The principles for maintaining or losing weight are actually very simple
Concern about bodyweight is a psychological issue I would aver affects every single athlete. The motivations for losing or maintaining a certain weight can be wide ranging but I fear there is a great deal of confusion out there as to how to go about it. Unfortunately, the safest approaches take time and with many unwilling to commit to long-term change, they resort to more extreme methods, the consequences of which, can be extremely hazardous.
In my opinion, losing or maintaining weight is essentially common-sense and nothing I am going to tell you below is ground-breaking. Of course, the science behind it all can get complicated and I think this is where a lot of trainers or businesses selling products try to focus in order to justify their roles.
To put it simply, to lose weight you need a small negative energy balance. All this means is you need to consume slightly fewer calories than you burn, and we really are not talking a massive deficit. A deficit of 100-200 calories a day will see you lose bodyfat at a reasonable and safe rate. To maintain a certain weight once it is reached, there must be a neutral energy balance i.e. the calories going in roughly matches the energy burned. It is also important to note that an energy deficit should be attained through a mixture of moderate nutritional changes and exercise. Dieting alone will probably only succeed in making you tired and grumpy.
When considering making changes to your nutrition and/or lifestyle, it must be accepted that this should be conducted over a matter of months. This might be hard to swallow, and I do get it because in an age of instantaneous communication, we are used to getting the things we want on demand. Frustratingly, our bodies have not evolved to appease us in this way.
To put this into a plan of action:
- Work out your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)
This is the number of calories you require to sustain your current lifestyle and exercise regime. There are tonnes of TDEE calculators on the internet, make sure you use one from a reputable brand such as MyFitnessPal to work out your current requirements.
- Figure out roughly how many calories you consume a day
I would again suggest using MyFitnessPal or an equivalent app, this time to log your nutritional intake. Keep a log only for a week to two weeks to get a sense of your eating habits and where your calorific intake sits with your requirements. Do your best not to alter your habits for the purpose of the review as it will not help anyone if it is not a realistic reflection. Ultimately, who cares?! You do not have to show anyone!
- Work out where you can reduce your sugar and saturated fat intake
The obvious point here is to cut down on sugary drinks and fried foods. Reducing your intake of animal-based proteins and introducing more fish or soya-based proteins can also often help. Animal proteins are fantastic complete proteins, but they tend to carry a proportionately higher level of saturated fat the higher in protein they are. Unless you are vegetarian or vegan, I would advise not cutting animal protein out completely though, just intersperse with some oily fish like tuna and salmon and a mixture of vegetarian proteins.
- Work out where you can reduce your calorific intake slightly to achieve this 100-200 calorie deficit
Often better portion control can make a big difference, so start measuring things like your carbohydrate and protein portions. Generally, the more veg the better so you can go wild there!
Tip: Do not simply accept the recommended portions on the sides of packaging. They can often be overstated, and regardless, are certainly not calculated with your individual requirements in mind. Check the number of calories per gram and do your own sums to fit your TDEE and modest negative energy balance.
- Do not just slash your carb intake
See our ‘Fuelling your training’ article for more detail but as an athlete, cutting out carbs entirely is madness if you hold any hope of sustaining your training.
- Make these changes gradually over a few weeks
As mentioned on a couple of occasions above, incremental changes will see you achieve your goals. Wholesale changes will see you right back at the start.
- Do not weigh yourself every day
There are a range of variables that will affect your bodyweight, including how much water you have drunk, so weigh yourself periodically. For instance, weigh yourself once or twice a month and look for trends over time rather than obsessing about a single anomalous reading.
- You will need to do a mixture of cardiovascular focused training and strength training
With my personal training clients, I like to separate their sessions out into specific strength and cardio sessions so that they have a clear focus for the session and know exactly what the purpose of each session is. I would suggest doing the same and get outside for your cardio. People that train exclusively in gyms are denying themselves the benefits of what little sun we have in this country!
Hopefully the above will help clarify a few points but one final suggestion is that you need to take a long-term view. As with any overarching lifestyle change, if you put in place a plan and the stepping stones to reach that goal, suddenly it will not be so daunting.
The guilt of eating out and drinking when trying to stay on the wagon
We do not cover nutrition very much in this series. Ostensibly this is because mental health issues relating to food could be an article series in itself. However, there are two particular scenarios in which I feel we can offer some advice and reassurance. These are eating out and the pressure exerted by friends to drink.
In my former life as a city lawyer, I found that eating out regularly had a big impact on my energy levels. I was consuming plenty of calories, but they were not the right calories and I would go through periods of lethargy and poor training quality because 2-3 out of 7 days a week, I was probably not consuming enough carbohydrate. I would feel guilty for eating naughtily but then feel guilty if I missed out. It was incredibly frustrating.
Unfortunately, I do not think there is a complete solution to this issue as eating out is a big part of British culture and there are not many healthy eating options out there that will satisfy a group. Also, I reckon that if you are paying a premium for food, as you do in London, you want it to taste nice and be a real experience.
The main issues associated with eating out seem to be:
- eating ‘unhealthily’;
- not consuming the right ‘fuel’;
- the expense;
- the tiredness associated with getting home later than normal;
- dehydration (restaurant food is often heavily seasoned); and
- the difficulty of saying no.
