I am not sure if there is any other single topic where you can find so much confusing, contradicting, and absolutely misleading information as on diets and nutrition. Regardless of what, how or when you like to eat, you can find someone who demonizes that as the root cause for any failing diet, and for pretty much any major (or minor) food component, you can find someone who will decry it as the sole cause of all that is bad in the world.
This is weird, as the science, while certainly not settled and with many fields of research still open, is actually quite solid on the general ideas.
I used to weigh just shy of 127 kg. I have lost over 40 kg since then. Without following any fad diet. And I was enjoying myself the whole time. What follows are ideas I have collected over the years, based on reading medical studies and what I have experimented with myself.
This means I am just another voice in the chorus of people online talking about nutrition. So do not take my word as the law. But if this post helps you to lose weight and live healthier and happier life, that would make me very happy.
Yes, this post is directed at overweight people. There is a real issue with underweight, and I can only urge you to be careful if you fall into that category. But I have no experience with that.
Motivation and Mind Set
You are not overweight because of that one ginormous cake two weeks ago, or that huge buffet last month. While such singular incidents can have an impact, they alone would not be a problem.
You are overweight because of small, bad decisions every day.
This means that to permanently lose weight, you need to change the way you live. There is nothing you can do for a few weeks and be done with it.
Whatever you do, make sure that you can sustain it not just for a few weeks, but forever. If a diet is too restrictive for that, it won’t help you in the long term.
At some point, do take the time to think about why you are overweight. It is likely that you are at least slightly depressed, unhappy with something—or even many things. Do work on that in addition to the other things you do.
If you feel it is impossible to work against unhappiness, do not hesitate to seek professional help. Depression is very real, and not unusual. Sometimes, it needs help from a professional to break out.
Losing weight won’t solve your problems. You won’t suddenly find friends, the love of your live, have more fun in general, attend more parties, or anything like that just because you lost weight.
Losing weight can make you happier, more healthy, and more active in general.
Consequently, lose weight because you love your body and want to do something good for it. If you hate your body, losing weight won’t change that.
Losing weight is hard, takes time, and requires some focus on the changes you implement in your life. This is ok. Especially the first month or two requires learning, un-learning and re-learning many things, so it will take time and focus. But you are in this for the long haul. After a few months, the diet should be something you have in the back of your head, not something that occupies your thoughts the whole time. It is all too easy to develop an eating disorder that way.
Do not become obsessed with food, “good” and “bad” food types, diet rules, and whatnot. If the diet requires you to be vigilant all the time, it is a bad diet.
The rules and guidelines I talk about here are meant to help you find a way to live a happy life. They are not meant to suffocate you or make you unhappy. Do not forget this.
Your diet is the one single thing that will make or break your goal of losing weight. You can lose weight with the right diet no matter what else you do. Without the right diet, it does not matter what else you do, you will still not lose weight.
While there are long discussions even among scientists about different aspects of a good diet, all these differences are minor compared to one overarching factor: Calories. In the end, fat is an energy store. Food contains energy, your body requires energy to function. If you take in more energy than your body needs, there is an energy surplus which will be stored as fat. If you take in less energy than your body needs, it will get the energy from stored reserves. It really is as simple as that.
Every aspect of your diet is there to help you achieve a negative energy balance without being constantly hungry or having to worry about it all the time. Whatever works for you to achieve this goal is a good diet for you. Whatever does not work for you is a bad diet.
Also, your calorie goal is not only an upper limit of what you may eat, it is also a lower limit of what you should eat.
One of the psychological problems I had to overcome when I was obese was that I always felt slightly bad when eating something. All the time I was thinking: I’m eating again. I probably shouldn’t eat this. I had a constant, low-key negative feeling every time I ate something. If you have a similar problem, use the calorie goal to combat it: You may eat this amount of food. It is fine to eat this. Actually, you should eat this!
The first step is to figure out how many calories you expend per day at your goal weight. Once you know that, you know you can eat that amount, and your body will level out at the appropriate weight all by itself.
