The 6 Tips for Losing Weight That Science Has Proven to Work

Some of the articles out there about losing weight these days are getting a little out there. New scientific studies that explain how the metabolism works are great and helpful in and of themselves, but when the results are turned into magical “tips” for losing weight, something is wrong. Some recent articles in reputable journals that try to bust the myths about weight loss and the diets themselves suggest that the medical community is also getting tired of the hype and false assumptions that are common in the public conversation.

When it comes down to it, what we know to be true about losing weight is pretty simple and not very many things. When put into action, they are also very effective. So, researchers who have studied this for decades have boiled down what we know about weight loss today to six points about how the body actually gains, loses, and keeps its weight.

1. Dieting is better than working out:

We hear a lot that getting a little bit of exercise is the key to losing weight, like how taking the stairs instead of the elevator will help. But in reality, cutting calories is a much better way to lose weight, says Dr. Samuel Klein of the School of Medicine at Washington University. “Reducing the amount of food you eat is a much better way to lose weight than increasing the amount of physical activity you do. If you want to lose 300 kcal, you can run three miles in the park or don’t eat two ounces of potato chips. That’s all there is to it. Some studies have shown that this dichotomy is true. For example, one study compared diet to exercise and found that people tend to lose more weight by dieting alone than by exercising alone. Of course, they would be even better together.

The problem is that exercise alone doesn’t always work, and there are a few reasons why. This is partly because exercise changes the hormones that control hunger and appetite, which makes you feel a lot hungrier afterward. Klein says, “If you walk quickly for an hour and burn 400 kcal, but then have a beer and a slice of pizza because the exercise made you hungry, you will eat more calories than you have burned.” Even if it’s not always beer and pizza, people tend to eat more calories to make up for the calories they burn.

David Allison, PhD, adds, “This is a system that can change.” “For every action there is a reaction. That’s a rule of physics, not biology, but it seems to work in biological systems as well. This is why we often overestimate the effects of a treatment by quite a bit.” He says that public health campaigns that tell people to take the stairs instead of the elevator, go for a nightly walk, or even eat less calories aren’t likely to work because they don’t take into account the body’s compensatory mechanisms, which can completely cancel out the effect.

The other problem with exercise without dieting is that it’s just tiring, and again, the body will adjust. Klein says, “If the exercise made you so tired that you sat around for the rest of the day, you might not have lost any net energy.” Some of the calories we burn every day come from the simple things we do. If you’re too tired to move around much after exercise and are more likely to just sit on the couch, you’ve lost the energy deficit you gained from your jog.

2. Exercising can help fix a “broken” metabolism, especially when you’re trying to maintain your weight:

People used to say, “My metabolism is broken!” when they went to the doctor, says James Hill, PhD, of the University of Colorado. “Until recently, we never had any proof that it really was. We were wrong – it was!” Hill says that exercise may not be as important for weight loss as limiting calories, but it is still important because it starts to fix a broken metabolism.

He says, “A lot of what we know about this topic comes from NASA’s bed-rest studies.” “If you don’t do anything for a few days, your metabolism becomes rigid. When you move again, things do start to change.” Your metabolism may never go back to “normal” (more on this below), but evidence shows that it can pick up again, in large part because you move your body every day.

This is a big reason why exercise is so important during the maintenance phase, which is known to be harder than losing weight. Michael Jensen, MD at the Mayo Clinic, says that it gives us some room to move. “Exercise is essential for keeping weight off, and people who don’t move around much are more likely to gain weight. We think it’s partly because the extra calories burned by exercise give you a little more freedom with what you eat, so you don’t have to change your eating habits as much. This makes it easier to do.”

3. You’ll have to work harder than other people, maybe for the rest of your life:

Even though exercise can help fix a metabolism that has been off for a long time, it may never go back to the way it was before you gained weight. So, if you were overweight or obese and you lose weight, you’ll probably have to work harder than most people, maybe forever, to keep the weight off. “The sad thing,” says Hill, “is that it takes a little more exercise to keep up if you’ve been overweight or inactive for a while. It doesn’t go back to the way it was.” It’s not a pretty truth to face, but he says you need to accept it so you won’t be upset when you find out you have to do more work over time than your friend who was never overweight.