How to solve this problem then? I think the first thing to do is appraise your current situation. How often do you eat out? What sort of places do you tend to eat at? How much do you train? How much would you like to train? Is your current approach sustainable long-term? If the answer to that last question is no, then the logical step is to do something about it.
Acknowledging that your life is slightly out of kilter is often the first step to making fundamental lifestyle changes. You then need to decide how badly you want to make that change, whatever the motivation. If you are not that bothered and are not willing to introduce greater discipline, then I think you must make peace with that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a bit annoyed about how you eat but ultimately enjoying your lifestyle. However, if after asking yourself these questions you decide you really want to cut back or change your approach, you need to take back control and put making a change to your eating out habits at the top or near the top of your list of priorities.
Let us look at an analogous situation. If there is that bit of work that has been lingering over you for ages and you just cannot be arsed, the only way it will get done is either: 1) leaving it to the last minute and relying on time pressure and probably doing a bad job; or 2) forcing yourself to put it at the top of your ‘to-do’ list and block out time in your calendar to get it done. This is an example of taking control, and by scheduling the change, you are giving yourself accountability.
If we come back to changing your eating out habits, the first thing to do is to make change a priority. Next you need to figure out a way of ensuring that change happens and there is accountability. Something the very health conscious do is set themselves a ‘cheat meal’. This helps with the motivation to eat well all week and then when it comes to their ‘cheat meal’ they can really enjoy it as a reward for being disciplined. I would recommend applying this approach to eating out as it is essentially the same problem.
Use your calendar as an ally and set yourself the rule that you will only allow one or maybe two meals out each week. You have one or two slots available per week and if they are already taken up, you are not available that week. This might seem patronisingly simple, but it is difficult to do because until you ask yourselves the questions above, this process will previously have been fluid and with room for manoeuvre. I am not a big fan of hard and fast rules because I think they can often go against our key principles of Balance – Simplicity – Accessibility. However, I think this is one of the times where you have to set yourself an inalienable rule, for at least until it becomes routine to check whether you already have a meal(s) out that week.
Like I have said above, I do not think there is a complete solution to the inherent conflict between a normal social lifestyle and accumulating quality training volume. Perhaps just asking yourself the above questions and acknowledging how much eating out regularly is affecting you might be enough to help you rein it in. Implementing long-term change is the tricky part.
Pressure to drink
This is one of the few aspects of British culture I really do not like! The pressure, particularly for younger and new employees, to drink at work and social events is ridiculous. Among friends it can be even worse. It has been an issue for me on a myriad of occasions and talking to clients and friends that are keen athletes, I know it is one that they struggle with as well.
The question I have always struggled with in these situations is why do people care how much or what someone is drinking? It really baffles me, as no one seems to take issue with those individuals that do not understand personal space, so why is it socially acceptable to berate someone for how much they do or do not drink? Does anyone really care whether Johnny or Jennifer has a third drink? If you do, then I would suggest you are taking a little too much interest in getting either of them inebriated and the authorities should be notified!
It is difficult to address this problem in the moment without creating a dispute and coming off as a bit of an arsehole because often, the room will be on the side of the person advocating ‘having more fun’. But if you do not want to drink because you want to get up in the morning feeling fresh enough to go on a run, I would suggest there are a couple of things you could try:
- Ask them why they care how much you drink
This is a tricky one to get right. I think it is important not to ask this question in an aggressive tone as the person(s) pressuring you are likely to be looking for any excuse to call you boring. I think it needs to be asked in a matter of fact or confused tone. Asked in this way, you will probably get a generic response back, something like, “I just want you to have fun” or some derivative thereof. Such a response is so devoid of logic that it echoes just how little they really care how much you are drinking.
Really, they are looking for an excuse to single you out so do not give them that opportunity. I would recommend saying thank you and suggest that to improve your levity, perhaps they could do a dance for you. It is win-win. Either you get to watch someone make a tit of themselves and totally undercut their position of dominance in the group; or they will just laugh and hopefully move on. Fingers crossed!
- Get yourself a non-alcoholic imposter
This is a tactic I have implemented on a few occasions. If you are a G&T drinker, you are well placed. Simply order a tonic water and unless someone takes your drink out of your hand, no one will be any the wiser. Of course, other mixers without the spirit would work but I would suggest keeping it a bit obscure. Coke and lemonade are a bit too elementary.
I agree this is a very elaborate ruse for something you should reasonably just be able to say no to but if the situation is an intimidating one and you really do not feel able to say no, it could avoid it ever being an issue.
- Avoid getting involved with rounds
Another perplexing feature of British society is the expectation that a round system will be in place without it even being raised for discussion. This was great when you were young, and your Dad would buy the nice stuff and you short-changed everyone with the cheaper lager. If I tried the same stunt now, I would aver that my Dad would lead the mob in kicking me on the floor! Your only hope of surviving a round system is not to get involved in the first place.
I have tried a number of tactics and found that only one tends to curtail any further investigation into my motives. Oddly, people are generally more willing to accept you are struggling financially as an excuse than the fact you simply do not want another drink. I expect the reason for this is that asking about someone’s financial issues is considered even more un-British and taboo. Use it to your advantage!
Coming up in this series:
Part 5: Time Pressure – The training and recovery killer – How do we fight back? We rethink our priorities and preconceptions of what time we have available.