I’ve never had a weight problem. My weight has stayed in a healthy range of 66-68kg (height 172cm) my whole adult life. I have always been somewhat health conscious and tried to follow healthy eating habits.
Nevertheless, I wanted to be leaner and try root out some bad eating habits that I still had. Two modes of thinking helped me do this.
- First was reading about healthy habits in general and how to foster them. Many books and blogs talk about this. But Atomic Habits and …. are among the most popular.
- Secondly was reading Tim Ferris’ Four Hour body which really tries to find the easiest, most practical diet for keeping lean. I suggest you read the book if you want more detail as most of what I list below is based on that book.
For the record, my weight range is now 63-65kg (about 3kg lighter than before). I’m as lean as I’ve ever been. And I hardly exercise. If someone like me who was already fairly lean and healthy can lose 3-5kg then I expect that others who have more weight to lose would see more drastic results.
Best part is I’ve been eating this way for around 4 months and while at times I do trip up (hence the 2kg weight range) in general I’m finding it fairly easy to stick with the principles.
From these two sources and many other learnings throughout the years, here is my thinking on healthy eating distilled into 8 points.
(note: I’m no dietitian, below is simply what has worked for me. Do your own research or consult an expert.)
- Its very hard to burn off excess calories with exercise. Your best hope is eating less calories. Do the math. Check the number of calories in a burger or snack bar, then check how many hours of running required to burn that off. Besides, exercise just makes us more hungry and we tend to compensate for calories burned by eating more. Okay, so its simple, just eat less calories right? Yeah right. Of course its not that simple, otherwise we would all be skinny. What I have found is that there is no point simply consuming less food if it leaves you hungry. You might be able to stave off hunger in the short term, but its not sustainable. At least not for me. The solution is to eat foods that make you full but that don’t have too many calories. There is more to this than meets the eye. Sure 5 pounds of celery will physically fill up your stomach, but it wont leave you feeling satiated. You need to eat balanced foods, with lots of fiber, and some of which is fairly high in caloric density. The remaining steps set out in practical terms how eat the right mix of foods. I’m not going to cover the science too much. If you want more depth and citations read Tim Ferris’ 4 hour body (or Google “the science of feeling full”)
- Ditch white carbs such as bread, potatoes, pasta, oats, rice. Sadly, wholewheat bread, brown rice and other whole grains are also included in the list of high carbs foods to avoid.
Starchy food is the killer. It is very high in calories and too easy to overeat. Once you are eating high carb foods it is going to be very hard to lose weight. Carbs also end up being converted to sugar in the body. This raises your blood sugar level. excess blood sugar (glucose) gets stored as fat. The challenge here is that we think we need carbs to be full. Often a meal feels too light without them. The next tip tells you how to avoid high carb foods and still feel full.
- Make a every meal a combination of veg, legumes, and protein. This combination makes you full, meets your nutritional requirements, without overloading you with carbs. Why does this work? Veg is high in fiber which is an important component in making you feel full. But that is not enough. You dont really get full by eating veg on its own because its mostly water. You need to combine the fiber goodness of veg with something that has higher caloric density. This is where legumes come into the picture. Legumes have high caloric density which is an important component in getting full (but not nearly as high as the starchy white carbs in point 2 above). Legumes are also nutritionally very well rounded, containing good amounts of fiber, carbs and protein. Finally you want every meal to include a good source of protein such as eggs, fish or meat. High protein helps maintain muscle mass. This is important because if you are losing weight you want to ensure that you’re burning fat rather than muscle. Protein also makes you feel full. Protein shakes are perfectly fine, as long as you do not load them with sugar or fruit.
- Eat only enough fats to add flavor. Avo, oils, cheeses etc can and should be eaten. They are delicious and we need them. But they are super high in calories. The rule is simple, add some fats to flavour the meal, but never rely on them to make you full. They should be used in moderation
- Embrace canned food and frozen food. You could have the best eating plan in the world. If its not convenient you wont stick to it. I keep a large supply of canned legumes and tuna in the cupboard, as well as frozen veg in the freezer. Nutritionally, canned and frozen foods are as good (sometimes better) as their fresh counter parts (google it if in doubt), and convenient, tasty and affordable. Trust me, your motivation levels will drop off and if its inconvenient to eat well you will revert to bread and junk food. Make it easier to eat well, do not be snobby about canned and frozen foods.
- Consider going cold turkey on sugar and fruit. This might sound extreme, especially the fruit part. As soon as I have a drop of sugar or fruit I want more ad infinitem. And if you’re able to moderate your sugar intake then great. But personally I cant. Sugar is the worst thing. I’m much happier just eliminating it from my diet entirely. I got used to it very quickly and despite occasional cravings I haven’t looked back. I occasionally snack on small amounts of fruit, but in general I try to avoid it. One grape is a gateway drug to a whole punnet of grapes and eventually to a tub of ice cream. I include milk in the list of sugary foods to avoid because its 5% sugar. Same goes for fruit juice. In fact read the labels. Sugar is everywhere. If you avoid sugar it severely limits your eating choices. Lucky for rule 3 above you do not need as many options.
- Do not eat late. Have a cut off. I used to have this bad habit of binge eating every night before bed. A sub-conscious fear not being able to handle 8 whole hours without a surplus of food in my system. My solution is to have supper early and then no more food except for a cup of tea. When I’m out for dinner socially obviously this does not apply
- Eat more, not less. You read that right. The biggest threat to the above diet is relapse from hunger. We are all used to trying to moderate our eating. But once you eliminate sugar and white carbs, you actually need the opposite approach. It actually becomes hard to eat too many calories. But it also becomes harder to feel full for long. Rule 3 will help you feel full, but not quite as much as eating bread, pasta and potatoes. So you need to eat higher quantities than what you are used to. I’ve found that if I do not eat a lot, I tend to deviate from the diet and put on weight. Eating more is therefore a counter intuitive way to lose weight (provided you stick within the above principles). No need for calorie counting.
There is no “right” way to eat. Dont take the above as gospel. They are principles that work for me. Adjust to your own needs and goals.