I’ve written about fitness and nutrition for 23 years and counting, and in that time I’ve talked to dozens of men and women who lost substantial amounts of weight, and kept it off. Maybe hundreds. A few have become good friends.
Offhand, though, I can’t think of any two who lost those kilos the exact same way. Most started out by following whatever diet was popular at the moment. Low-fat or low-carb, vegan or paleo – they all worked for someone. Why they worked is no mystery.
But before you can make the maths or mechanics of any given diet work for you, you need to understand a few basic truths about weight and weight loss.
1. It’s not a morality play
Throughout history weight control has been viewed as a battle between the forces of good and evil. But it’s not. It’s just physiology. If you’re gaining weight, it’s because you’re consuming more energy than you burn off. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means you have to make adjustments if you want to shift your weight into reverse.
2. It’s not up to anybody else to decide how much you should weigh
Weight standards are arbitrary. A heavy-set guy with a lot of muscle and a rigorous workout schedule is almost certainly healthier than a sedentary skinny person with high body fat. But who’s more likely to be told by his doctor that he needs to lose weight?
Every successful loser I know eventually finds a comfortable weight, one that allows him to eat enough food to support his workouts and get through the day without feeling desperately hungry. Sometimes they land at a weight that falls within the “healthy” range, according to the conventional standards. But sometimes they don’t, and they’re okay with that.
3. It’s also not up to you
The more researchers study the genetics of obesity, the more evidence they find that we’re all born with a range of possible shapes and sizes that’s probably more narrow than we expect. Recent studies conclude that your size is 60-70 per cent heritable.
That still leaves quite a bit within your control, especially when it comes to your body-fat percentage. But the basic framework is embedded in your DNA, and it would take a superhuman effort to reach medium size with XXL genes. Some still manage to pull it off, which is great. Maybe you’ll be one of them. But it’s best to begin the process by acknowledging you don’t have superpowers.
4. You can’t just jump into the deep end
Most of my "loser" friends did it with some combination of exercise and kilojoule restriction. And indeed, “eat less and move more” is the most common weight-loss advice, and the most thoroughly despised.
That’s because it’s so hard to do both at the same time. An ambitious workout program drains energy, literally and figuratively. An ambitious diet gives you less energy to work with. They both impose unfamiliar levels of stress on your body and your mind.
It makes much more sense to focus on succeeding at one half of the equation, rather than failing at both. But which half?
5. Exercise is overrated for weight loss. But it’s also underrated
It wasn’t too long ago that the fitness industry reached an uncomfortable conclusion: exercise, by itself, is unlikely to help many people lose weight. Almost overnight, it seemed to me, trainers and other experts shifted from scolding their frustrated clients about not training hard enough to scolding them about not dieting hard enough.
They have a point. It’s much simpler to cut a few hundred kilojoules from your meals than to burn off a few hundred on the road or in the gym. And if you manage to burn that much energy in a workout, it’s way too easy to put all that and more into your body at your next meal.
Today I think we’ve gone too far in the other direction. If you’re not currently working out or managing your diet, you might have the most success by starting with exercise. You’ll not only increase your fitness level, making your workouts more productive, you’ll also build willpower, which helps you make the hard choices with your diet.
Which brings me to the final rule.
6. The only bad choice for a diet is no choice
Every successful loser I know has a story about some stupid thing he did along the way. Usually, he’ll tell me, he got obsessive about something that ultimately didn’t matter. After hearing so many stories, for so many years, I’ve concluded that mistakes are an absolutely essential part of the weight-loss process.
Anecdotal? No question. I’m sure there’s someone out there who started with the perfect diet and workout program, reached his goals with no setbacks, and lived happily ever after. I’ve just never met that guy.
The ones I know tried multiple diets and fitness programs, with varying levels of success, until they mixed, matched and tinkered their way to success. At every step, they made choices. Sometimes they were the obvious ones, but usually not.
Each choice, good or bad, got them closer to their goals for a simple reason: they learned something new about themselves. The more they understood their own bodies and minds, the better the next choice could be.
What doesn’t work, in my experience, is not making any choices at all. I’ve never met a single person who lost weight without changing any habits or mastering any new skills. If what you know now and what you do now is all you need to lose weight, you would’ve lost it already.