Weight-loss is hell. Health-types don’t like to admit it, but anyone who has never actually lost a significant amount of weight and maintained that weight simply does not understand that hell.
As a health reporter who has also variously lost and gained around 20 kilograms over the past 15 years, I know how both very simple and very complicated the issue of weight is.
And it is this simple/easy dynamic that allows weight-loss companies and celebrities to feed off the desperation and confusion with miracle cures that only add to the problem.
Going up is easy, barely noticeable. A few extra mouthfuls here, a beer there, and over time the weight just stacks on.
But the way down, oh God, it just seems impossible. You read countless articles, believe the rumours your friends tell you about the new ‘miracle diet’, and make numerous unsuccessful attempts at getting rid of it.
I’ve recently embarked on yet another weight-loss program, losing about 8 kilograms over the past couple of months.
When I lost the last 8kgs before that, a couple of years ago, it was relatively simple – I started exercising every day. When you start exercising and don’t compensate for it by increasing the amount you eat, you will lose weight.
People who tell you that exercise is not a good way to lose weight are lying to you. The Cochrane Collaboration, an international not-for profit group that is dedicated to doing reviews that look at all the available evidence on certain topics (so not just cherry-picking one or two studies) found exercise “has a positive effect on body weight and cardiovascular disease risk factors in people with overweight or obesity, particularly when combined with diet.”
But after that a funny thing happened. Even though I was going to the gym every day before work the weight started slowly, but steadily, inching back on.
This is not uncommon, but it is also not – another lie we are often told – the destiny for nearly all weight losers. The studies vary, finding between 20 per cent and 75 per cent of people maintain that loss longer than a year.
And the good news is that once you have held the weight off for longer than a year, you seem to get better at keeping it off.
The bad news? One of the risk factors for not keeping the weight off is simply the fact that you are still trying to control your weight.
But this, strangely enough, seems the key to me. The very fact that people are struggling with their weight could mean they don’t really understand (or haven’t really absorbed) what they need to do.
For me, it is all about knowledge. I know I have to have exercise built into my daily routine, otherwise I will not do it.
But beyond that, I was confused. I ate pretty healthily but although if I tried I could maintain my weight, I really couldn’t lose it.
In the end, I used two strategies. First, I joined one of those free weight loss programs online to help me set a meal plan, but I ignored all the promotional supplement recommendations that came with it (I used the Million Kilo Challenge). I also used a free calorie counter app on my phone (Shape Up) to record everything I ate.
Going on a calorie restricted diet, did, ironically, make it harder to exercise, as my energy levels were depleted. I was grumpy all the time, and hungry a lot of the time. Next time a smiling celebrity personal trainer tells you how great you will feel ‘eating right’ and losing weight with a balanced diet, don’t believe them.
But on the upside, now I feel like I have much better understanding of how weight loss will work. I know where the calories are creeping in (wine with dinner, anyone?) and I know things like how much chicken I should have in a serving or how much pasta.
And every time I see an article about the newest weight-loss method – filled with terrible, and wrong advice about fruit blocking weight loss or ice baths being the key to losing weight – I realise that they are actually making the problem worse, confusing people, making them think there is just one secret trick and if only they knew it the weight will just fall off.
There’s no trick – you just need to know (and possibly record) what energy is going in and what is going out – but it is hard, really hard.
All I can do is hope I’m in the 20 per cent or so who will keep the weight off, so I don’t have to go through it again.