With summer coming soon, many of us would like to trim a few (or more than a few) pounds. Many of us might wish there was a button we could push or a pill that could magically take away all our excess weight. There are so many diet plans out there that can be found on sites like Pinterest that promise to lose weight quickly. The reality is that many of these plans are incredibly restrictive and almost starvation diets, and although they will help you drop some weight, staying on these diets for more than a week or two takes some serious willpower that I certainly don’t have. When we come off these diets, we often go back to how we were eating before and gain all the weight back, often with a few bonus pounds.
In my e-book 21 Steps to a Happier, Healthier, Greener You I talk about easy steps to take in your life to improve your happiness, health, happiness and reduce your environmental impact but do not specifically talk about weight loss. The fact is that if you follow the steps in the book related to eating, physical activity and being present, you will likely lose weight and lose it sustainably.
Four Pillars of Weight Loss
There are four interconnected pillars when it comes to losing weight, these are our food choices, activity levels, sleep (quality & quantity) and stress levels. These four parts of our lives also play a huge role in our overall health and happiness. For example if we are tired and stressed our food choices are often negatively affected. Being physically active can help improve our sleep and reduce stress. Eating healthy foods at the right time can help our stress levels, sleep and desire to be active.
My Difficulties with Diets
I have had real challenges with diets, even really nutritionally good plans, I have binged on the foods I won’t be allowed the weekend before my start day and have to throw out or hidden foods I am not allowed. I have also eaten foods I really dislike or that do not agree with me.
I am usually okay on the new diet for a couple of days before I start becoming food obsessed, counting the hours and minutes between snacks and being hungry all the time. Basically my quality of life and my work suffers. I usually quit the diet within a couple of weeks, a little lighter but more food obsessed. Sound familiar? So what is the alternative?
The single most important factor that determines our weight, success of fat loss efforts and how we feel are our food choices. Some authors attribute as much as 80% responsibility to our food choices. It is not a coincidence that our food choices are also the number one way most of us can change our environmental impact.
Our food choices and cravings are also affected by the other three pillars for weight loss: sleep, stress levels and exercise. We have to also remember we are whole people with busy lives and for most of us we cannot just flip a switch to perfectly clean, healthy eating. We also have to remember the pleasure, and social aspects of eating.
A New Plan
With this in mind we need an eating plan for the long term and one we can stick to that will gradually improve our habits so that we generate successes and maintain good habits for life. This idea is definitely not as exciting as losing 20 pounds in two weeks but it is more realistic and will have long term positive impacts on your health.
Without being prescriptive in what foods to eat, the main steps that have led me to successful weight loss are:
- Making sure to eat foods you really enjoy
- Knowing your portion sizes
- Eating a variety of foods
- Eating foods close to their natural state
- Eating local and seasonal foods
Sound too simple doesn’t it? Let me explain very briefly.
Enjoy your food (eat food you enjoy)
We want to enjoy our food as well as nourishing our bodies. Since eating is an activity that we must do to survive, the fact that it gives us pleasure and enjoyment is an opportunity to have a feeling of well-being multiple times a day as well as nourishing our bodies and minds. Bearing this in mind we need to make choices that are appropriate for each of us individually and this may vary widely based on individual and cultural preferences.
Know your portion sizes
This step is not as much about changing what we eat but how much we eat. Food portions in many ready-to-eat foods have increased in the last 20 years. As portion sizes have increased our bodies and our brains have got used to eating and seeing those large portions.
Adjust your food consumption and shopping habits towards reputable dietary recommendations. I like to use my hands to judge portion sizes, just be consistent in your measures: greens ~ 2 cupped hands; fruit, vegetables and grains ~ 1 cupped hand; protein ~ palm of the hand; fats~thumb-size.
Eat a Variety of Foods
There are approximately 20,000 edible plants, and within this large number there are many varieties. Approximately 90% of our diet is provided by just 25 crops. In 2007 these were, in alphabetical order: apples, bananas/plantains, beans, barley, cassava, coconut, cottonseed, grapes, groundnuts, maize, millet, olive oil, onions, oranges/mandarins, palm oil, potatoes, rape and mustard oil, rice, sorghum, soyabeans, sugar cane, sunflower seed oil, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, wheat.