Humans are all different, though, so figuring out the exact amount of calories you expend is not easy. There are formulas for this, but they only give you an approximation. What I did was to use the amount of calories I expend doing nothing but sitting at home, and aim for that. This is almost certainly less than the amount of calories I really expend, as any kind of movement, walking, chores or exercise adds to it, so it should let me lose weight in any case, but it’s not so little that it would be impossible to sustain. Also, this takes into account that we generally underestimate the amount of calories we consume, and allows for some cheat days, so it’s a nice general rule of thumb.
The calculator to the right does two things. First, it calculates a goal weight for you. You can use that, or you can set something else. Especially if you are very far from that goal, aiming for a intermediate weight at first is a good idea. Then it uses that goal weight and gives you the calories an average human being of your size, age and sex expends at this weight.
The goal weight is calculated using the Body Mass Index (BMI). While not ideal for individuals, it can give you a rough ballpark number for your height. The goal weight here will give you a BMI of 25, which is officially normal weight. If you are there, you’re doing fine. There is no medical reason to lose more weight.
The energy consumption is calculated using the estimation formula by Mifflin and St. Jeor. An average person of your height, age, and sex at the given weight, sitting at home, doing nothing, will most likely expend around that amount of calories per day. As it is an estimate, you can round it to the next 100s for easier memorizing. Nothing much is lost that way.
This means that the whole calorie number gives you some wiggle room. It’s an estimate. Likewise, you can usually only estimate the amount of calories in your food. Sometimes, you will consume more, sometimes less. In the long run, if you aim for this number, it’ll all balance out, but, most importantly, you do not have to be too meticulous about it. Remember, you’re here for the long run.
Now you have your calorie goal. As I said, the rest is just about finding ways of sticking to the calorie goal without having to worry about it all the time. This is the part where you have to find what works for you and what does not. People are different. What follows are ideas that worked for me. Try them if you like, and also do find ways that work for you.
I structured my day into three meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each meal got a defined time so I not only eat when I’m hungry, but also know that I just have to hold out for another hour and I’m fine. I then split my calorie goal between the three, and did not consume any calories in between those meals.
My usual breakfast consists of bread with jelly or honey. I used a scale to measure how much jelly I put on my bread, and found out that two slices of my favorite bread with the usual amounts of jelly or honey add up to 450-500 kcal. Ok, so if I assume my breakfast gives me that, I can just eat my normal breakfast, stick to two slices of bread with topping, and not worry about calculating anything there.
Due to my job, I do eat warm during the day and not in the evening, so my usual dinner consists of more bread, with cheese and sausage as toppings. I did calculate this once here, too, and figured out that two slices of bread with my usual toppings amount to 450-500 kcal, too. Incidentally, no matter what topping I used, if I left out the most calorie rich ones. So, normal dinner, no special measuring required here, either.
This means I consume 900-1000 kcal for breakfast and dinner. The calculator above gives me about 1700 kcal, which leaves me with 700 kcal for lunch. I asked the cafeteria I usually eat at, and their usual meals vary around 600-700 kcal. That actually gives me some space for a dessert sometimes.
On weekends, I cook myself and I created my recipes to fit my calorie goal, too. No snacks on any day, and only calorie-free drinks. That means water, unsweetened tea, black coffee, or zero calorie sodas, all are fine.
So unless I experiment with a new recipe, I do not really do calorie calculation day to day at all. When I get hungry, I know when I will get to eat the next time, and that’s usually enough to get me over the day, because I do not eat so little that I couldn’t sustain it. If I absolutely can’t wait for the next meal, I have some carrots, bell peppers and similar low-calorie foods at home to bridge the time, but I try to avoid having to resort to that.
Which means my diet plan is rather simple: Two slices of bread with any of my usual toppings for breakfast, any option at the cafeteria I usually eat at for lunch, and two slices of bread with any of my usual toppings for dinner.
This is the kind of diet plan you should aim for. It’s simple so you do not have to worry about it all the time, it allows for enough variety so you do not get bored, and it is designed to stick to your calorie goal.
Your calorie goal is almost certainly below the amount of calories you consume. This means if you stick to that goal for most days, you will lose weight. But it also means you can, from time to time, consume more than your goal. All that will do is slow your weight loss down, it won’t break it.
