Are you spinning your wheels – trying hard to improve your eating habits but not getting the weight loss results you want? There is a lot of confusion surrounding healthy eating and weight loss. Most people believe that eating healthy = losing weight and while that’s often true, it’s not always that simple.
What does healthy eating mean anyway?
One issue is that healthy eating has no universal definition and can mean very different things to different people. One person’s healthy diet can consist of mostly vegetables and grains, while another eats largely animal products and a lot of dietary fat, and yet another believes that ‘healthy eating’ is having low-fat and sugar-free processed foods. While this post isn’t about discussing which diet is most ‘optimal’, this example should demonstrate that telling someone who wants to lose weight to just ‘eat healthier’ is a very imprecise way for them to go about achieving their goal.
One common issue I encounter with clients trying to lose weight is ‘off plan eating’ where they made a healthy choice but consumed more calories than they should have. For example, instead of having a small sweet potato with their protein and veggies they had a cup of quinoa and a whole avocado. Yes, these are healthy foods but if you’re eating 400 extra calories in that meal, you’re not going to get the weight loss results you’re looking for. It’s important to understand the nutritional breakdown of the foods you’re eating if your main goal is weight loss, not just whether they’re healthy or not. This way you’ll better understand why you are or aren’t getting the results you want and can adjust accordingly.
Eating for health vs. weight loss
Eating for health and eating for weight loss most definitely overlap but they aren’t the same thing. Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, your weight is largely determined by calories in vs. calories out. It’s easier to create a caloric deficit but still get in your necessary vitamins and minerals by eating low calorie, nutrient dense foods like vegetables and lean proteins than by eating donuts. You can eat only ice cream and cookies and still lose weight if the amount of calories you’re consuming is less than what is required to sustain your current body weight (FYI, I do not recommend doing this). By the same token, you can eat a whole-foods diet with lots of super nutritious foods and still gain weight if you’re consuming more calories than are required to sustain your current body weight. Dark chocolate is a healthy food but it’s unlikely you’ll reach your weight-loss goals if you eat two bars of it every day.
Why you should focus on nutrient-dense foods
It’s very easy to consume a large number of calories eating highly processed fast foods because while they tend to contain a lot of calories, they don’t contribute to satiety the way that whole, nutritious foods do. They can also be quite addictive and therefore easier to over-consume. Which is easier to stop eating, potato chips or carrot sticks? Exactly. Consider this, a large coke from McDonald’s is 310 calories, and usually you’re just using that to wash down your big mac and fries. For the same number of calories as that coke you can have 4 oz. of chicken breast, 4 oz. of sweet potato, and 1 cup of broccoli. Which one do you think is going to fill you up more? When you’re dieting, a good strategy is to cut down on foods that are nutrient-poor and don’t provide you with sustained energy (e.g. pop, juice, baked goods). Because you’re cutting down on calories but want to make sure you’re not becoming deficient in any nutrients, you should centre your diet around vegetables, some fruit, and sources of high quality protein and essential fatty acids.
Make it sustainable!
This isn’t to say that you should never enjoy treats. Regardless of whether your goal is to lose weight, improve your overall health, or both, in order to stick with a healthy eating plan it’s imperative that you actually enjoy what you’re eating and don’t feel completely deprived. When you understand the basic caloric and macronutrient breakdown of your weight loss plan (protein, carbs, and fat), you’re able to make adjustments to fit in some treats. If you know that you’re meeting friends for dinner and you’re going to be consuming more fat in that restaurant meal than you normally would be in your plan, you can simply adjust by lowering your fat intake earlier in the day. For example, take out the almond butter you usually have with your breakfast and have chicken breast for lunch instead of ground beef. I don’t want to give the impression that I think it’s a good idea to consistently restrict your food intake all day so that you can binge on junk at night. I believe that developing healthier habits and establishing a routine is essential to your long-term success on a plan, but I also understand that life happens. It’s important to be able to be flexible and not become completely derailed when faced with a situation where you can’t eat your food out of a Tupperware. Many people develop an “all or nothing” attitude when on a healthy eating/weight loss plan where they’re either eating very healthy low calorie foods or binging on pizza. You can and should make adjustments to make your plan more realistic and enjoyable. Developing healthier habits while allowing yourself some wiggle room to still enjoy life is what makes a plan sustainable and therefore effective.
Changing your dietary habits to include more whole foods is a great way to improve your health and may very well result in weight loss but understand that this weight loss came as the result of reducing your overall calorie consumption, not because of some magical property of the foods you’re eating. Although fueling your body with whole foods and ensuring you’re getting enough fibre, meeting your micronutrient requirements, and eating antioxidant-rich foods is going to make you healthier and feel better, there is nothing magical about the calories in healthy foods that allow you to eat as much as you want without gaining weight. You may have success losing weight simply by eating healthier foods but understanding the breakdown of your diet and being flexible are what are going to make it more enjoyable and sustainable.