As January draws to a close those new year diets and proclamations of how we’re going to live better, healthier lives start to fall away. This leaves us to contend with some stark figures: almost two-thirds us are overweight or obese.
Lots of these people will have dieted at some point, with varying degrees of success; most are clearly failing. I don’t believe this is a problem with willpower or resolve or intelligence – it’s a fundamental issue with the concept of dieting.
Rather than making yourself miserable following an unsustainable regime or fad diet, it’s important to understand how your body works and fit your diet and exercise around it.
Let’s start with a statement of the obvious: there is no magic diet, shake or pill. To lose weight, you need to expend more energy than you consume. Energy in vs energy out. This is the basis of weight loss.
The tricky part is how you achieve this, not over a period of days and weeks, but over months and years. The good news is there are a whole host of ways, and you can choose the one that best suits your lifestyle.
First you need to work out how much energy you are consuming. Download a food tracker app like MyFitnessPal, and record everything you eat for three typical days. Don’t change anything, just see what it says. Next, take an average of those three days and multiply it by seven, giving you your typical weekly calorie intake.
This simple exercise may show you right away where your problem lies – if your four lattes a day come to 1,000 calories or your breakfast shake is 800 calories, that should be an immediate red flag (the same principle applies to your monthly coffee bill – if it adds up to £100, perhaps think twice about your daily trips to Starbucks).
This average weekly calorie figure is the key to staying in control of your diet in a sustainable way. Sticking to a certain number of calories every day is tough, but things get simpler when averaged over a week. That gives you, for instance, 14,000 calories to play with. If you have a night out you might consume 3,000 that day, which you then have six days to claw back by reducing your intake by around 200 calories a day.
Now, this might sound suspiciously like calorie counting, which is not something I advocate: sitting with a calculator totting up every spoonful of porridge is no way to live. What tracking your food for a few days does is give you an overall impression of your diet. You will be able to see if you’re eating too much, in which case you will never lose weight, no matter how much kale you eat.
It’s like going shopping: you don’t need to know your exact incomings and outgoings every time you go to the supermarket – a general idea of your bank balance will suffice. But how dangerous would it be if nothing in the shop had any price tags attached?
Tracking the food you eat and knowing its rough calorific values allows you to take control of your diet. You’ll realise that you can eat a pizza on a Sunday afternoon, but you might have to skip breakfast on Monday and Tuesday to balance the equation. You can go out for a couple of pints, but drinking four lagers twice a week is going to set you back.
The goal in weight loss is to create a calorie deficit. If you create a deficit of 500 calories a day, you will lose weight. It might not happen immediately, but it will happen. You don’t have to do it solely through food, either –you can also create a deficit through training, although exercise alone is less effective than cutting back on calories.
You don’t need to drastically change everything. Don’t starve yourself. Don’t exercise until you drop. Just be aware of what you’re eating and be a little more active every week.
Everyone is different, so giving a number for everyone to follow doesn’t work. Be suspicious of any set meal plans or Instagram accounts that say everyone should subsist on 1,200 calories a day; it doesn’t work like that.
So try the simple exercise laid out above and kickstart a healthy new lifestyle that should stand you in good stead for life rather than just 30 days at the start of every year.