Looking back on my notebooks from the past 15 years, “lose 10lbs” or 20 or 30, was consistently on my annual, quarterly or monthly to-do lists. I often did lose the weight through a variety of methods, only to find it again a few months later.
This was the story I lived in for years until I was finally ready for permanent change a few years ago. A body transformation. From my heaviest right after University to now, I shed 16kgs or 35lbs. Though I did try every crazy diet and many ridiculous pills over the course of my unhealthy body relationship from the age of 14 to 27, this sustained transformation did not involve any magic pill, crash diet, starvation, juice fast, or overnight success. Here are my top tips for transforming your body and making that change stick.
Set Measurable & Achievable Goals
Go beyond saying I want to “lose x weight”. Do set an overall goal, but build-in mini milestones to help keep you on track. Is it realistic to lose that weight by so-and-sos wedding? And is that really a good reason? Is that even about you? First step, identify what this change means to you. If it is about health and truly feeling good by living a healthier life, then you are much more likely to have success because this is about your state of being rather than your exterior. If the intention is there and you are willing to do some hard work, then the rest will fall into place. For instance, you can aim to exercise 3x per week for 6 weeks as a mini goal, to create a new habit. Your jeans will fit better, lean lines will appear where flab lingered and you will feel great.
Understanding The Psychology of Habits
You didn’t gain the weight overnight so you can’t expect to lose it overnight. Healthy changes take time. Our relationship to food and our body is something deeply engrained. It may go back to childhood, it may be entwined with self-esteem, or it may just be an accumulation of bad habits. You can change all of it with conscious awareness, setting intentions and make it stick by taking a hard look at your habits. Some habits are conscious, others are unconscious, like laying out your gym clothes the night before and creating a morning exercise routine is a conscious one, eating from the fridge or whilst watching TV is probably an unconscious, yet comforting one. It takes 6 weeks to make or break a habit, so if you keep the new healthy habit for that long, and ditched an old one in that time, you are far more likely to make those positive changes stick.
Clean Up Your Diet
Unless you are genetically gifted and/or a supermodel, exercise is only 20-30% of the equation. Diet really is 70-80% of your mission here. I am referring to your overall intake when I say diet, which is more about your lifestyle than a temporary way of eating. What does eating clean even mean? Good question, people have many variations on this notion. For me, it means REAL WHOLE FOODS, mostly that you make yourself so you know what went into it, and eating plenty of greens and a rainbow of vegetables. You can also think of clean foods as clean fuel, eating what performs best in your body and will give you the most. Simple sugar is a dirty fuel. It does nothing for you. Best to limit sugar and foods the body processes and stores sugar.
If you are omnivorous, consider limiting refined wheat and grains, which are inflammatory to the body and the gut (more on the relationship of a healthy gut and weight loss in another post), and all dairy except from whey protein and organic cottage cheese, which is processed as sugar in the body and most likely stored as fat. It also means no refined oils (extra virgin and cold pressed oils are better) or processed foods (your grocery cart should have more raw ingredients than packaged ones), no refined sugar (sugar should come from whole foods like fresh fruit) and no food with ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t have in your own pantry, e.g. cancer causing nitrates or partially hydrogenated soybean oil is not something you likely have on hand, you definitely don’t want it in your body, but it may be lurking in that aged cheese or “healthy” granola bar.
Eating Mini Meals & Protein
Healthy weight loss means never feeling hungry. Shocker? Being hungry means you are much more likely to make poor choices and to overeat. Thinking you are deprived or “on a diet” is the kiss of death! Eating several small meals per day with sufficient protein is an excellent way to rev up your metabolism and stoke the inner fire. Protein takes longer to break down, so you feel fuller and more satiated for longer, it also feeds your muscles and fuels recovery. Eating mini meals also keeps your blood sugar levels even, which means more energy and no crashes. Aim to eat every 2.5-3 hours, between 5-7 meals per day, trying not to eat after 8:00pm, when your body is much more likely to store calories as fat.
If you really aren’t into breakfast, check out intermittent fasting for other options on getting your calories in different daily distribution. Take note, if you are a woman trying to conceive or with hormonal issues, do your research. Falling into that category, I found that fasts of longer than 14 hours could upset my hormones and impact fertility.
Pick Up Those Dumbells
You can do cardio until you are blue in the face, but you are only burning calories while you are doing it. With weight training you continue to burn calories for up to 36 hours after your workout. What a return on investment! I know it can be intimidating, but weight training is not to be feared. You will not “bulk up”. Bodybuilders work YEARS to do this, and it is a very common misconception for women that you would. If you do feel bulkier from weight training it is only a temporary shift, your existing fat sitting on top of your new muscle. Muscle is denser than fat but muscle actually burns calories, even when you are at rest. Fat just sits there, being fat. Weight training is how you sculpt the body you want, and in tandem with adjusting your diet, it is the best way to boost your metabolism and have lasting body changes from exercise.
Stuck? If you aren’t losing your target weight every week (which should never exceed 2lbs or under 1kg per week) despite putting in the same efforts, read the next bit and learn how to outsmart yourself. Also, chill, though the scale may not be moving, changes may still be taking place. There is definitely truth in this: it takes 4 weeks for you to notice a change, 8 weeks for your friends to notice and 12 weeks for the rest of the world to notice. Keep up the good work.
