The golden rules of weight-loss: Top tips from the experts
HFG senior nutritionist Rose Carr talked to the health professionals who help people lose weight – and discovered some common themes. Here are the experts’ rules for weight-loss success.
Rule 1: Don’t assume you know what healthy is
HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull says: “Nutrition knowledge can vary a lot... I always check people’s knowledge and habits around fats. It’s not uncommon to find people using lots of olive oil and eating lots of nuts because they know they’re healthy, but they don’t realise they’re high in kilojoules”.
Dr Janet Franklin adds that confusion can arise around the term ‘light’ when it comes to cooking oils: “A lot of people think they are choosing a lower-fat oil because it’s ‘light’, and don’t realise the term refers to flavour.”
Says Claire: “Often people will say ‘I eat a really healthy diet; I can’t understand why I’m not losing weight’. It can be because they are eating too much of those healthy foods. I compare the kilojoules in a cup of vegetables versus a cup of other foods. We talk about kilojoules and satiety; about the foods with fewer kilojoules that will fill them up.
“For anyone not already using it, I suggest changing to low-fat dairy. It’s such an easy way to cut fat and kilojoules. Often people are not having nearly as many vegetables as they need for good health. Half a plate of vegetables at night is non-negotiable.”
Dietitian Nicky McCarthy says: “Many people don’t know how much sugar there is in drinks, even flavoured water. Changing from a skim latte to a skim mocha adds lots of kilojoules from the choc powder. And some people eat well, then undo it because they don’t realise the [number of] kilojoules in alcohol – almost the same amount per gram as fat.”
Rule 2: Be portion smart
Dietitian Amanda Johnson says: “If you’re eating the right things, then it could be about how much you’re eating. We are exposed to huge portions all around us, which can give us a false idea of what’s normal, and stop us from tuning into our hunger”.
“Get an awareness of portions”, says Claire, who believes this is another key to long-term weight- loss. “I ask people to start using measuring cups, tablespoons and teaspoons to help with this. They don’t have to do it forever, but it helps develop that awareness of what they’re really eating.”
Dietitian Fiona Boyle says that comparing your meat serves to the palm of your hand is a useful guide. “We tend to serve the meat or carbohydrate portion first and then add the vegetables: try changing this around so the vegetables are served first – it’s easier to put on a larger serve when the plate is empty, so this can help reduce meat and carbohydrate serves.” Remember that a quarter of your plate should be protein; a quarter should be low-GI carbohydrates; and the remaining half should be made up of vegetables.
Nicky agrees. “Try using smaller plates and cups. The only super-sized vessel should be your water glass. And compare the size of your hand to your partner’s hand and your children’s hands. These size differences should be reflected in the food portions you serve as well”, she says.
Rule 3: Don’t stress if you plateau
Amanda says, “It’s very common to plateau”. Nicky agrees with her: “Focus on other positive outcomes, rather than just what the scales are telling you at that moment”, she says. Fiona adds: “It’s important to reflect on your achievements so far; it’s easy to forget how much progress you’ve made. You may be feeling happier about your food choices, feeling better in your clothes and have more energy.”
Says HFG dietitian Zoe Wilson: “Remember – a plateau on the scales doesn’t necessarily mean a plateau in body fat, particularly if you have been exercising frequently and/or intensely”. She recommends looking at your waist and hip measurements: “This provides a more realistic view of how your body is changing, even if the scales aren’t.”
Adds Dr Franklin: “If the plateau goes on longer than you like, try changing something. Your body will become accustomed to certain levels of food intake and activity patterns, so try increasing the intensity of your exercise or change the type of exercise you do, to put your body back into training mode.
“Similarly, you could try to break up your eating patterns by mixing up your energy intake – eat fewer carbohydrate foods on some days and eat more on other days. However, remember not to increase your overall energy intake by too much.“
Rule 4: Don’t eat too little
Many people think weight loss is about restriction, whereas in many cases we actually need to start by eating more. Nicky says: “People think they are doing really well if they eat small amounts at breakfast and lunch, but they get too hungry so it all falls apart at the end of the day. It’s important to spread your food intake out over the day. Your body needs a regular supply of fuel, so don’t let yourself get too hungry”.
