I have been a dietitian for around 5 years now. Throughout this journey, a large percentage of my clients have been those who are looking to lose weight. And there is a tonne of stuff I have learnt along the way.
There is no one thing that is the secret to all this. Most people would benefit from more knowledge, but that alone is not the answer. No individual behaviour change strategy will be suitable for everybody either. No mindset hack will work for everybody.
But what I will try to cover in this post is 5 key things that are universal concepts that will help most people, regardless of what strategy you are using for weight loss.
Higher Protein Intake
Per calorie, protein is the most satiating macronutrient. Per gram, that title goes to fat, but fat has 9kcal/g and protein only has 4kcal/g.
We care about satiation per calorie more than per gram. This is because we are working backwards from the goal of a calorie deficit, so we are trying to make that as easy as possible.
Increasing protein intake, obviously still adds calories, just like any other macronutrient. Arguably, that could be counter to the goal of weight loss.
But if you were going to have X amount of calories regardless, and you were coming from a lower protein intake, it would make sense to increase that as a percentage of your total calories.
For example, somebody who has 15% of their calories coming from protein while trying to lose weight, might find the process easier if they increased it up to 35-40%, as an example.
This will leave you feeling fuller, which makes it easier to eat fewer calories.
Protein also has a higher thermic effect of food. This is not a massive percentage of your total daily energy expenditure, but it does make fat loss a little easier.
Maintaining more muscle mass also has some advantages. It helps to keep BMR slightly higher (but not as dramatically as some make it seem). And it could also carry over to higher total daily energy expenditure through other factors e.g. more calories burned through exercise.
Higher protein intake during a calorie deficit makes it easier to retain more muscle. This obviously has benefits beyond what has been mentioned above as well.
The reason for this is because fibre slows digestion. Soluble fibre can also absorb water, which further adds volume and tells your body that you are fuller.
Beyond just appetite management, there is a pretty strong correlation between fibre intake and overall positive health outcomes.
Obviously if taken to an extreme, it is likely to cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues like bloating and gas. But as a general rule, it is probably a good idea to slowly build up to a good fibre intake.
To put numbers on it, standard recommendations for women and men are 25g per day and 30g per day respectively. Another good guideline is 10-15g of fibre per 1000kcal consumed.
You could argue for higher numbers than that as well based on the points made above. Basically, I think it is worth finding a sweet spot where you get minimal GI symptoms, while also reaping the benefits of fibre.
Volume eating is the concept of eating larger volumes of lower calorie foods.
This could mean either eating the same number of calories but more food. Or less calories with the same amount (or more) of food.
You can see how this could help weight loss. Because you are eating more food, feeling fuller, while still achieving a calorie deficit for weight loss.
You are probably noticing a common theme with these tips. A lot of them are based on the idea of managing your appetite.
If you feel satisfied on lower calories, it makes it easier to stick with.
That being said, if you plan on losing a significant amount of weight, hunger is likely going to be a part of the process.
You can implement all these strategies, but if you are either in a large calorie deficit or just an extended one where you get significantly leaner, you are likely to experience hunger at some stage regardless.
Part of the process involves embracing a little bit of hunger. A bit of hunger =/= starving yourself. It is okay to experience a bit of hunger occasionally. These strategies are just to help avoid that being excessive.
Finding the Sweet Spot Between Flexibility vs Rigidity
When people come to see me asking for a meal plan there are two common lines that stand out to me:
- “I want a lot of variety, so I don’t get bored.”
- “I want my food to taste nice so that it’s easy to stick to.”
I have a bit of a thought experiment for you though.
If you were trying to gain weight as quickly as possible over the next 6 weeks, what would you want?
You would probably want your food to taste nice so that it is easier to eat more of it. And you would want a lot of variety so that you do not get bored because when you get bored with your food, it is harder to eat more.
Hear me out on this one.
Is it not interesting that people looking to get lean also have similar desires to if they were trying to gain size?
It is not a black and white scenario either. Think of it as a spectrum.
For looking to gain size, it makes sense to lean more towards the variety and nice tasting food end of the spectrum. For looking to lose weight, you might want to lean slightly towards blander food with a little bit less variety.
If your desire to eat is higher because you have been in a calorie deficit for a while, this makes sense. If you are surrounded by a bunch of foods that you really want to eat, it can be harder to say no to eating more than would be ideal for your goals.
I rate variety from an overall nutrition perspective. It is important for micronutrients and overall gut health.
But a common theme I see amongst people who lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off is that they are relatively routine focused throughout the process. And often they eat the same kind of things over and over, even more than I typically would like.
The other aspect to consider on this topic is to find what works best for you. You might function best by completely disregarding the point I made above. Through trial and error, you need to find what approach works for you.
This same point applies to HOW you go about creating a calorie deficit. Some prefer low fat. Some prefer low carb. Some prefer a mixed approach. Some prefer fasting.
To be honest, there is no reason you could not fluctuate between different options based on what you are doing each day/week/whatever.
Some people work better with one stricter approach. Some work better with a more flexible approach. Having patience and building self-awareness around this is super important.
Solids Over Liquids
It is more difficult (and satiating) to eat than it is to drink.
One example of this: When you finish a meal because you are full, you can often still manage to drink something that contains further calories.
This is a tool I sometimes use with people who struggle to gain size.
Even liquids in isolation separate from meals often do not leave you feeling as satiated as if you had whole foods.
Another great example of this is a study that involved whole apples (peeled) vs apple juice with fibre vs apple juice with no fibre.
These were consumed 15 minutes pre-meal and were the same total weight/calories. The whole apple reduced the lunch calories consumed by 15%. Arguably it might have been higher if it were not peeled since that would further increase the fibre content.
The juice options reduced the lunch calories by ~5%, with a slight benefit favouring the juice with fibre in it.
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but it is still interesting to see research on it.
Once again this does not need to be a black and white rule. I see it as more of a scale. Consuming fewer liquid calories, as a percentage of your total calorie intake while dieting, likely makes the process easier.
Bonus Tip – Diet Breaks
A final step that I think can make the process easier, is to break it up into phases. This is more relevant if you are looking to get significantly leaner.
If you have a lot of weight to lose, you COULD try to do it one go. You could try to have a calorie deficit all the way through.
That being said, it seems easier if you break it up into chunks.
One thing we have clear evidence on is that hunger and desire to eat clearly increase over time while in a calorie deficit.
Having a diet break (a period of time, more than a couple of days, at maintenance calories) can help offset that.
Arguably, if done for long enough, diet breaks could also offset some of the metabolic adaptation that occurs due to dieting. This could raise maintenance calories a little bit higher and make it easier to go back into a deficit.
But the most important thing is the mental aspect. It can make it easier to stick to the plan if you know a diet break is coming.
It also allows time to “practice” what it will be like to aim for maintenance calories when you finish the diet too, which is important in a lot of cases.
And finally, something I have seen a lot is that certain people never spend any intentional time at maintenance. It is either dieting or not dieting. This allows the opportunity to change that, fuel yourself well and feel good, while setting yourself up well for the next phase.
Diet breaks are not necessary. They are one of many options. But I feel like they can be helpful for a lot of people.