For a long time (and even today) people were given the simple advice to exercise more and eat less to lose weight. Judging by the skyrocketing obesity rates, this simple advice hasn’t worked. In reality successful weight loss is much more complicated, involving a number of interrelated factors.
A calorie isn’t simply a calorie when it comes to diet. Each type of food affects your body differently. A range of factors such as feelings of fullness, hunger, metabolism and even your gut bacteria actually come into play.
- Protein: High protein diets have been found to increase satiety, reduce weight and boost metabolism. Watch out for red and processed meats though (as you’ll soon see).
- Fat: A study found a slight association between fat intake and weight gain. However, breaking the analysis down to the types of fat tells a more interesting story. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats were unrelated to weight gain. However, saturated fat and especially trans fat was strongly associated with weight gain. In fact, an average of 2.3 pounds are gained for every percentage increase in calories from trans fat.
- Carbohydrates: Another study assigned moderately obese participants to either a low-carb, low-fat, or Mediterranean diet for 2 years. The researchers found that the low-fat group lost an average of 6.4 lbs, the low-carb group lost an average of 10.4 lbs, while the Mediterranean group lost an average of 9.7 lbs. The trajectory of the weight loss was interesting. The low-carb diet led to the most weight loss at 6 months. However, the low-fat and low-carb group gained back some of their weight loss, while the Mediterranean group was able to roughly maintain their initial weight loss. While low carb diets work, not all carbs are bad. High-fiber foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables significantly reduce body weight and body fat.
- Specific foods: Another study analyzed the diets of 120,877 non-obese participants from 3 separate long-term studies for 12+ years. The foods that were associated with the most weight gain per 4 year period were potato chips (1.69 lb), potatoes (1.28 lb), sugar-sweetened beverages (1.00 lb), unprocessed red meats (0.95 lb) and processed meats (0.93 lb). The foods that were associated with the most weight loss were vegetables (−0.22 lb), whole grains (−0.37 lb), fruits (−0.49 lb), nuts (−0.57 lb), and yogurt (−0.82 lb). Yogurt was the biggest surprise and is hypothesized to be due to changes in gut bacteria.
Here‘s another study that looked specifically at proteins:
- Spicy foods: Spicy foods can reduce hunger, increase satiety and reduce energy intake. Spicy foods can also boost metabolism.
- Coffee/ green tea: What about beverages? Another study found that 8 mg of caffeine increased metabolism by 16% over a period of 3 hours after consumption. Some studies have also shown green tea and oolong tea can also be effective.
- Water: Drinking water can significantly reduce body weight and body fat and can boost metabolism by 24%. Another study found that drinking 500 ml. (2.1 cups) of water before eating led to a 13% reduction in calories consumed. So consider downing 2 glasses of water before you eat meals.
- Putting ice in your water: Cooling water to 3° C (37.4° F) caused metabolism to increase by 4.5% over the next hour in another study. It’s not a major effect, but the body burns additional energy as it raises the temperature of the water.
- Glass size: Glass size matters too. Even professional bartenders pour 20.5% more alcohol in short, wide glasses vs. tall, thin glasses. So if you do drink sugar sweetened beverages, fruit juices or alcohol, use tall, thin glasses. Conversely, drinking from short, wide glasses could encourage you to drink more water.
- Cooking: Cooking at home is fun and is good for your waistline. A study found that the average person eats 130 more calories when eating out. Specifically, breakfast away from home adds 73 more calories; lunch away from home adds 157 more calories; dinner away from home adds 137 more calories, on average. Just don’t cook a bunch of donuts and cheesecakes!
- Small plates: One study gave 85 nutrition experts either a small (2 oz.) or a larger (3 oz.) spoon and a small (17 oz.) or larger (34 oz.) bowl to serve themselves ice cream with at an ice cream social. The researchers found that the nutrition experts served themselves 14.5% more with the larger spoon and 31.0% more with the larger bowl. This matters because people consume an average of 92% of the food that they serve themselves.
- Red plates: You might not expect the color of your plate to matter, but it does. A study found that the color red reduced unhealthy food intake. This appears to occur because of the color’s association with danger. The color red acts as a subtle reminder that unhealthy foods could be harmful to your health.
