Like financial guidance, there’s no shortage of information on how to lose weight. Unfortunately, a lot of this information is ambiguous — eat healthy and exercise regularly is the common adage. But despite being able to recite this conventional wisdom, many people still struggle to lose weight and keep it off.
The health implications of being overweight or obese are well-known, but excess weight also carries a financial penalty: $4,879 per year for obese women and $2,646 for men, according to a George Washington University study. Harvard researchers also have concluded that, over the course of a lifetime, per-person costs for obesity are on par with those for smoking.
But if the conventional wisdom stymies so many, perhaps we should examine some less-touted strategies for shedding pounds and actually keeping them off for the long run. Here are six tips to guide you to a healthier weight.
Change one thing at a time
When it comes to making important life changes, choosing to focus on one habit at a time can be one of the best ways to make sure those changes stick. Bestselling author and Zen Habits writer Leo Babauta recommends putting all of your energy into one habit for at least a month, until it’s on “autopilot,” before tackling new habits.
So when considering factors to losing weight, you might be looking at changing your diet, adding or changing your exercise regime, or tracking your steps. Rather than trying to do everything, Babauta suggests picking one thing — and only one thing — and focus on that for a month. Once it becomes just part of your routine, add something new.
Like financial health, physical health is about playing the long game. Trying to do everything at once can actually impede your long-term success.
Focus on diet first
So if you’re going to focus on one thing, what should it be? While exercise has numerous physiological and mental benefits, health experts agree diet has a bigger impact on weight loss on its own compared to exercise. Think about it this way — you eat at least three times per day, but how many times per day do you exercise? And in a single exercise session on average you’re burning far fewer calories than you take in from a single meal. While exercise is an important part of the equation, diet is a bigger factor.
Base your meals around lean protein like chicken, grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, or fish and non-starchy vegetables like greens, broccoli and cauliflower, beets, green beans, peas, and zucchini. Add in fat (see below for more) in the form of nuts, olive or coconut oil, avocado, and grass-fed butter. On days when you’re more active, add in a small sweet potato topped with sea salt and cinnamon for additional carbohydrates.
Once you have your diet and meals dialed in, work on developing your next habits one by one.
Breakfast not only cues your metabolism after waking from several hours of sleep, but it also sets your hormones on the right track for the day.
What does a solid breakfast look like? Aim for 20-30 grams of protein (3 eggs, 1 cup Greek yogurt, or a palm- or playing card-sized portion of meat or fish), healthy fat and if you’re active or exercising first thing in the morning, some carbohydrate in the form of low-glycemic fruit. Here are a few examples:
• Protein shake.
• 1 cup Greek yogurt with berries.
• 2-3 eggs with 2-3 slices of turkey or pork bacon.
• Dinner leftovers (a palm-sized portion of meat or fish plus some veggies).
After decades of low-fat, low-cholesterol mandates, even the government is starting to come around on its stance on fat. On the other hand, the link between overconsumption of sugar and other carbohydrates and heart disease is becoming clearer. What does this mean for you? Incorporating fat into your diet actually can help you lose weight and get healthier!
Fat not only makes foods taste delicious, but it also increases the satiety of a meal, meaning that you feel satisfied instead of still hungry, so you don’t potentially binge on snacks later to squash those lingering cravings.
What are good sources of fat that you can incorporate into your meals? Add a handful or few tablespoons of the following as you cook or as toppings:
• Olive oil.
• Coconut oil.
What about saturated fats? Perhaps the most demonized and misunderstood category of fats, saturated fats include coconut oil, dairy products, fattier cuts of beef, lamb, and pork, and egg yolks. While there’s little evidence to suggest saturated fats cause heart disease, food quality is something to pay attention to when it comes to saturated fats.
Look for butter and meat that has been grass-fed and grass-finished, as it will have beneficial CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), for example. Similarly, pastured-chicken eggs will have higher amounts of vitamins like B12 and Vitamin E and more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional factory eggs.
Do strength training
Exercise is important in losing weight — but perhaps not for the reason you think. Most people focus on the amount of calories burned in their daily exercise bout as a marker of how successful they were, but what’s more important are the chemical cascades that result from exercise and how they impact your body.
Exercise increases your insulin sensitivity, for example, which means that you need less insulin to get sugar out of your bloodstream (type II diabetes is related to insulin resistance, where your body can’t transfer sugar from your blood into your cells). Exercise also lowers cortisol, the “stress hormone” that tends to store dangerous fat around organs. In a nutshell, as Dr. Catherine Shanahan explains in her book “Deep Nutrition,” exercise “tells” your body’s fat cells to stop storing energy in fat cells and start putting it in muscle cells, which have a higher metabolism than other cells. How best to encourage muscle cell growth? Strength training.