If you are invited to a party with friends, forget your diet and calorie goal for the evening. You don’t have to overdo it, but please, do enjoy yourself. Your diet is meant to help you have a happier life, not to ruin it.
Just make sure that you do not fall for having a cheat day too often. That’s not how it works.
More Healthy Diet
One of the largest health complications from diets is due to obesity and being overweight. Simply losing weight will mean you are much, much more healthy than ever before. No matter what exactly you eat. For healthy living, I could stop here and be done with it. But some people want to do more than to lose weight, and pick more healthy foods over less healthy ones. And there is a whole load of bad advice on that available online, too.
If you ever see any dietary advice that tells you to “detox” yourself, run screaming in the other direction. Or at least ignore it. Nothing you can buy as food in western civilizations is, in moderate quantities, dangerous for you. There are long trials and admission requirements. If you absolutely love that deep fried marshmallow pizza, do eat it (from time to time, and keep to your calorie goal). There is no type of food that you can’t ever eat. Remember, your diet is here to help you have a happier life.
Still, if you want, there are some more guidelines that can help you improve your diet. For these, I recommend looking at national dietary guidelines over ad-riddled, click-baiting blogs.
For example the WHO Healthy Diet Factsheet gives a few good rules on the contents of a healthy diet:
- fruits, vegetables, legumes (e.g. lentils, beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g. unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat, brown rice);
- at least 400 g (5 portions) of fruit and vegetables a day. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and other starchy roots are not classified as fruits or vegetables;
- less than 10% of total energy from free sugars equivalent to 50g (or around 12 level teaspoons), but possibly less than 5% of total energy for additional health benefits. Most free sugars are added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and can also be found in sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates;
- less than 30% of total energy from fat. Unsaturated fats (e.g. found in fish, avocado, nuts, sunflower, canola and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (e.g. found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee and lard). Industrial trans fats (found in processed food, fast food, snack food, fried food, frozen pizza, pies, cookies, margarines and spreads) are not part of a healthy diet;
- less than 5 g of salt (equivalent to approximately one teaspoon) per day and use iodized salt.
Note that they do say “less than” and “at least”, not “no” and “only”. For example, you can eat meat on a healthy diet, but do reduce it to reduce the saturated fat intake. This means lean white meat is preferable to fatty red meat, and fish with its larger amounts of unsaturated fat is preferable to white meat. But if you get invited to that barbecue with the excellent lamb steaks, enjoy them. Just don’t do that all the time.
If you want an even more condensed form, the following works as well:
- Eat more vegetables and fruits
- Prefer whole grains over processed grains
- Prefer unsaturated fats over saturated fats
- Reduce fat, sugar and salt
Most online healthy diet advice is way too complex and mostly wrong.
Exercise is a hot topic. Many people hate it, and many discussions on losing weight focus on it. You can lose weight without exercise. You can not lose weight without a good diet. So focus on the diet first and foremost.
But exercise helps with losing weight a lot, and it’s also important for general health, so it would not be good to ignore it completely. Exercise will help you control hunger thus reduce calorie intake, burn calories, and make you more fit in general, which means you move more, which also burns more calories. It’s just a good idea overall.
The WHO recommends 150 minutes of physical activity per week. That’s 2.5 hours. And it does not matter so much what you do, as long as you do it.
What helped me here was to simply pick two or three days a week and a time on that day where I do my sports. For example, Monday and Thursday after work, go to the gym for one hour. Walk to get groceries on Saturday, that’s half an hour. You already reached your exercise goal.
The trickiest part is finding some kind of sports that you can stick to. Running, walking, workouts at home, gym, swimming, etc. are all ideas. If you have a sports club nearby, consider joining. Team up with a friend and make it part of your pastime. Do whatever you like, but do it.
That’s about it, my advice for losing weight and living a happier life. Aim for a change in your lifestyle, because that’s the only way to get lasting results. Know how many calories you can eat every day to reach your target weight, and use that both as a limit and as an allowance, enabling yourself to enjoy that amount of food to its fullest extend. Do incorporate some exercise into your weekly routine, and do not let any of this ruin your life.
It’s not magic, and very doable.
Good luck. I know you can do it.