weight loss again, but we decided to add in some simple cardio to focus on improving his fitness. For each of the first two weeks, Abbas would complete a total of 3 cardio sessions, each of which were just under 20 mins. This totalled less than a single hour of cardio per week, and so you can see that we didn’t need to exhaust Abbas with hours of cardio to see great results. We implemented progression in his exercise by adding an extra run in the second phase (weeks 3-4), as well as aiming for a slightly faster time each run.
6 - Daily Workout:
Abbas was lucky enough to get his hands on two dumbbells during lockdown, and so we decided to add in some simple weight training a few times a week to set some foundations for more serious bodybuilding work once he reached his desired weight. His workout split would change every two weeks and the workouts themselves would contain very basic movement patters such as squats, deadlifts, rows and presses. What I’m trying to get at is that these workouts were by no means essential for his weight loss (though they did help), so if you don’t have access to weights there’s absolutely nothing to worry about.
Abbas, like many others I’ve worked with/am working with, responded incredibly well to these simple changes of consuming better fuels and improving his activity level. In the first 2-week phase he lost 4.2kg, where after we implemented some small progression in his diet and exercise and Abbas went on to lose another 2.7kg in weeks 3-4. We then decided to include a maintenance week (explained below), and Abbas then went on to lose another 2.3kg in the third 2-week phase. He’s now only 2.2kg away from his end goal, and here’s some proof:
What Came Next:
Now whilst we were incredibly pleased with the progress Abbas made in the first four weeks, we decided to press pause on the weight loss for a week and get Abbas to try and maintain his bodyweight for a short while. We would achieve this by maintaining the current level of exercise, but significantly increasing Abbas’ consumption of the highly nutritious foods already a part of his diet. Breaks like these can be an amazing tool you can all use to make permanent success on your weight loss journeys more likely. They’re a massive force in avoiding plateaus and reducing how much ‘work’ you actually end up having to do because of the way the temporarily increased calorie consumption prevents the down-regulation of the hormones that control hunger, appetite, satiety, and caloric expenditure.
This then allowed us to repeat the pretty easy to follow diets of the first 2 weight loss phases again and still experience significant results. Abbas will never have to go through periods of massive restriction and will reach his goal weight in a manner which is both physically and mentally healthy and sustainable. This will also make his transition back to normal maintenance eating and exercise relatively simple, massively reducing the chances of a rebound as long as Abbas keeps on top of his new learned habits of eating natural whole foods and walking more.
Weight loss doesn’t have to be difficult; focus on making simple lifestyle changes and the results will gradually follow. This is especially important because you’ll never be able to go back to the habits that made you gain weight in the first place, so get used to making the right food choices and maintaining a level of activity essential for good health - these new habits are for life. But remember that it’s okay to take your time in getting there. Set simple goals which are easy to achieve and gradually build up the intensity as you become more mentally and physically tough. At the end of the day, it’s not a race and the only goal should be improving your own health and wellbeing.
- Sleep well
- Drink enough water
- Reduce processed foods
- Reduce liquid calories
- Prioritise natural whole foods
- Time your foods well
- Sit less
- Move more - 10K steps minimum
- Progressively diet and exercise
- Take maintenance breaks
- Find someone to hold you to account
- Contact me for tailored weight loss plans – I’m here to help
Client: Abbas Rizvi (Instagram: @abbasriz110)