You’ve shared your pressing weight-loss concerns with us, so we put a few key questions to our nutrition experts. Read on for their simple, helpful strategies.
Q. “Why are some people so easily able to stay ‘lean and mean’, while others (like me!) are always dieting and exercising?”
A. Our size and shape partly depend on our genetic make-up. To a certain extent, we have to accept that we’re not all born with the genetic inheritance of supermodels—some of us are born with an innate capacity to develop longer limbs and more muscle. (Men have an automatic advantage here, as they naturally carry more muscle.)
Ageing is also key, says HFG nutritionist Rose Carr. “As we get older, our muscle mass decreases as our fat mass increases. This means the number of kilojoules we burn at rest also drops, so we need to slightly adjust our food intake to account for that.” It’s also possible that years of yo-yo dieting have a negative impact on metabolic responses, but this is still an unknown.
“That said, there are things you can do to be leaner and meaner,” says Carr. “The more muscle you have, the more energy you burn, even at rest.”
So tone those muscles with moves that challenge them. “Any extra physical activity burns more energy, so think about creating opportunities to move more, whether it’s doing a new gym class or taking the stairs,” says Carr. (Why not start with our holiday exercise tips?)
Q. “My weight can fluctuate by as much as 2kg in one day! What makes this happen?”
A. “Our body weight naturally varies throughout the day,” explains Carr. “We add to it by eating and drinking, and then dispose of metabolic waste by sweating and going to the toilet.”
Add to that a set of potentially inaccurate bathroom scales, and you have a very good case not to weigh yourself too often—and certainly not at different times during a single day.
Women who retain fluid during their menstrual cycle also need to acknowledge these extra grams when they’re deciding whether and when to weigh themselves. In fact, your own body may be an even better gauge than the scales: measure your waist (at the narrowest point above your hips), or simply monitor the way your clothes fit, such as how tight a favourite pair of jeans feel.
“If you’re stepping onto scales to track your weight, stick to a weekly weigh-in that’s always at the same time of day,” says Carr. “And remember to take natural variations into consideration, too.”
The best way to lose weight is slowly—whichever method you use to measure changes, try not to check it too often.
Q. “When you get to your goal weight, your body doesn’t always accept it, often regaining at least 5kg. Why?”
A. Your weight naturally see-saws from day to day, depending on what you’ve eaten, how well hydrated you are, and whether it’s that time of the month. As a result, you’ll probably be unable to maintain a specific weight all the time.
“If you’ve been following a fairly restrictive diet to reach a goal weight, returning to a more relaxed way of eating can see the weight creep back on,” says HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull.
“If you restrict carbohydrate as part of a weight-loss strategy, you will lose fat. However, when you’re short on carbs, you also store less water, so you appear to weigh less on the scales. A few weeks after you’ve reached your goal weight, you relax a little, eat a bit more starch (albeit healthy types) and regain some weight. Still, you haven’t necessarily gained fat, just water.”
It’s counterproductive to base a weight-loss goal on a specific number of kilos, says Turnbull. “Scales can create an unhelpful process of self-judgement. It’s better to focus on how you feel and on developing your abilities and self-confidence,” she says. “You need to eat and exercise in a sustainable way so you can stay at your goal weight for the rest of your life.”
If you struggle to lose weight, consider seeking personalised nutritional advice—the answer is different for everyone.
Q. “I’ve reached a weight-loss plateau. What now?”
A. It’s extremely frustrating when the scales won’t shift, but it’s important to realise how common this is. A plateau can be triggered by a variety of causes, so the solution varies accordingly. HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull suggests the following strategies.
Recheck your portion sizes
What are you actually eating? Over time, portion sizes can easily (almost imperceptibly!) creep up. “Keep a food diary for a week or so,” advises Turnbull. “You could be having extras without even realising.”
Tweak your diet throughout the day
This may mean having a slightly smaller bowl of cereal, thinner slices of bread, half a cup of rice instead of three-quarters, and so on. Little changes quickly add up to make a big difference!
Mix up your routine
Varying your diet and exercise habits can have a positive effect. The body becomes accustomed to the same physical activity, so you need to constantly challenge yourself: Work out with more intensity, lift heavier weights or try some new moves that push you a little harder.
Consider other lifestyle factors
Are you sleeping well? Are you stressed? Are you living on coffee or other stimulants? You need to think about your plateau from a holistic point of view, as you may need to not only eat a little less, but also look after yourself in general.
Q. ”My motivation to lose weight lasts for only six weeks. Why? How can I make it last?”
A. “When you go on a diet, the word diet itself implies that, at some stage, you’ll go off that diet”, says HFG dietitian Brooke Longfield.
