There are more diets than donuts, and the truth is that most of them will work in the short-term. But the reason few diets work long-term is because they are rarely sustainable for a number of reasons: boredom, severe restrictions, expense, impracticality, and so on. Most diets are vanity diets – we start them because we want to look sexy in that swim suit, rather than be fit and healthy. If humans actually thought with the end in view, we wouldn’t see such exorbitant rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
If you want to lose weight, I’d first encourage you to think about why you have the desire to do so. If it’s to impress everyone at your upcoming reunion, that’s certainly harmless (hey, we’re all vain). But I hope that you plan to lose weight for more than your reflection in the mirror. Studies show time and again that just a few pounds of weight loss can reduce your risk for diabetes, heart disease, depression and stroke. We don’t often think about the long-term, but we should. Changing your lifestyle right now – today – will yield you feel-good results for many years to come. And you’ll lose the weight sooner than you think, making a lifestyle change smart for the short-term, as well.
Here are seven essential steps for following a healthy lifestyle that will naturally shed those extra pounds. You cannot maintain long-term weight loss and simultaneous good health if you don’t make these changes.
1. Carbs: know good from bad
You frequent readers know that I ascribe to a diet rather like the “Paleo diet” or “Caveman diet”. My views on human biology inform my nutritional bent that I call “Primal Health“. I recommend complete exclusion of all refined starches, sugars and grains, and beyond that, I recommend that you choose vegetables, fruits, squashes, and legumes over wheat-based grain carbohydrates such as pasta and bread. Know good carbs from bad carbs. You don’t have to eliminate carbs entirely to remain slender (unless you happen to be very intolerant to begin with, as I believe many of us are). Axing an entire macro-nutrient is a recipe for a health disaster (and serious boredom, let’s be honest). But you need far fewer carbohydrates – particularly the ones that rapidly spike your blood sugar – than the U.S. government’s food pyramid tells you to get. See my Carb Pyramid below for more help with this.
2. Fat: ditto
You cannot be healthy without fat. Period. Fat is required for all kinds of important processes in the body, including digestion and nutrient absorption. But it’s not simply about health: you likely will not be able to maintain fighting form without fat, as well. We all avoided fat in the 90s, and nobody got skinny – just diabetic and depressed, evidently. Fat is high in calories, but being so nutritionally dense, it’s a smart, hunger-staving source of fuel. You’ll actually be able to maintain a healthy weight more easily if you nourish your body with a little fat at each meal. Focus on getting primarily “good fats” in your diet from grass-fed, organic meats, raw nuts, pure nut butters, wild fish, and olive oil.
3. Nutrition counts
You don’t want to do the cookie diet if you hope to have a shred of health in a few years’ time, though you can lose weight on cookies. Heck, you can lose weight on Snickers bars if you choose – but you will create a severe health deficit that is guaranteed to add up down the road. And if you feel like crap, who cares about being thin? Think about what you can maintain over a lifetime. Once you lose the weight from the latest miracle fad diet, what will you do? A sensible lifestyle focused on nutritious food is an actual strategy for a lifetime, not simply this month. Moreover, nutrition does eventually impact metabolism. Specifically, consuming sugar creates an inflammatory response, forces the liver to dump more fat in the bloodstream (triglycerides), and impacts hormones that regulate metabolism (see this article for a detailed explanation).
The reason most any diet, no matter how kooky, works – at least initially – is because they all typically restrict calories to between 1000 and 1600 calories per day depending on your height and size. But there’s nothing miraculous about this. And you don’t have to follow any particular diet to do this (although your particular diet does matter for health). There is nothing magical about the Mediterranean Diet’s recipes or Slim Fast twice a day. There is no secret ingredient. They all simply get you to cut calories. To lose weight, and to maintain it over a lifetime, eat a variety of delicious foods you enjoy but keep the portions small. You can invent your own diet, or check out what I eat in a day. Eat all the steak, butter and cream you want, if that floats your boat, or go vegetarian if you prefer. Just keep your portions reasonable – no matter what you eat, if you eat too much, the body is going to store it. End of story. And watch it, bacon-lovers: when creating your own lifestyle menu, aim for foods that are nutritionally-dense, natural, fresh, and whole (focus on unprocessed sources of Omega-3’s, lean protein, and fiber). And then just eat less of it all.
Though I don’t go in for the whole 8-glasses-a-day myth (and it’s been heavily debunked by now), water is essential to health and weight maintenance. I hope I don’t need to pontificate on this one. Drink at least a few glasses a day, for the sake of your digestion, mood, mental clarity, organs, blood and overall health. Remember that food cravings, especially for sugar, are often a sign of dehydration. Drink. If you are drinking calories (liquor, milkshakes, energy drinks, lattes) instead of drinking water, you’re sabotaging both your health and your chance for meaningful weight loss.
Exercise is as close a thing to a health panacea as we’re likely to ever get. Exercise reduces your risk across the board for diseases, obesity, depression, insomnia, anxiety, hormone imbalances, and much more. Exercise 3 or 4 times a week won’t necessarily make you lose weight (remember calories!). But sitting on the couch watching TV definitely won’t. If you have time to watch the news, you have time to exercise. A postprandial walk is absolutely acceptable – you do not have to be a slave to cardio or take up residence at the local gym. Just move daily. If you don’t use your muscles, your body thinks you don’t need them and begins to shed them along with precious osseous (bone) material. Exercise has cumulative benefits, meaning the longer you do it, the more impact it generates – including elevating your resting metabolism. You can drop a few pounds without lifting a finger, but you cannot be healthy. Period.
7. Hormone balance
This is one that doesn’t get discussed as much, but it’s vital to address. Hormones that are out of balance can trigger depression, which is linked to obesity. Further, excess stress to the adrenal cortex, which produces over 30 critically important hormones, can also cause weight gain (you can read more about the cortisol-weight gain connection in tomorrow’s Primal Health). And a dysfunctional thyroid can also cause incredibly stubborn excess weight. If you eat a truly healthful diet and exercise at least 3 times a week but cannot lose weight, you may have a hormonal issue that needs a specialist’s attention. And bear in mind that unhealthy lifestyle choices such as excessive alcohol intake, smoking, junk food, and drug use can and do interact – sometimes dangerously so – with your hormones.
Being both healthy and lean is entirely within your reach. Think lifestyle.
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