Building muscle can help your body burn a few more calories during the day, but in the long run, you may have to do more aerobic work. Hill adds, “It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.” “But once you get it, you know it, and that’s better. Because it can be used.”

4. There isn’t a magic mix of foods:

We often think that if we can just find the “right” combination of foods, we’ll magically lose weight or keep it off. There are low-fat diets, low-carb diets, low-glycemic diets, Paleo diets, and many different versions of all of these. Jensen says that there doesn’t seem to be a “right” diet, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that one diet works better for one person’s metabolism than another. “The big myth out there,” he says, “is that there’s a magical combination of foods, whether they’re protein, vegetarian, or anything else, that will work with your metabolism in a special way.” We pretty much know that if you stick to a diet, it will help you lose weight. There is no magic food plan. The truth is that if you stick to a diet, it will work.

5. A calorie IS a calorie:

And the number of calories is what matters when it comes to energy balance. The fact that people lose weight on the Twinkie Diet proves this: Mark Haub, who went to Kansas State University, lost 27 pounds by eating fast food last year. David Katz, MD, of Yale University, who has written a lot about how pointless the “Is a calorie a calorie?” debate is, says that this is pretty good proof of the idea.

It’s true that all calories are the same, at least in theory and sometimes in practise. Marion Nestle, PhD, of NYU, says, “From the point of view of body weight, a calorie is a calorie, no matter where it comes from. You can gain weight if you eat too much of any kind of food, healthy or not. From a health perspective, it’s better to eat your vegetables. It’s just much easier to eat too many calories when you’re eating junk food instead of healthy food. But it is possible.”

But it’s clear that the source of calories is important for other reasons. Katz says that one is that “the quality of calories is a major factor in how much we eat in the real world.” First of all, no one ever eats too many vegetables, so that’s not a problem. “But where the calories come from does matter because they affect how full you feel,” he says. This is partly a matter of psychology and partly a matter of biology. In fact, the food industry has created a whole new field of food science to study the “bliss point,” where foods are made to make it take more to feel full and satisfied. Katz says, “On the one hand, we have the ‘bliss point’ science, which says that the food industry can process foods to make it take more calories to feel full. We have research, like the Harvard ONQI study, that shows that “more nutritious” means, among other things, that you can feel full on fewer calories.

It’s true that the types of foods you eat may change your metabolic profile over time, so they may also matter in this way, but in the end, all you need to do to lose weight is stick to a low-calorie diet. So the point isn’t to ask what a calorie is, but to understand that we need to “trade up” our foods, says Katz. We need to switch from foods that are very dense and high in calories to foods that are less dense in calories but higher in nutrients. These are foods that are bulkier, have less energy, more or better quality protein, are lower on the glycemic index, and have more fibre.

6. The brain is everything:

As my colleagues have reported (here and here), the brain, not the body or the metabolism, is the real cause of being overweight or obese. We all know in our hearts that bad decisions lead to weight gain and good ones lead to weight loss. The problem is that over time, making bad choices leads to big changes in how the brain controls hunger and fullness and, amazingly, how it responds to them. Overeating is just like any other habit that gets ingrained in the brain over time.

The good news is that there is more and more evidence that the brain can, in large part, “fix” itself once new patterns of behaviour emerge (i.e., calorie restriction, healthy food choices, and exercise). Even though there may be some “damage” to the brain, especially in how the hormones that control hunger and fullness work, it can fix itself to a large extent over time. The most important thing is that the process does take time and, like any other change in behaviour, is a matter of practise. Hill says, “We want to change the way people act here.” “Don’t believe anyone who tells you it will happen in 12 weeks. We want to change how the brain works. Neurobiology has taught us a lot about how people gain and lose weight. It takes a long time to make new habits, routines, and rituals. This takes a long time. It will happen, though.”

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