To lose weight and keep it off, it’s important to make sensible changes to both the way you eat and your physical activity levels. “Setting achievable short- and long-term goals is a great way to stay motivated; just don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself,” says Longfield. Make your aims specific and measurable: take a home-made lunch to work three times a week, for example, or limit takeaway to one Friday a month. If you have a significant amount of weight to lose, you’ll want to stay focused, so break your goals down into mini milestones.
You could also write down your reasons for wanting to drop kilos. This is an effective tactic, because when your motivation wobbles and temptation calls, you’ll have tangible reasons to remind you and help you reflect on your reasons for losing weight. “Writing a list of weight-loss pros and cons can be helpful,” says Longfield, “as most of the time, the advantages of eating healthily and losing weight far outweigh the disadvantages.”
Sharing your goals with friends and family is another great way to stay on track, as they can help hold you accountable. “Telling people you’re trying to lose weight can prevent them from bringing chocolate and biscuits to your place for that afternoon catch-up,” says Longfield.
Sometimes all the incentive you need to keep going is a little positive reinforcement. It can be really encouraging when a family member or friend comments on how much happier and healthier you look since making better lifestyle choices!
Q. “Is eating your biggest meal at night a bad idea?”
A. “Our daily levels of physical activity influence how much and when we need to eat,” says HFG nutritionist Rose Carr. “If you’re fairly active during the first part of the day, and then turn into a couch potato at night, it’s best to enjoy a larger meal in the morning rather than in the evening.”
Our daily energy expenditure (or kilojoule burn) is the result of three key factors: our resting metabolic rate, the physical cost of our activity and the thermic effect of our food and drink (how much energy our body uses to process what we’ve eaten).
“It’s not exactly true that all kilojoules are equal,” says Carr. “The thermic effect of food is greater for protein than it is for other nutrients. It also appears to be higher in the morning and then decline during the day.”
In other words, if we eat a meal in the morning, we torch more kilojoules than if we’d eaten that same meal at night. Yet we often default to eating a larger evening meal, simply because we have more time to make it. To combat this, Carr suggests you downsize dinner and leave enough for the following day’s lunch. This way, you’ll end up eating a larger proportion of your food earlier in the day—which is exactly when you’re more likely to burn it off.
Q. ”Should meals have a specific carbs-to-protein ratio for weight loss? Or can I eat only vegetables?”
A. We know that eating protein throughout the day promotes weight loss, as protein satisfies us more than carbohydrates do. At the same time, the ‘protein-leverage’ theory suggests that if we’re eating a low-protein diet (in which protein provides less than 15 per cent of the energy), we tend to keep eating until we’ve had enough protein—a process that can easily trigger overeating and see us stack on the kilos.
“Scientists are finding that if we get about 25 per cent of our kilojoules from protein, we’re less likely to overeat,” says HFG nutritionist Rose Carr. “So a weight-loss diet of 6000kJ (about 1400cal) a day requires roughly 90g of protein, and an 8700kJ (around 2000cal) daily maintenance plan should include around 130g of protein,” explains Carr. “The amount of carbs you need depends on your level of activity and your lifestyle,” she adds. “There’s no specific ideal.”
Trimming your carb portions is a good idea if you’re trying to drop a few kilos. Think of starchy vegetables (such as potato and corn) as carbs, and include more low-energy vegies (like broccoli and zucchini) whenever possible.
Q. “Having lost a lot of weight by eating healthily, I’ve now become too focused on my food choices. How do I stay slim, but still enjoy my life?”
A. Eating well doesn’t have to mean missing out on the enjoyable things in life. “Many people who have worked hard to lose weight fear that as soon as they relax their eating habits, they’ll regain the kilos,” says HFG dietitian Brooke Longfield. Celebrate your weight loss: Reward yourself with a treat that’s unrelated to food, such as a day-spa treatment, or that coveted tropical holiday you’ve never felt comfortable taking because you’d have had to hit the beach at a heavier weight.
“Cultivate a healthy attitude to food: Enjoy the occasional sweet treat without feeling guilty,” says Longfield. It’s okay to indulge in few squares of dark chocolate, or a glass of wine with dinner a couple of times a week—as long as you stick to the healthy eating habits you’ve worked so hard to establish the rest of the time. Yes, you can have your cake, and eat it, too!
Q. ”I’m finding it difficult to lose my excess stomach weight since giving birth, even though I exercise a lot. Why?”
A. Our national nutrition guidelines encourage women of a healthy weight to gain up to 16kg while they’re pregnant, as it’s essential for the nourishment and growth of the foetus. These extra kilos include the weight of the placenta and amniotic fluid, the additional fat stores that pregnancy requires, the baby’s full-term weight and the mother’s milk-laden breasts.