- Eating mindfully: Another interesting study had participants eat from a bowl that was continually refilled from a tube at the bottom of the bowl without the participants knowing. As a result, these participants ate 73% more than participants eating from a normal bowl. They also didn’t believe that they had consumed more and didn’t feel more satiated. This shows that visual cues play a role in hunger. So, paying attention to the food while you eat, should prevent overeating.
- Chewing slowly: You also should slow down your chewing speed. One study found that participants ate 66 fewer calories when they ate slowly. The main reason this works is that it take the brain about 20 minutes from the time you start eating to send signals of fullness to the body. So, if you power down your meal in 15 minutes you are likely to eat past the point where you became full.
- Eating with your non-dominant hand: Another study found that those who ate with their non-dominant hand consumed 30% fewer calories. If you’re ambidextrous you might be out of luck on this one.
- Hiding unhealthy snacks: What about all of those unhealthy snacks? Participants ate 1.8x more candy when it was placed on their desk versus 2 meters away. They also ate 2.2x more candy when it was visible versus when it was covered. So if you can’t throw it away, at least hide the unhealthy food.
Some people minimize the importance of exercise for weight loss. However, studies have consistently shown that combining diet with an exercise program leads to the greatest long-term weight loss results.
- Cardio: One study found that less than 150 minutes a week of cardio was associated with a 4.7% loss in weight over 12 months. Cardio of 150 minutes or more a week led to a 9.5% loss in weight, while 250 minutes or more a week of cardio led to a 13.6% loss in weight. More vigorous exercise led to greater (though not significant) losses. Another study found that engaging in 45 minutes of vigorous intensity cycling increased metabolism by 7.8% and remained elevated for 14 hours. Cardio has also been shown as the single greatest predictor of weight maintenance.
- Strength training: If your goal is pure weight loss, then strength training could be counterproductive because of the weight you gain from the increase in muscle. However, a study found that strength training combined with cardio (each 3 days a week) led to less subcutaneous fat, less visceral fat and greater lean body mass than just cardio alone (6 days a week). Strength training is also the most effective way to boost your metabolism. One study found that 63% of variation in metabolism among participants was due to fat-free body mass. Not surprisingly then, another study found that a 16 week strength training increased metabolism by 7.7% in older men.
- Everyday activity: Increasing everyday activity like standing, walking and taking the stairs also aids weight loss. For example, you burn 50 more calories per hour when standing vs. sitting. If you stand 3 hours more a day, that translates into 8 pounds of weight loss a year.
Once again, effective weight loss isn’t simple. Here are some other factors that contribute to weight loss.
- Process goals: Setting process goals (like eating healthy) is more effective than setting outcome goals (like losing weight). This appears to occur because people with a process focus are less likely to deviate from their weight loss plan.
- Self monitoring: Self monitoring, whether in terms of diet tracking, exercising tracking, or even weigh-ins aids leads to greater weight loss.
- Flexible control: Flexible control (versus rigorously counting calories etc.) led to greater weight loss over 3 years. This works because flexible control makes it more likely that people can stick with their new habits over a long period of time.
- Social support: Another study had participants either complete a weight loss program alone or with 3 or more friends and family members. 76% of the participants who were alone completed the program and 24% maintained their weight loss from months 4 to 10. Meanwhile, 95% of those who had social support completed the program and 66% maintained their weight loss.
- Sleep: Sleeping less than 7 hours a night is associated with weight gain. Poor sleep quality also reduces the chance of weight loss success by 33%. Another study found that sleep deprivation led to a 5% decline in metabolism.
- Stress: Stress appears to be causally linked to weight gain by increasing preference for energy-dense foods like sugar and fat.
- Cravings: Replacing craving related thoughts with pleasant thoughts reduces cravings. Participants who vividly visualized their favorite activity when a craving arose (and until it ended) saw significant reductions in cravings.
- TV watching: Finally, turn off the TV. Another study had participants eat either macaroni and cheese or pizza while watching TV or listening to music. Participants actually ate 71% more macaroni and cheese and 36% more pizza when watching TV.
The key to long-term weight loss is to integrate these habits into your life long-term. If you quickly lose weight but then revert back to your old ways, the weight will come back. So, start small and integrate a few of these habits into your life and keep adding more over time. Good luck!
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