How to lose weight and keep it off – the best diet tips to try now

Can you out-exercise a bad diet? Most people say no and a few people say yes, but almost everyone ignores the problem at the heart of the question: if you don’t define ‘bad’ or ‘out-exercise’, then you can’t even begin to answer it.

Let me give you some examples here. Can you guzzle pizza and beer every week and maintain a six-pack? Yes, as fans of the ‘flexible dieting’ will happily tell you – although they’ll probably then note that you have to cut down elsewhere, which feels a bit like cheating.

Can you do enough exercise to burn off almost any level of indulgence? Probably – although it’s a lot easier to hoover up an Oreo ice-cream sandwich than it is to row for 20 minutes.

And will ingesting too much sugar, refined carbs and booze cause you health problems over the long term even if you’re keeping your body fat levels technically-acceptable with exercise? Almost definitely, although that’s a discussion for another day.

You see how it’s more complicated than asking whether you can out-run a bad diet – or, to put it another way, whether nutrition or exercise is more important? The two are inextricably linked – and that’s why almost nobody can agree on the best way to actually lose fat. 

To start with the absolute basics: you need to be in a calorie deficit, or eating fewer calories than your body is burning, to lose weight. A simple statement – but even here, the arguments start. One view that’s gained popularity in recent years, for instance, suggests that if your body’s insulin levels are too high, you’ll effectively lock up your fat stores, making them impossible for your body to access for energy. So while fat loss still comes down to calories in vs calories out, the argument goes, eating the wrong foods makes the ‘calories out’ bit much more difficult – even if you exercise and watch your food intake, your body will secretly skimp on energy expenditure elsewhere, down-regulating your metabolism or forcing you to subconsciously fidget less. Complex stuff.

The evidence seems to be mounting against this view – after all, it’s apparently possible to lose weight on a diet of nothing but Twinkies – but the opposite viewpoint, that nothing but numbers matters (calories in vs calories out), doesn’t seem to paint the whole picture either.

Obesity is a multi-faceted issue, and evidence suggests that everything from genetics and childhood food intake to pollution is a factor. Some people, through no fault of their own, are likely to find weight loss much more difficult than others.

So what about the stuff that’s actually under your control? Here’s what you need to know to maximise your chances of keeping trim. 

1. It’s easy to overeat processed foods

Consider the humble broccoli floret. Agriculturally tweaked to be a bit more palatable than its prehistoric predecessors, sure, but mostly unprocessed – and, at 170 calories a head, basically impossible to overeat. Compare that with Custard Creams – at 58 calories each, you’ve probably eaten three while you read this article – and you get a sense of the problem: processed foods are often extremely calorie dense, engineered to be deliciously moreish, and all too easy to overeat.

Sugar, for instance, can feel addictive enough in its own right, but combined with salt or fat, it’s almost inhumanly addictive. Make sure the bulk of your diet is whole, unprocessed foods – meat, eggs, and veg all fit the bill – and you’ll find it tough to accidentally overindulge. 

2. Exercise helps, but so does other activity

Yes, you can lose weight without exercise, but moving your body has so many positive effects – many of which, like stress relief and psychological well-being, dovetail perfectly with dieting – that it’s only sensible to find a sport or session you like, and do it regularly.

In the grand scheme of things, though, exercise might not be a huge factor in fat loss – you’d be pedalling hard to burn off 500 calories in 40 minutes of exercise biking – and so increasing Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, fashionably known as NEAT, can be a welcome boost. The simplest option is to get steps in wherever you can – walking as you talk on the phone, going for a stroll in your lunch hour, and always taking the stairs.  

3. Environment is definitely a factor

Something that’s often overlooked by commenters bemoaning modern society’s lack of willpower is our obesogenic environment – even if it’s technically simple to eat fewer calories than you burn, advertising, ever-present junk food and a host of labour-saving inventions make it tempting to do the reverse. There’s not much you can do about a billboard reminding you that Burger King is delicious, but control what you can – keep bad foods out of the house (or at least out of sight), stay away from the biscuit aisles in the shops, and don’t keep snacks on your desk at work. 

4. You don’t need to count calories (but it can help)

Fundamentally, there’s no reason to count the calories you’re eating to lower your intake – many non-calorie-counting diets (such as paleo or intermittent fasting) work by restricting the foods you can eat, or the times you can eat them, so that you eat less almost by accident. That said, if you’ve never considered what you’re eating before, just keeping track of your calories for two or three days can show you where you’re overindulging. It’s easy, for instance, to overlook just how calorific peanut butter or cheese are if you’ve never considered it before.

Don’t plan to do it forever, but at least glance at the labels once in a while. 

Want a simple equation for fat loss? Learn to cook (and enjoy!) a diet of mostly-unprocessed foods, move more when you can, keep your environment free of temptation and (occasionally) look at the numbers. You’ll be surprised by the difference it makes. 

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