“Despite what most women’s magazines and celebrities tell us, it’s entirely normal for a new mother to need up to 12 months to return to her pre-pregnancy weight,” says HFG nutritionist Rose Carr.
The ideal way to kick excess post-baby kilos? Simultaneously reduce your food intake and exercise regularly. Breastfeeding itself can help, as it burns about 2000kJ (around 500cal) a day. “But once you stop, you’ll need to readjust your portion sizes and eating patterns,” says Carr.
When you’re planning exercise, it’s a great idea to include moves that strengthen your abdominal muscles, but don’t think of such efforts as ‘targeted’ weight loss. “Changing your eating habits and doing aerobic exercise will help trim your stomach,” says Carr. “But be aware that your body might distribute weight slightly differently after childbirth.”
Another key factor that affects new mothers’ weight retention is lack of sleep, which is incredibly unfair! Although scientists can’t yet explain why, recent research shows that insufficient sleep can alter brain activity, causing us to crave high-kilojoule foods. So embracing any strategies to help yourself get enough sleep will improve both your mental state and your weight-loss efforts.
Q. “Do some prescription medications make people gain weight?”
A. Certain medicines, such as steroids, insulin, some contraceptives and a range of drugs that target mental-health issues, have the unwelcome side effect of weight gain.
“Side-effects can vary hugely,” explains HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull. “If you suspect that a medication is having an adverse impact on your weight, talk to your GP or pharmacist about available alternatives. If he or she can’t recommend any other drugs, you’ll need to adjust your lifestyle so you’re better able to manage your weight.”
Think up ways to scale down portion sizes or daily snacks; look at how you could reduce your stress levels and improve your sleep habits; and consider increasing your activity level, perhaps adding a brisk walk to your daily lunch break. (You’ll find more easy tips for summer exercise here.) ADD LINK /articles/2014/january/move-more-on-holidays
Q. ”Why do people with type 2 diabetes find it so hard to lose weight?”
A. The body breaks down carbohydrates—such as bread, cereal, pasta, starchy vegetables and fruit—into sugar, or glucose. When you eat these kinds of foods, along with sweet treats like cakes, biscuits, lollies and soft drinks, they all end up as sugar in your blood.
“The body’s designed to keep its blood-sugar levels within a healthy range, so it produces the hormone insulin to help manage this process,” explains HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull. Insulin helps control blood-sugar levels by moving glucose (from the food we eat) from the bloodstream into the muscles and cells where the body can use it for energy.
For most people who have type 2 diabetes, the underlying problem is insulin resistance, a condition in which the body’s insulin doesn’t work properly.
“Your body may be unable to make enough insulin to cope with the amount of carbs you’re eating, and if so, your blood has a surplus of sugar,” says Turnbull. “But more commonly, people with type 2 diabetes do make enough insulin. In fact, they make lots and lots of insulin, but their bodies just don’t respond to it.”
This insulin resistance is a twofold problem—it sends blood-sugar levels soaring much of the time, and thanks to the glut of insulin floating around the body, it also tends to promote fat storage and prevent fat burn.
As a result, overweight people who suffer from insulin resistance find it even more difficult to lose weight. So what can you do about this vicious sugar cycle?
“Start managing the amount of carbohydrates you’re having at each meal,” advises Turnbull. “Ensure you aren’t eating lots of sugary foods or drinks, and be more physically active every day to help your body respond more efficiently to insulin.”
If you need a little help, see a dietitian for guidance on how to tailor your dietary approach.
Q. “What can women do to counteract the hormone changes and subsequent increase in body fat that come with menopause?”
A. As we age, our body composition changes: our muscle mass decreases, thereby slowing metabolism, and our fat mass is likely to increase. At the same time, the dip in oestrogen during menopause can make women store more fat where men do—around the abdomen. To counteract these complaints, HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull suggests the following tactics.
Watch your portion sizes
It’s easy to eat more than your body now needs, even if you’re choosing healthy foods.
Boost your fibre intake
Fibre not only helps keep you regular, but also helps you feel full for longer. Aim to make three of your five daily serves of vegies the non-starchy variety (such as leafy green veg, carrots, cauliflower and zucchini). These are lower in carbs and kilojoules than their starchy cousins (think corn, pumpkin and potato). Add more pulses, such as chickpeas and lentils, to your diet, too.
Build muscle and trim fat
Strengthening your muscles will boost your metabolism, which will enable you to burn more kilojoules, even when you’re not moving. Practise weight-bearing and cardiovascular exercises, as well as stretching moves.