Your Body is Smarter than You
It wants to do the least possible, it’s simple evolutionary biology. Your body wants to conserve energy, not spend it. It learns your workout pretty quickly and stops expending the same energy to perform it, so you have to change it up. Challenge yourself every 6 to 12 weeks maximum with a new workout program, different reps, and/or work different muscles. For instance, if you have been running twice a week and weight training your whole body twice a week, consider switching to cycling for your cardio, or performing a split workout: upper body one day and lower body the next, working the muscles more intensely and in different ways. Another option would be to integrate High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) which is weight training and cardio combined. Low intensity sustained activities like long hikes, walks, or even yard work are a great wild card.
Ok, You Binged Last Night…The 80/20 Rule
Cookie Dough Ice Cream happens. It’s our most basic instinct to store energy and go for quick win foods, the highest calorie, sweetest, fattest, tastiest, the fun stuff. But just because you had one bad evening or ate your co-workers Birthday cake…and chips and all those gross bar nuts… doesn’t mean that day is rubbish and you should just start again tomorrow or continue eating poorly all day or all week. When you fall off, get right back on. Setbacks like this are temporary only if you do this. Think of your body like a pendulum. It wants to find a natural rhythm and get back to its set point, which is a weight that is comfortable and familiar to it. When you crash diet or go up or down from over or under eating or a lot of exercise, it can push this set point up! To adjust it, I advise living by the 80/20 rule. Eating as healthily and sensibly as you can 80% of the time, allowing yourself mad moments up to 20% of the time. If you do this, you are much less likely to binge and keep your regime pushing the pendulum in the right direction with long-term action. Plus, you can look forward to your cheat meal or afternoon. Think every 7-10 days that you can plan some naughty meals in. You will be much more likely to eat exactly what you want and have it be special, rather than wasted on that crappy store-bought white cake for coworker Bob’s Birthday, which tasted like sugary plastic anyway.
Tools of the Trade & Weight Loss Hacks
You need support, guidance and tools to get started and definitely to stay on track. If you are just starting out, consider following a program. It doesn’t matter where you are starting from, just that you start. Don’t be intimidated. I had never done a pull-up in my life and I did P90X twice and saw a huge difference. This one from Bodybuilding.com is also very good, comes with great (omnivorous) recipes and it’s FREE: Jamie Eason’s 12 Week Trainer. Nike Training Club App offers a whole excellent series of workouts which can keep you busy and challenged for a 6-12 week cycle as well.
Take Measurements and Before Pics. Although the scale may not be shifting, you may be getting leaner and losing fat. These changes can only be measured by your circumference and how your clothes are fitting. You may be surprised that you have lost a pant or dress size but no weight, great progress!
Use a Food Diary or Intake Tracker. This was key for me because I was so sure I was already eating sensibly and well, this was my dietary bitch slap. I wasn’t. My cashew face stuffing on the commute home or that pre-made dressing from the office salad bar was putting me way over my calories from fat, which was more about habit than actually enjoying the taste. I subbed in lemon juice or a ladle of veggie soup as dressing and reaped the benefits. MyFitnessPal is my fave. You get a feel for the right amounts and foods after a while and don’t have to do this every day after a couple months, but crucial at the beginning to be honest about what you really ate and what it was worth to your body.
Never start a new program or regime on a Monday. If you are starting a new program or changing habits, Monday is a natural “first day” but the work starts before. You have set your intentions, identified a program, but the planning and preparation begins the weekend before. Shop for your food, do some meal prep, set yourself up for success.
Drink Plenty of Water. Your body is mostly water, being even a little dehydrated affects your mental acuity, physical strength and endurance and also cues your tummy grumbling. Your body tells you to fill up on something and so you are likely to eat to try to satiate yourself with food when really all you need is hydration. Aim for around 2 litres per day, evenly spaced to keep your mind sharp, tummy fuller and your body ready for that workout.
Consider Drinking Only Water. Aside from your morning coffee or tea, or the occasional cocktail or vino (observing the 80/20 rule), calories from liquids IMHO are a complete waste. This does not include liquid meals, where protein, whole fruits and/or greens are liquified. I mean the in betweens, soda, bottled ice teas or fruit juice are laden with sugar calories (don’t forget to put that in your food diary as well) that do nothing for you except sabotage your goal. Caffeine is dehydrating and a coke not only leeches calcium and minerals from your bones and body, is acidic for the stomach and inflammatory to the gut, but can be also be used to clean a stained toilet bowl…maybe not for internal consumption.
Emergency Food. Getting hungry is a no-no (or hangry for me, as it goes hand in hand with a crazy mood swing…) I always have something on hand, an apple, a handful of raw almonds in my bag or desk drawer in case of a hunger emergency so you don’t sabotage yourself by overeating when you do get to real food or reach for what’s available which may be junk or whatever is in a vending machine, none of which you want to eat.
Don’t Eat Late. I notice a huge difference in tummy flatness in the morning, feeling lighter and sleeping better when I stop eating before 8pm (hello Indian food or cheese dreams? Crazy), your body needs several hours before bed to digest and process your last meal or you are much more likely to be storing those nutrients and calories as fat and sleep less restfully. Sleep is very important in weight loss and muscle recovery. Sleep is vital, do as much as you can to give yourself a good night’s sleep. It also effects re-setting the body’s set point and changing the inner pendulum.
Be Kind to Yourself. Above all, you are human and you will make mistakes and have setbacks. You might binge or skip a workout, but it is persistence and perseverance that will get you to your goal, not a quick fix, not a juice fast or a magic pill. Look back at your intentions, review your progress and remember the 80/20 rule. It will all balance out. Just do your best and forget the rest! Your health is in your capable hands. In Lao Tzu’s ancient wisdom, the longest journey starts with a single step.