When you think of strength training, you might imagine those rows of machines at the gym assigned to train different parts of the body, or perhaps dumbbells. But old-fashioned barbell training not only works multiple muscle groups at once, it allows weight to be moved in the way the human body is designed to move it. Mike Deskevich, an owner of Barbell Strategy, a barbell gym in Boulder, Colorado, trains many clients who are 50 years of age or older.
“The older you are, the more important it is to lift. Muscle mass is the most protective attribute you can have as you age,” says Deskevich.
And if you need proof that barbell lifting is possible at any age, watch this video of 88-year-old Mrs. Fox deadlifting 88 pounds!
Strength training not only makes your muscles stronger, it can help prevent degenerative bone conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis. When your skeletal system is put under positive stress (like weights), it adapts to that stress just like your muscles and becomes stronger and denser. Stronger, more resilient bones are important for living longer and healthier and preventing injury from everyday activities and potential falls.
What about running? When some think about exercising to lose weight, they lace up their running shoes and hit the pavement. If you’re training for a running race, this makes sense, but if you’re trying to lose weight, you have better options.
Unlike running, strength training actually makes you stronger (hence the name!), which is important not only in supporting your daily activities like picking up a heavy bag of groceries but also in developing other important skills like balance, coordination, and agility. Additionally, and important for weight loss, strength training increases muscle mass, and increased muscle mass burns fat. There’s also a growing amount of research that shows decreased muscle mass is associated with higher mortality.
In short, if you want to lose weight and live longer, maintaining and increasing your muscle mass is key.
When it comes to choosing a healthier lifestyle, you’ve probably heard the advice “everything in moderation.” While this sounds like a reasonable approach, “moderation” — whether in developing your health or finances — often leads to middling results.
Your body doesn’t recognize moderation as moderation. Everything you consume sends information to your body about how to process what you eat and what it should anticipate, and this information transfer happens regardless of quantity.
That means that eating one mini blueberry muffin per day (a so-called moderate amount) still sends your body the message that it can anticipate those carbs (which rapidly turn into sugar and then fat) on a daily basis. Contrast this with not eating a daily mini muffin, and your body learns to not count on those carbs and makes downstream adjustments to your insulin response accordingly. “Moderation” may make sense to us, but not to our bodies.
Does this mean no more blueberry muffins? Not quite. Plan a weekly “cheat day” (“The 4-Hour Body” author Tim Ferriss recommends Saturday) to enjoy off-diet foods, but otherwise, eschew moderation and be strict to redirect your body’s chemical response to food.
When attempting to lose weight, many people restrict their calories. After all, losing weight means you need to reduce your calorie intake, right? Not exactly.
As a species we’ve evolved strategies to cope when food is either ample or scarce. A reduction in calorie intake signals to the body that food is scarce, not that you’re dieting to lose weight. As Shanahan explains, your body will resist taking drastic action, like getting rid of your fat cells completely, as it anticipates that food eventually will become available again.
And sure enough, once the calories return, so does the fat inside your cells, which explains why regaining weight after a diet is so common. To lose weight and actually keep it off, you need to retrain your cells by changing the foods you eat (and how often you eat them).
Wrapping it up
As with building a nest egg for retirement, losing weight is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. Be skeptical of anyone who tells you differently. Changing habits takes time, so be patient and consistent. It always helps to have people who are making the same changes for support. If you aren’t able to recruit a partner or friends, look for Facebook groups or other online forums as a place to swap stories and share progress or setbacks.
Things to Consider:
• Make a commitment to focus on your diet for the next 30 days with fresh foods, healthy fats and lean proteins. Whole 30 has a wealth of tips and resources (and for-fee meal plans) to get you started, and we love Nom Nom Paleo’s Whole 30-approved recipes (her whole blog, really) that are easy-to-follow and darn delicious.
• Find a gym near you to start strength training. USA Weightlifting has a great list of barbell-centric gyms. While these gyms are ideal for its philosophy, programming, and equipment, your local chain gym or YMCA likely will have most of the equipment you’d need to follow a novice strength program and practice fundamental lifts. Most gyms will offer a free tour and/or introductory class so you can see if it feels like a fit.
• If you eat meat, make friends with your local butcher. He or she not only can advise on you on the freshest meats but also speak to where it came from, ensuring that what you’re eating is high-quality and nutritious. Look into beef, pork, or lamb shares, which can greatly lower the cost-per-pound of the meat (provided you have the freezer space). Eat Wild can help you locate a producer near you. And if quality local meat is hard to come by in your area, US Wellness Meats can ship it straight to your home.