You have no doubt seen countless ways to lose weight in your life, from dieting, fasting and sweating to portion control and beyond. They all work if you are consistent with your chosen process. The one thing you must realize, no matter what method you choose to try, is that it takes effort to burn more calories than you consume. Typically, this process takes weeks of consistently either burning more calories than normal or reducing the number of calories you eat.
As a person who is not a dietitian or nutritionist, I want to share some of the experiences I gained over decades of trying to gain weight as a young athlete, maintaining a healthy weight during military service and even losing weight throughout my 40s and 50s. Though each scenario is different, it all comes down to keeping track of the number of calories in versus out.
For most people in America, the main reason why we are overweight is simply the amount of food we eat. Sure, poor food choices are part of that, but even healthy eaters can have portion-control issues. This is especially significant for anyone who grew up as a "hard gainer," unable to gain weight in their teens and early 20s. The food habits learned during that period often continue into our late 20s and 30s, until we are no longer a "hard gainer" and become an "easy gainer" or " hard loser." I am currently falling into this camp and know that if I want to lose or maintain weight, I have to watch out for a second helping. One way I do this is to place my meal on a salad plate and my salad on a meal plate. This is a logical way to reduce calories and easier to turn into a habit.
This option comes in many shapes and sizes, from pre-packaged meal planning and fasting to restriction of macronutrients (fats, proteins or carbohydrates) or certain types of food altogether. All will work for people if they are disciplined with their choices by reducing excess calories. For instance:
Pre-packaged meal plans
These force people to eat less than they would normally prepare for themselves or consume when at a restaurant. Using this as your habit-building and discipline development process works great for many, but once you start preparing your foods again or eating at restaurants, it's important to continue to be disciplined and save food from your plate to consume the following day.
Not eating for a significant part of the day is another way to restrict calorie consumption. However, just because you can eat in a given eight-hour window of a 24-hour day does not mean you can eat whatever and how much you like. You still have to consume limited calories during your non-fasting time. Pushing through hunger pains is not horrible but could affect workouts or work time if you have low blood sugar at the time of increased efforts. This process works if you plan accordingly with your work, workouts and fasting periods.
Reducing Food Types
These restricted food group diets are very common and effective for short periods. Personally, I never recommend eliminating macronutrients. Sure, you can limit these by reducing saturated fats, simple carbs (sugar) and processed foods, but eliminating all carbs and fats tends to offer issues with missing certain nutrients, vitamins and minerals. From the no-fat diets in the 1980s to the no-carb diets of the '90s, these are effective in the short term but tend to lead to yo-yo dieting and long-term frustrations with your weight loss.
Outwork Your Diet
Can you burn more calories than you consume and eat whatever you want? It is possible, but the level of exertion required is many hours of physical activity through difficult manual labor jobs or exercising for many hours. For this group, eating to maintain your current weight is difficult as it may require up to 10,000 calories a day, depending on your caloric output. Consuming a normal intake of 2,000-2,500 calories a day would be a deficit at the end of the day when working that hard.
Weight Gain Diet
Though this is a different topic altogether, the process works in reverse. You need to consume more calories than you burn in a day consistently. It takes at least 500-1,000 calories extra to gain 1-2 pounds per week. Many do this with extra protein and fat, as these are calorie-dense foods. Most of us who gain 5-10 pounds per year are in a continuous caloric surplus, which sneaks up on us by gaining a half-pound to a pound a month. This is usually a combination of not moving enough and eating too much.
Some diets are 100% opposite of each other. The Vegan Diet and the Carnivore Diet could not be more opposed to each other, but work the same way. By reducing calories consumed over a consistent period, people on these diets lose weight or maintain their weight loss. If you are on either of these types of diets, discuss with a nutritionist or dietitian, as there may be other food options or supplements that both groups can take to help with nutrients missing from this type of elimination of certain foods and food groups.
The best option is to discuss a meal plan that will work best for you with a nutritionist and/or dietitian, as they have the expertise to help you establish better habits that work personally for you. I compare this discussion to following a generic workout you may find online, versus having a trainer personally create a fitness program that works for your abilities, facilities, equipment and goals. A food professional can help you plan your lifestyle and goals logically.
Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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