Losing unwanted body weight isn't easy. A lot of us have tried and failed many times, subjecting ourselves to the dreaded yet common weight loss/weight gain merry-go-round. This vicious cycle can be demoralising, with many people convincing themselves that something must be wrong with them and they are destined to be overweight forever.
A common 'solution' is the meal or diet plan. After all, you've tried multiple diets and they haven't worked, so all you want now is a nutrition expert to give you a diet plan that will. You believe that if someone tells you exactly what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat it, then you'll lose the weight you want and have the body of your dreams. And why shouldn't you, after all, they're the expert.
However, while this strict diet plan approach may sound like the answer to your prayers, the reality is they very rarely work in the real world. You see, the real world has a habit of getting in the way of our best laid plans:
- Your children don't care that you need to sit down to your two poached eggs, one slice of wholegrain toast, 100g of salmon and 15 almonds at 7.30am. All they care about is getting ready for school and how you're going to help them do it.
- Your boss doesn't care that you've got a 12.30pm lunch made up of 200g of mixed salad, 150g of diced chicken breast, 1/2 sliced medium tomato, 1/2 sliced medium cucumber and 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds. He just wants the report on his desk now, or to sit in on a meeting he's just called.
- Your friends don't care that you're supposed to steer clear of any sugars, fats or salts for the next three months. All they care about his throwing the best birthday party ever full of delicious treats and high-calorie cocktails.
And whatever you do, don't get sick because the diet plan doesn't care how you're feeling. If you've been told to eat chia-seed pudding for breakfast three times per week, you'd better be prepared to make it no matter how you're feeling.
Think of all the factors in your life that could get in the way of the best laid meal plans, and ask yourself, 'how realistic is it to keep this up for the long run?'
But my friend went on a meal plan and she's kept the weight off for ages now...
There are exceptions to every rule, and if your friend has successfully lost weight and kept it off for several years since going on a diet plan, then I applaud them. However, there's no denying it's difficult to stick to these restrictive diets long-term.
But that's the point, meal plans are not supposed to be followed forever. How boring would life be if we had to eat the same foods in the same amounts at the same times every day for the rest of our lives? If you have a short-term weight loss goals then diet plans can be very effective. Just expect the inevitable weight gain when you're not on the 'plan' anymore.
But what happens when you stop following the diet plan? What happens when life gets in the way? Or you decide that following a meal plan really sucks? Or you actually lose the weight you want?
Diet plans don't address one key factor for successful lifelong fat loss -- habitual and behavioural change. Being told what to eat may provide short term weight loss success, but unless you learn, understand and practice the fundamentals of healthy eating, you'll revert to your eating habits that got you where you were in the first place.
OK, so what do you suggest I do to lose weight?
We live in a fast-paced society, and we all want to lose our excess body weight by the end of the next 12-week challenge. But ask yourself, 'how long did it take to put on this weight that has now become my life?' I'm guessing months at least, but probably years. So why do you think you can get back to your ideal body weight in 12 weeks, and sustain it for the rest of your life?
If eating nutritious foods and having a lean body forever is your goal, most people simply don't need a strict diet plan. After all, we know that lean meats and vegetables is a healthier meal option than hamburgers and fries. But if takeaway food is your usual dinner-time meal, then successfully making the giant leap to eating healthily at every meal without any small steps in between is going to be virtually impossible.
We're already under enough stress with work, family, bills, relationships, and everything else going on in our lives, so don't add to it by trying to turn your eating habits upside down right from the start.
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The secret to making lifelong habitual changes to your eating behaviour is to identify positive changes you can make to your diet, and tackle them one at a time. Yes, this will take a while, and you won't lose the 25kg in 12 weeks that your 'fitness expert' has promised you. But small, incremental changes to your diet will add up to extraordinary and lifelong changes in the long run.
I'm sure you already know of changes that you could make to your diet, but here are a few suggestions to get the ball rolling:
- Slow down. We're always so rushed and eating tends to get in the way of other things we want to do, so we shovel food into our mouths as fast as we can. If you just slow down you may find that you eat less food because you'll be aware of when you've eaten enough.
- Eat until you're satisfied, not stuffed. We tend to eat everything on our plate, no matter how much is there. Practice eating until you don't feel hungry anymore and you'll likely find that you don't need to eat as much as you think you do.
- Be careful what you drink. Liquid calories are a huge problem for controlling weight gain. You don't need fruit juice, soft drinks (sodas) or dessert coffees to satisfy your thirst. Buy a Sodastream and make your own sparkling water, and add slices of lemon, orange or lime to add flavour. Buy a simple coffee on your way to work instead of the milky/sugary/creamy coffee you buy now.
- Eat protein at every meal. Protein helps us to feel fuller for longer between meals. Cereals and breads for breakfast often leads to a mid-morning snack to get us through to lunch. Protein for breakfast often means we don't need the snack. Protein also requires a lot more energy to digest than fats and carbs, so you'll burn more energy by eating it. Good protein sources include lean meats, poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yoghurt, protein powers, lentils, beans and tofu.
- Find someone to keep you accountable. If you have to discuss your plan, actions and results with someone you respect each week, you're more likely to stay on track. Just make sure you choose someone who will be honest with you, and not reward you with biscuits.
- Assess your progress regularly. Hop on the scales once a week, take body girth measurements (shoulders, chest, abdomen, waist, thigh, upper arm) with a tape measure once a fortnight, and front, back and side photos once a month. Keep records. If you're heading in the right direction, awesome. If not, make changes.
- Design your environment. If you know that you can't resist the chocolate and chips in the cupboard, don't keep them in the house. Put as many roadblocks in the way of unhealthy choices as you can.
Notice how many of these suggestions aren't even strictly 'nutrition' tips. We already know we should eat whole foods most of the time. Your goal should be to have a healthy relationship with food, not love-hate.
So slow down, take it one step at a time, and release the pressure you've put on yourself to lose excess weight quickly through restrictive dieting. Small and realistic changes to your eating habits over the long run will deliver extraordinary results to your health, body weight and wellbeing.