Many of us have put on weight during lockdown. Some of us may have started lockdown heavier than we’d like to be. But is changing the number on the bathroom scales really what you're looking to achieve?
These days we're told constantly that we live in an obese world. During the Covid-19 pandemic we've been continually told that obesity or being overweight are correlated with worse health outcomes. The health & fitness industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry mainly founded on trying to get people to lose weight.
But here's the thing: repeated dieting is actually an indicator for predicting weight gain instead of weight loss. Yup, there it is: that million dollar industry is, fairly regularly, selling people diets that get them to gain weight in the long term. In the short term of course, they often work. Restricting your calorie intake (which is what all diets do, in one way or another) means you lose weight initially. But in the long term, they're unsustainable: you put the weight back on, and a little bit more. You do it again, and the same happens longer term... and so the cycle continues.
And just because two things have a correlation doesn't necessarily indicate causation. Being overweight is not necessarily connected with poor health outcomes. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Now, don't get me wrong: there are some very, very good reasons why you might want to reduce the number on the scales. But often we assume that will solve lots of problems for us, whereas that may not always be the case.
So let me ask you a question: if you're reading this, the chances are (as you've clicked on the title) you'd like to lose a little weight. But why? What is it you'd really like to do? Perhaps you'd like to run faster, or you'd like to be able to paddle or cycle with greater ease: be more mobile in your boat, or ride up hills faster. Maybe you'd like to fit into those favourite jeans that feel just a little too tight? Or perhaps you just want to feel a little more confident about your body?
Will the number on the scales change any of those things?
What we're really talking about here is the amount of body fat you have, or the ability of your body to achieve the things you want it to. One of the main things that determines the amount of body fat you have is how many calories you eat. But your body's ability to do the thing you want it to do? At the end of the day, that comes down to health, physical fitness and strength. In the modern world, many of us simply eat more calories than our bodies need, and move less - and in less varied ways- than our bodies need us to. But how can we change that without dieting, without restricting our food intake and feeling hungry all the time? That's where food quality comes in.
Eat Balanced Meals
A balanced meal consists of, very roughly speaking, half a plate of vegetables, a quarter of a plate of protein, and a quarter of a plate of carbohydrates. In the western world, most of us skew the balance of our meals much more towards carbohydrates... but the thing that fills you up the fastest, and keeps you full for longest, is protein, and fibre from veggies. How balanced is the meal on your plate?
If you're eating balanced meals, you're eating to be healthy. You're eating to provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to get through the day. Many people find that simply by keeping an eagle eye on how balanced their meals are, they begin to lose a little body fat.
Ask yourself a question... Are you hungry?
When did you last stop before you ate something, and ask yourself if you're truly hungry? Or whether you're eating for a different reason entirely: maybe you're putting off a job you really don't want to do (hoovering, anyone?), maybe you're having a rough day (Hello, Coronacoaster!), or perhaps you're just a bit bored. We all eat for reasons other than hunger sometimes. And sometimes, those are good reasons: celebrating a birthday with loved ones, or going for coffee with a friend you haven't caught up with in ages. It's when it becomes a daily habit that it begins to cause us problems.
Create healthy habits
So how can you break that cycle? Many people try to rely on willpower or motivation. But if we really think about it, we all know that neither of those things actually cuts the mustard. Willpower runs out after a while, and none of us have enough of it to really make long term changes. And motivation comes and goes, it ebbs and flows in cycles depending on what's going on in our lives. What we really need to change, the thing that will stick around long term, are our daily habits. If we can make changes to those, and commit to doing so for the long term by doing things or eating things we enjoy (and I don't mean a week or two, I mean months or years...) then we're onto a winner. Genuine, long term lifestyle change.
Move your body... But not just for weight loss.
'If I do loads of exercise, I'll lose weight'... right? Well, not necessarily. That may be the case in the short to medium term, but in the long term, for most people, two things will happen. First, your body will figure out its daily energy expenditure, including all that exercise, and adapt to it. It will then stop burning as many calories, and your weight on the scales will stabilise. Second, many people find that doing hours of exercise over the long term just isn't sustainable, and their appetite will also increase: our bodies look for equilbrium, and so weight change doesn't happen.
Exercise should be fun! Moving your body keeps it strong and supple, gives your muscles, joints and tendons the chance to move around, build and maintain the strength & stability they need to keep you alive and keep you well. If the activity or movement you're doing feels like punishment for something you ate, try a different activity, and find something that makes you feel alive. The most effective form of exercise is the one you're most likely to do.
Get good sleep
Many of us get less sleep than we actually need, and being tired is a common cause of weight gain. Think about it: when you're tired, do you crave carbohydrates or sugar? You're not actually hungry, but your brain is telling you it needs something to keep it awake. So you eat excess calories when your body doesn't actually need them. People who are trying to lose weight and get enough sleep have been shown to lose significantly more weight than those whose sleep is inadequate.
Commit for the long term
"You are probably overestimating the number of changes you need to make, but underestimating the time you need to make them for". Simply making a few dietary changes - but making them for life - can significantly improve your health... and as a result, you may very well see the number on the scale come down.
Health is not about a number
At the end of the day, that number on the bathroom scale is a combination of many things: body fat, and lean mass being two of them. But it will also fluctuate for a number of reasons, not necessarily connected with what you ate recently. If you are losing body fat but gaining muscle from exercise, you may well see your weight increase. Scale weight is often not the best indicator of health: it's just as possible to be thin and unhealthy as it is to be 'overweight' and healthy. In modern life many of us have come to believe that that little number tells us all we need to know: it doesn't.
This is not a skinny person telling you you don't need to worry about losing weight. Those who know me, know that I have battled with my weight for my entire adult life, ever since being an overweight teenager. I'm still heavier than I'd like to be, but I'm healthy, fit, and strong, and in the last few years I've learned to develop a healthy relationship with food, and with my body. And there's the thing: I can achieve many of the things I'd like to be able to, and I'm always working on getting better... because it's fun, and I enjoy it. Wanting to lose a little more body fat is ok; just as wanting to run faster, be more mobile in your kayak, cycle up hills easier or lift heavier weights are ok. My challenge is this: is weight loss your actual goal, or is your goal really about something else?
If you'd like to explore any of the subjects above in more depth, or would like to improve your health & nutrition, and perhaps lose a little body fat along the way, check out some of my coaching programmes. The following include Nutrition coaching:
Nutrition Jump Start, commencing the first Monday in May, July and September
AdventureFit Coaching Programme
Individual Fitness & Nutrition Coaching
And if you have any questions or would like to discuss coaching with me, send me an email.
Further reading & listening:
The Dr John Berardi Show
Emma Storey-Gordon Fitness
Harvard School of Public Health: the Nutrition Source
Lean and Strong by Josh Hillis, published by On Target Publications, April 2020
Understanding Your Eating by Julia Buckroyd, published by Open University Press
Sea Kayak Coach & Personal Trainer based in the Scottish Highlands. I love paddling, running, lifting weights, cycling, and moving well- and I love helping other people to do the same. I have to work really hard to build and maintain my skills on the water and my fitness, and I hope that helps me to understand how hard my clients also have to work!