5 steps to sustainable weight loss

Healthy weight loss

Thinking about losing weight this January? You’re not alone. Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor offers five ways to make your weight loss efforts a success.

It’s that time of year when many of us try to shed a few pounds in the pursuit of health and happiness.

For some, this is an annual event, while for others there may be a reason for taking stock and making changes – it could be the diagnosis of a heart condition, a landmark birthday or a big celebration on the horizon.

Beauty standards are not the main reason to pay attention to your weight

Weight is often talked about as a cosmetic issue – what size clothes you fit into, or whether you look good for your summer holiday. But beauty standards are not the main reason to pay attention to your weight.

If you’re carrying excess pounds, what matters is that your health could benefit by losing even some of them.

Obesity puts you at higher risk of heart disease and stroke. People who are obese are two-and-a-half times more likely to develop high blood pressure and five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. The impact of this on our health is reflected in the burden on the NHS – it’s estimated that £6.1bn was spent on overweight and obesity-related ill health in 2014–15.

1. 'Why am I overweight?'

Supermarket shopping unhealthy food

Despite what you might read, the problem of obesity isn’t caused by any single food and it’s not just a question of ‘a lack of willpower’. Many factors influence what we eat. Our environment and lifestyles have changed in recent decades – this means healthy choices are not always the easiest to make, and we eat out more and have more ready-made meals. This usually means larger portion sizes and more fat, sugar and salt compared with home-cooked meals.

At the same time, we’re doing less physical activity than previous generations. Our jobs and leisure activities have become more sedentary and we’re less likely to travel on foot or by bicycle.

People who are obese are two-and-a-half times more likely to develop high blood pressure and five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

This means we need to make conscious choices about what we eat and how we stay active. Often that means making an effort to eat healthily even when we’re busy, and finding ways to fit exercise into our lives.

A good first step is to think about why you might have put on weight. Is this a recent change or a longer-term pattern? Did you start doing something differently – eating out more, being less active, or eating different foods – around the time you began putting on weight?

If you’re not sure where you’re going wrong, try keeping a food and drink diary for a week in a notebook, or record what you eat using a diet tracker app on your smartphone.

2. Set yourself a weight loss target

Calendar weight loss target

Losing weight can feel really difficult. To start with, work out how much weight you want to lose. With more people becoming overweight, how we view a ‘healthy weight’ can become skewed.

Your body mass index (BMI) is a measurement of your weight in relation to your height. If you know these measurements, you can use a free online tool to find out your BMI and the weight you should be aiming for. You can use our BMI calculator.

If you weigh more than you think, don’t be daunted or feel you have to take extreme measures. Break it down into small goals and focus on one step at a time.

If you have a lot of weight to lose, aim to lose 10 per cent of your body weight. This will have big health benefits – even if you are still overweight at the end – and can feel more achievable. Don’t be disheartened if it’s going to take a long time to get to your ideal weight. It’s not surprising – it probably took a long time to come on gradually.

3. Make changes that work for your lifestyle

Lifestyle changes healthy eating fitness

At this time of year we are particularly inundated with diets, tools and foods that claim they will help us lose weight. The main principle of losing weight is that the energy you take in (calories) needs to be less than the energy you use.

Beyond that, which diet works will vary from person to person – one of the biggest factors is finding something you can stick to. The important thing is to find the path that is right for you.

Many people find it helpful not to think about a ‘diet’, but rather an approach you can sustain over the long term, that fits with your lifestyle. Some people find reducing fat or carbohydrates works, some count calories, while others lower their calorie intake on certain days. It’s important your plan is not so restrictive that it cuts out whole food groups, so you skip essential nutrients.

If you live with someone else, getting their support can be vital, so you’re not exposed to the temptation of unhealthy foods at home

Think about what is going to work for you. This means being realistic about your lifestyle – how much you have to spend on food, your cooking skills, and food preferences. To see a lasting impact on your weight, you need to make changes for good, so it is important these are realistic. Small tweaks can feel insignificant, but they gradually add up if you stick to them.

If you live with someone else, getting their support can be vital, so you’re not exposed to the temptation of unhealthy foods at home. Ask them to support you or even lose weight with you.

Group support works well for some people. There is some evidence that joining a slimming group leads to more successful weight loss than those who don’t join. It could be worth talking to your GP or practice nurse, who will be able to tell you if there are local groups you can join or be referred to, and they may be able to offer you other support, too.

A combination of diet changes and getting more active has been shown to be more effective than just changing what you eat, so think about ways to get more active. That might be walking instead of driving, or something more structured like swimming, an exercise class or a sport you enjoy. Aim for 150 minutes a week, and break it into 10 minute chunks if it seems like a lot to begin with. Doing more physical activity without changing your diet will help your heart health, but is unlikely to lead to weight loss.

4. Eat a balanced diet

Balanced diet

Reduced-calorie, low-calorie or light versions of your favourite foods may be helpful, but don’t assume this means that they are also low in salt and sugar. So check food labels and try to make healthy choices, not just lower-calorie ones.

Maintaining even a small weight loss is beneficial for your health in the long term and something to be proud of

You don’t need to cut out all foods that are higher in calories – some of them come with healthy nutrients, for example oily fish, unsalted nuts and avocado. But you might want to eat them less often, or limit your portion size.

5. Don't give up if your progress is slow

Tortoise slowly progressing to finish line

An ‘ideal’ weight can take a while to achieve and may seem unattainable at times. Don’t feel disheartened if your weight loss is slow or you hit a plateau. Maintaining even a small weight loss is beneficial for your health in the long term and something to be proud of. So keep it up!

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