Tuesday, 8 April 2008

What I know now about weight loss and weight management

Last summer, after having been fat for my entire adult life, I went on a radical weight-loss programme and reduced my body mass by 30 kg (66 lb, or about 4.5 stone). I reached a new equilibrium at that point, and have since maintained a constant weight. I’ve now been about 53 kg (117 lb, or a little under 8.5 stone—BMI just over 20) for more than six months, with very minor fluctuations. (Yes, I know I’m now below the middle of the recommended BMI range, and I was surprised at this result initially, but now that I’ve got used to it I think it’s right for me because I have a fairly light bone structure—thin wrists and ankles, for example.)

After an initial period of anxiety and disorientation I’ve gradually become adjusted to the new reality, and am now able to enjoy eating and drinking—alone and in company—without (so far) putting on weight. So now I think I am qualified to write something about the process and what worked for me. I hope other people with the same problem might find something useful here. Bear in mind that it’s only been six months, though. I don’t yet have any proof that the system works in the long term.

The programme that I used is Lighter Life, and not surprisingly I am very enthusiastic about it. These are the reasons I think it worked so well for me:
  • During the weight-loss phase you don’t eat normal food at all. There’s no wiggle-room, no ‘just a little bit won’t hurt’. This appeals to my nature. I like to start a project and just do it until it’s done. Gradual methods don’t attract me.
  • It’s medically supervised (they insist on this) and my GP was supportive—to my great surprise—when I consulted him before I started. This made me feel safe and relaxed about the process. Yes, there are health risks with rapid weight loss, but (as a doctor acquaintance of mine pointed out) you have to balance these against the considerable health risks you take by staying obese.
  • There’s a psychotherapeutic element to it. You have weekly group sessions and the approach is based on cognitive behavioural therapy, which makes a lot of sense to me.
  • You can’t fail to lose weight if you follow the programme, and this fact has a beneficial effect on your mind. I had talked myself into a mindset in which I basically believed that it was impossible for me to lose weight, so there was no point in even trying. Now I had the experience of standing on the scales each week and seeing proof that this belief wasn’t true, and the CBT sessions allowed me to extrapolate from that realisation. As a result of this I understand a bit more about false beliefs in general, how the mind clings onto them, and how to dispel them. This basic insight has been very helpful to me during the weight-maintenance phase (see below) as it’s enabled me to re-examine quite a lot of other false beliefs that I had about food and eating habits—and in particular, the one that says that even if you do manage to lose weight, you’re bound to put it all back on again because ‘everybody always does’.
OK, so that was the weight-loss phase, and my advice to anyone else who wants to lose weight as I did basically comes down to: ‘go to the Lighter Life people, trust them, and do what they tell you’. All well and good, but then what happens next? There is absolutely no point (in my opinion) in losing weight if you’re not going to stay light afterwards.

Well, first, I’d recommend anyone who’s done Lighter Life to use the follow-up programmes that they provide. Don’t just strike off on your own as soon as you reach your target weight. Their gradual process of food reintroduction—it’s like being a baby being weaned all over again, but better this time!—is tremendously useful, and the ongoing support from the counsellor and group is really great.

Next, you really have to learn about food and how to choose what to eat. You think you know, but actually you don’t. It’s an active area of research and you need to inform yourself about what the science now says, as well as learning what works for you psychologically.

Here’s what I’ve learned:
  • Carbohydrates give you a sensation of fullness, but fats don’t—they just slip down. This is one reason why you have to treat fats with such caution. You need some, but you need to learn that a little goes a long way. Weighing portions helps a lot with learning how much to have.
  • Fibre is essential for digestive health but you don’t have to load yourself down with tons of calories to get it. You can take soluble fibre supplements. I use Fibresure, which is basically inulin, twice a day. I also have porridge for breakfast with a few dried apricots, and I have a vast quantity of green vegetables at lunch and dinner. I have a little wholemeal bread as well. That adds up to enough fibre to keep my digestion working well.
  • Women need less food than men do, generally, because women have a smaller frame (especially true for me, because my husband is a lot bigger than I am). Older people need less food than younger ones do. Standard portions have to be enough for those who need more food than you do, so you have to get used to leaving food on your plate when you are eating out—especially if you eat out a lot, as we do. Abandon notions of ‘getting your fair share’. I now routinely divide my portion of rice in half at the start of a meal. Half a standard portion of rice is plenty for a woman of nearly 50.
  • Counting calories really works for weight maintenance. People have told me not to do it—‘it’s soul-destroying’. Well, it depends what kind of soul you have. For me, it’s fascinating and exciting because it means I now understand the process of eating and using food. It gives me precise control and it gives me the freedom to make an informed choice—50 g of this is the same as 25 g of that, so which will I have today? And, most importantly, as I am already at the right weight, I am not trying to minimise calorie consumption. If I haven’t had enough, I must eat some more. It’s bed-time and I need to consume another 100 calories to reach today’s ideal total. I’ll have a cup of cocoa. There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t. Depriving myself of the food that I need will not do me any good. (This is why I think that counting calories for weight loss would be a bad idea, though I can’t speak from personal experience about that—it seems to me that you’d always be trying to minimise consumption, and never be satisfied that you’d had the right amount.) Calorie counting is also beneficial because it’s an incentive to take health-giving exercise: a 30-minute brisk walk, or 20 minutes on the rowing machine, means that I can add more than 5% to my basic calorie allowance for the day. A second chocolate after dinner, maybe? A piece of cheese? A glass of wine?
  • However, exercising in an attempt to burn fat is not an efficient way to lose weight. Exercise is good for you—one of the many benefits of being lighter is that exercise is now easier and more fun, so I do (somewhat) more of it now—but exercising while fat in order to reduce is not useful. You have to do such a lot of exercise for such a small loss of weight. And it increases your appetite. You get fitter, which is good, but you don’t get thinner.
  • The body doesn’t like to mess about with its fat reserves, either burning them up or laying them down. It will try to maintain an equilibrium instead (reducing or increasing energy used in order to compensate for reductions or increases in input). This is why temporary starvation or feasting has no effect on fat, and it also explains the discouraging plateaux and sudden exciting shifts that most people experience when losing weight (you get these on Lighter Life too, though of course they are quicker than those you get on a conventional diet). Changes in eating habits, either up or down, have to persist for quite a while before they persuade the body to push past a particular equilibrium state and into the next one.
  • Good things can be saved for later. This takes away the pressure to have them right now just to avoid their being wasted. I was cautioned against this in case it led to snacking, but for me it doesn’t: it just works beautifully. I save tiny portions of leftovers in the fridge and the freezer, in little boxes neatly labelled. I bring them out again next time I’m choosing a meal for myself (my husband and I eat dinner together, but normally, although we often sit at the table together at lunch-time, we each choose our lunch food independently—so there are plenty of opportunities for this), and I savour them instead of opening something new. Often the new thing would have been higher in calories than the leftover portion anyway, so I win both ways.
  • Most of the pleasure of most foods comes in the first couple of mouthfuls, so why have a huge plate-full? Pleasure in eating is maximised by having lots of different, but small, taste sensations (this is one of the messages of the most excellent French Women Don’t Get Fat). Normally these days I have two to four micro-courses at each meal. And quite often I end a meal with a chocolate. Just the one. Exquisite!
  • Choosing and wearing nice clothes can be just as much fun as eating is, once you get used to it. I’ve rediscovered the joy I used to take in getting dressed.
There’s more to say, of course, but that’ll do for now.

1 comment:

harry said...
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