Tipping The Scales

Keith Fitzpatrick was very active when I first started seeing him at my sports nutrition clinic. He ran 25 miles a week, played rugby and lifted weights regularly. In the previous three years, Keith had lost almost three-and-a-half stone on his own.

But he still wasn’t where he wanted to be. He couldn’t lose that last 10lbs. It was clear that Keith’s running had been mostly responsible for his weight loss, so I didn’t want to prescribe more of that. Instead, I suggested several new nutritional strategies for him to try. “Pick the one that works best for you,” I told him, “and stick with it.”

What follows is a menu of the nine weight-loss choices I gave to Keith. In the 15 years that I’ve been a sports nutritionist, I’ve found these to be the most successful strategies for active people – whether you’re looking to lose that last stone or the first one. If you’re not able to use all nine strategies, fine. In fact, that’s the point – you don’t need to.

Simply choose the tips that are most appropriate for you. Then practise them regularly; make them into habits.

By adopting these habits, you can expect to lose about two pounds a week, or 10 within a month. And you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel. And the final bonus? You’ll run more easily and both faster and farther.

Start keeping a food diary – today

As much as you may dread doing this, research consistently shows that people who keep a record of what they eat lose more weight, and keep it off longer, than those who don’t. Many runners find it tough to remember what they ate even for their last meal. A careful record of what, when and how much you eat is sometimes the only way to get a handle on what may be thwarting your weight-loss effort.

To keep a diary, I suggest you carry a small notebook with you. Since weekend eating is typically different than weekday eating, keep your diary for at least seven days to get an accurate account of your usual eating habits. If you have an office party or some other celebration during this period, don’t record that day. Skip it and include a more typical day. The point of this exercise is to examine your normal eating routine, to find problem areas and make the appropriate adjustments.

Pick one aspect of your eating behaviour that is contributing to your current weight level – and change it

When runners tell me that they can’t lose weight, I usually ask, “What do you think you’re doing wrong?” Almost everyone can think of one aspect of their eating behaviour that’s keeping them from achieving their goal.

Let’s take the use of margarine as an example. Say you put a tablespoon of margarine (plus jam) on two slices of toast in the morning. That’s 180 calories’ worth of margarine. Then you use margarine for your turkey sandwich at lunch. That’s another 180 calories. At dinner you add a small dollop of margarine to your cooked vegetables or pasta. That’s 90 more calories. Eating those same foods without the margarine would save 450 calories for that day, which is the calorific equivalent to four miles of running! Margarine may not be your particular problem. It could be salad dressing, soft drinks or a particular snack food which you enjoy. Cutting out one of these can make a huge difference.

Once a week, plan your meals for the next several days, then buy groceries accordingly

Planning menus means that you’ll be telling yourself what you’re going to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Write it all down and stick it on the fridge. This will eliminate guesswork at mealtimes, and stop you from saying, “Hmmm, there’s nothing here I want to eat, so I might as well order a large pepperoni pizza.”

It’s like keeping a running schedule. Once you have a routine mapped out, you’re more likely to follow it through than if you make it up as you go along. It takes some planning – but it’s worth it. Like a food diary, a meal plan will provide a record of your eating as your weight-loss effort proceeds.

Place a basket of fruit on your desk or counter top

It’s as simple as that. Fruit should never go in the fridge (once there, it’s out of sight, out of mind). Fruits (and vegetables, for that matter) are high in fibre, which causes a feeling of fullness and helps you eat less. Studies show that people on high-fibre diets (25-35 grams of fibre per day) tend to take in less fat. Carry around packets of dried fruit (apricots, dates, raisins, apples, figs etc) or sliced vegetables (carrots, celery, green peppers and the like). Dried fruit is non- perishable, so you can keep it in your desk drawer or your gym bag. Or keep some in the glove compartment of your car for the commute to and from work.

Consume more fluids

The reason for this is simple: they fill you up, according to nutrition professor Barbara Rolls. Rolls has studied groups of people who drink lots of water (at least eight large glasses a day) or eat lots of fruits, vegetables and broth-based soups (all high in water). These people tend to consume fewer total calories than those who don’t take in as much fluid.

Again, there’s no magic here, just common sense. If you fill up on low-calorie, high-water-content drinks and foods, you’ll be less likely to crave more fattening foods. (Remember, the drinks need to be low- calorie. Beer, wine and fizzy drinks don’t count.) It’s the same concept as eating more fibre – take in the good, and you’ll be less tempted by the bad.

Have your body-fat percentage checked

Okay, this may not be a weight-loss strategy per se. Rather, knowing your body-fat percentage tells you for sure whether you need to lose weight at all. My own history serves as a good example here. When I was training for a marathon 10 years ago, I had my body-fat percentage checked. I was 34 years old at the time, and I had 17 per cent body fat. Today I’m 44 and weigh 6lbs less than I did back then. However, I had my body fat checked recently, and it was 23 per cent.

Not bad, but it made me realise that the weight I’d lost in 10 years wasn’t from fat, it was from lean tissue – from muscle, in other words. In my case, I didn’t need to lose weight, but I needed to strength train in order to build up my muscle mass.

Check with your doctor on the various ways to have your body-fat percentage measured. (Note, though, that some are more accurate than others.) Once you know it, refer to the table below.

Recommended Overweight Obese
Men 6-18% 19-24% Over 25%
Women 10-25% 26-30% Over 31%

Get adequate protein

Of the three nutrients that supply calories in our diet – carbohydrates, protein and fat – protein is the best at making us feel full. When you eat high-protein foods, you’ll stop eating sooner than if you eat only carbohydrate. Most runners know that carbohydrate is the most important energy source, and a high-carbohydrate diet (50 per cent or more of total calories) is vital for maintaining adequate muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate). Still, too many runners emphasise carbohydrates in their diet at the expense of protein.

Sedentary people should take in around four grams of protein per 10lbs of bodyweight per day. As a runner, you need roughly six grams of protein per 10lbs of bodyweight. This comes to around 78 grams a day for a 9st runner or 108 grams for a runner who weighs 13st. Look for low-fat protein sources such as fish, lean beef, skinless chicken and turkey, as well as low-fat dairy products or meat alternatives like eggs, dried beans or reduced-fat peanut butter.

Exercise portion control

“Obvious enough,” you may say, “but what’s a portion?” Good question. My advice: think small. Use small bowls, glasses and plates so that you’re more apt to consume smaller portions.

As a guide, a serving in the bread-and-cereal food category amounts to half a cup of pasta, rice or cereal, half a bagel, an English muffin, or one slice of bread. In the dairy group, one portion of milk is one cup, whereas a portion of cheese is one ounce. A portion of meat is three ounces (about the size of a deck of cards).

The point of all this is that portions should be small. Keep this in mind when exercising portion control, except for your fruits and vegetables. You’re probably not getting enough of these nutritious foods, so pile them on without worrying.

Practise asking yourself whether you’re really hungry

Okay, this might sound crazy, but plenty of people eat for reasons other than hunger. Feelings of stress, happiness, boredom, fatigue or frustration can make even the most disciplined person head for the fridge.

Food can provide an escape from these feelings or be associated in your mind with them. So get into the habit of asking yourself, “Am I hungry, or is something else making me think of food?” If you’re not hungry, close that fridge door and figure out what’s really on your mind. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it. Eventually it will become second nature.

And more...
This article was written with two additional panels:
  1. Training changes for best weight loss ('Running by Numbers')
  2. How to estimate your calorie needs ('Calorie Accounting')
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