Our grocery shelves may contain thousands of different products but many of them are made from the plants on the above list.
Variety is one of the keys to getting the most nutrients from your food, it also keeps eating interesting.
Eat and drink foods closer to their natural state
When we eat foods that are closer to their original whole state they are better for us. They are more nutrient rich and less calorie dense than the processed alternatives and usually more filling. Ultimately we want to eat only very limited amounts of processed and packaged food. This adjustment may take some time as you learn how to prepare ingredients and recipes yourself.
Eat local and seasonal foods
Depending on the climate and the seasons, different plants and animals produce food. Eating fruit and vegetables that are in season taste better, are more nutritious and are often cheaper. I find that my body craves different food throughout the seasons. In the winter I do not want to touch a lettuce leaf; I much prefer eating the more hearty winter vegetables and fruit such as carrots, turnips, cabbage, apples and cranberries. In the summer I love light meals with lots of berries, melons, and lighter tasting vegetables such as salad greens.
Try to eat a more local seasonal diet, it means that what you are eating will be more flavourful and you will probably be more in tune with your body.
Why would this work?
If you look at these five ideas you are satisfying your mind and body as well as readjusting what and how much you are eating. You are also gradually exchanging energy dense nutrient poor foods for higher volume nutritionally dense foods with lower calories. The higher volume, higher fibre levels will keep you fuller and more satisfied for longer. You will also begin eating more intuitively by eating what your body and mind really wants.
Remember, that you did not gain excess weight overnight. If you are trying to lose weight slow and steady progress will help you reach your goals and keep you there in the long run.
- Eat foods you really enjoy
- Eat food with taste and textures you really like.
- Eat what your body really wants.
- Eat foods that are visually appealing. We enjoy food with our eyes as well as our mouth and nose.
- Pay attention to your food, eat slowly and stop other activities while you are eating such as driving, working, and watching television.
- Know your portion sizes
- Keep a food journal or photo journal a few days a week to help you figure out what and how much you are really eating.
- Adjust your plate size down. We often judge the quantity of our food by how much it fills the bowl or plate it is served on. Aim for a plate size of 7-9 inches (18-23 cm) diameter for a meal.
- Use your hands to judge portion sizes, when shopping and eating: greens ~ 2 cupped hands; fruit, vegetables and grains ~ 1 cupped hand; protein ~ palm of the hand; fats~thumb-size.
- Listen to your body’s signals. Eat when you are hungry, slow down your eating, stop when you are pleasantly full. It takes approximately 20 minutes for our stomach to tell our brains that we are full.
- Eat a variety of foods
- Try to eat all of the major food groups on most days: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, high protein foods such as legumes, eggs, fish, meat, and good fats, dairy (optional).
- Eat a wide variety of colours and textures; in plants, colour is an indication of different nutrients, there are white, green, yellow, orange, red, purple. Eating a variety of colours is a fun and easy way to get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs. Go to local markets and try something new as well as different varieties of old favourite such as purple potatoes, green or yellow tomatoes, yellow or purple carrots.
- Eat foods close to their natural state
- Try to buy more single ingredient foods that are close to their natural state.
- Eat only prepared foods that have the same ingredients they would if you made them from scratch.
- Replace most prepared sweets and desserts with fruit. It is sweet, nutrient dense and filling.
- Try making something yourself that you would normally buy.
- Eat local and seasonal foods
- Foods that are picked when they are ripe and eaten fresh, taste better. Visit a local farmers’ market, visit a local food cooperative, buy from a farmstand.
- Try growing your own sprouts, microgreens, herbs, or start a container garden or garden beds. You will gain a new appreciation for fresh food and what it takes to produce it.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3 of this series: Physical Activity and Movement
If you like these ideas and want to learn more check out my e-book 21 Steps to a Happier, Healthier Greener You or sign up to my list to receive updates and a monthly newsletter.