Dr Franklin recommends steering clear of high-sugar or high-fat foods during an afternoon energy slump since “their effect on your energy levels is only transient and will often make you feel more tired than you were in the first place.” Instead, she suggests snacks like vegetable sticks with hommous, a small tub of yoghurt, a handful of nuts or a tin of tuna with wholegrain crackers. These snacks have a low glycaemic load, which means they will give you a more sustained energy boost to get you through to dinner.
The make-up of meals is important too, says Fiona: “I encourage people to eat some carbs and protein foods at each meal so they are getting ‘staying power’. I find that people who miss out on carbs look for something sweet in the evening; and people who don’t have protein during the day tend to find the wheels fall off in the afternoon.
“I always talk about fluids, too. Sometimes we get the message ‘I need something’ so we reach for food, when all the body needs is some water.” Set yourself a target of drinking a bottle of water before and after lunch. If you’re struggling, try adding fresh lemon or mint to make it more palatable.
Rule 5: Be mindful
“Some people feel they shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy food so they bolt it down without thinking”, says Fiona. “Don’t eat while doing something else”, she says. “Give yourself permission to eat slowly and enjoy your food; don’t feel guilty about it. Always serve your food on a plate and take time to eat. When you are eating, slow down and focus on eating and enjoying your food. We need the mental satisfaction as well as the physical satiety. Otherwise, it’s almost like the meal doesn’t count – and it’s much easier to overeat.”
Rule 6: Understand your food behaviour
If we don’t understand our own triggers and patterns of behaviour with food – such as how we relate to food when we’re faced with a difficult situation – it can make it difficult to change. Amanda says: “Many people lose weight and then put it on again because they haven’t changed their habits. For some people it’s behavioural. Do they eat when they’re stressed or tired? If so, what strategies can we come up with to overcome that? What activities, other than eating or changing the availability of foods in the pantry, will help manage your response to your emotions?”
Claire says: “I talk to people about the times they struggle with [keeping to] healthy eating. We identify when and why they didn’t stick to it, and I help them come up with strategies to deal with those times. We need to be able to overcome those hurdles to make long-term gains.
“For example, there can be a lot of social pressure around alcohol so plan strategies to cope: offer to be the sober driver; order water as you sit down at the restaurant; order a soda at the bar when you order an alcoholic drink. It’s about reducing your pace of drinking.”
Adds Dr Franklin: “Sometimes, we eat for deep emotional reasons that require help to overcome.” If you think this applies to you, she recommends seeking professional help from a psychologist, dietitian or your GP.
Rule 7: Don’t think about getting to ‘the end’
Making permanent, sustainable change is a consistent theme with all of our experts. Claire says: “Getting healthy is not an end goal. You don’t reach the goal and then you’re finished. Life isn’t like that. It’s about navigating the good times and the bad times. The goal is to [be knowledgeable] about food, make healthy choices and enjoy food. A ‘bad’ day is just part of the journey, nothing more.” Remember, it’s about what you do most of the time, not about what you do sometimes.
Nicky agrees, saying: “Whatever you’re doing, make sure it works for you. The changes you make must fit into your life. That way they can be long-lasting.”
“The weight didn’t come on in two months, so you can’t expect it to fall off in two months either,” says Zoe."Focus on making small changes and make only one to three small changes at a time”.
“It won’t happen overnight”, adds Fiona, “so focus on the long-term and be realistic.”
Zoe Wilson: HFG dietitian. Zoe Wilson also runs nutrition clinics in the Sydney area.Dr Janet Franklin: HFG advisor and senior clinical dietitian at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney.Claire Turnbull: HFG nutritionist. Claire Turnbull also has her own private practice.Nicky McCarthy: Dietitian Nicky McCarthy is the leader of NutritionWorks.Fiona Boyle: Fiona Boyle is a dietitian and nutritionist with a private practice.Amanda Johnson: Dietitian Amanda Johnson runs a nutrition clinic in New Zealand.