I was recently asked what is the best way to lose weight? It’s an easy enough question and one on a lot of people’s minds.

When I first hear the question, a lot of things race through my head. Is the weight loss for health reasons? Or is it for looks? What previous experience does the person have with weight loss?

Once my internal voice shuts down, the answer that comes next is: the best way to lose weight (and keep it off) is through lifelong lifestyle changes that support you taking in less calories than you expend.

This probably isn’t what anyone is expecting, nor wants to hear. It doesn’t give you any idea on how you might go about losing weight. I could spend pages upon pages describing various different diets going over the evidence, arguing one over the other, but in the end, the best method is the one you’ll stick to.

calories in and out lose weight

How Diets Work for Weight Loss

When it comes to losing weight, at the simplest level it’s down to calories in versus calories out. To lose weight, you need more calories out than in. Pretty simple, right? And a lot of us know that already. But the reality it is far more complex. And if it was so easy, then no one would be overweight or obese.

You might hear people say ‘not all calories are the same’. That’s not really true. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. We can’t change the laws of physics. What they mean is that our body reacts differently to a calorie based on the where it comes from (sugar, fat or protein) and the time of day (start or end of day) you eat it.

For example, eating a lot of sugar may give you a burst of energy but you’ll likely feel hungry shortly after and eat again. Similarly, eating food in the evening before going to bed may lead to greater weight gain as your body slows down its metabolism when you’re sleeping.

This has led to a range of diets (high fat, low fat, low carb, high protein, keto, Paleo, vegan, etc.) all with advocates saying they’re the best for weight loss. However, the evidence doesn’t support any one diet is better than any other. Over the long-term (>6 months), there’s no real difference among the many diets in terms of weight loss if the same calorie deficit is controlled for.

This latter point is crucial to understanding how studies are done. Many diet studies will aim to have you eat less calories and provide you with counselling and meal plans. So of course if you follow their advice you’ll lose weight.

But real life isn’t like that. We don’t have someone to guide and support us all the time with our diets. That’s when different diets may work differently for different people. Some of us might find eating more protein helpful in keeping our hunger at bay, and therefore we eat less. For others, it may be fat or complex carbohydrates.

The one thing common to all of these diets, however, is the avoidance of processed foods, along with an emphasis on eating foods as close to their natural state as possible. Processed foods have been linked to weight gain as the additives can alter your body’s hunger signals. This can lead you to eat more. It’s possible that this is the most important element of a good diet to lose weight.

The key then is finding a diet and pattern of eating that you like, which will allow you to eat less calories than you burn off.

exercise isn't the best way to lose weight

Exercise Won’t Burn Those Calories

I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on exercise. Exercise is an important component to weight loss, but not in the way most people think. I can’t count how many times people have told me they want to lose weight and plan to start exercising to do so. Exercise is great for a number of things but weight loss isn’t one of them.

Most of our calories are actually burned keeping us alive. If you were to lie down all day, you would probably burn somewhere between 1500 to 2000 calories. Much of that going to things such as your breathing, heart pumping and keeping your organs going.

In comparison, calories burned through our activity is quite small. A half hour walk burns about 100 calories, or about the same as a medium apple. An hour of running may be 400 to 500 calories; the same amount as in a Starbuck’s grande Frappuccino. So unless you’re exercising for close to two hours per day, it will be hard to lose weight without focusing on your diet.

However, there are benefits to adding exercise to your weight loss program. And that’s because exercise helps prevent muscle loss and keeps your metabolism higher. When you start eating less, your body doesn’t like that and may resist it by lowering your metabolism, so you end up losing less weight than you expected. Keeping up with exercise helps prevent this and results in greater weight loss in the long term.

there's more to losing weight

More to Weight Loss than Diet and Exercise

But the success of your weight loss program will depend on whether you can keep up with your new eating and activity habits. That’s why it’s so important to have a program that fits into your lifestyle and enjoyment. Three things that often get overlooked when starting a weight loss program are sleep, your social group and stress.

It’s recommended that adults get at least 7 hours per night or between 7 to 9 hours per night of sleep. However, in our fast-paced life, it’s probably not surprising that nearly 50% of people don’t get enough sleep. If you’re tired, you might try to perk yourself up by eating more for that extra energy boost. And not getting enough sleep is associated with a greater chance of being overweight or obese.

When it comes to who we socialize and spend most of our time with, we usually choose people who have the same values as us. This can even come down to the type of foods we eat. You can probably imagine how hard it is to change your diet to lower your intake of fat and sugar if all your friends go out to restaurants or parties all the time. I’m not saying you should ditch your friends, but only to recognize the influence they may have. And that influence can also be a source of great support too.

Stress, on one hand, is good for us. It challenges us and pushes us to grow. However, ongoing chronic stress is not so good. Chronic stress, like lack of sleep, is associated with obesity. In part due to its effect on eating, as many of us will seek comfort in eating high calorie foods of little nutrition value. There’s also a link between sleep and stress; when you get enough sleep, you’re better able to handle stress.

So while there may be different paths to choose to lose weight, the best one for you, is the one that fits into your life. At the same time recognizing success depends on more than just what you eat. There’s a role for being active, getting enough sleep, support from family/friends and managing stress.

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