Tips for dieting: The practical side
The most important factor in eating well is making it easy – both practically and mentally. So these tips are designed to overcome what, for me at least, are the things that stand in the way of a stress-free healthy life. If you’ve not already read the first part, then you can do so here.
There is absolutely no point in trying to follow a diet that won’t suit you. A pasta freak going on a low-carb diet will start climbing the walls after two days in their pit of bacon and cheese, ditto a massive carnivore is unlikely to thrive on a vegan regime.
As well as dropping weight in the short term, you’re looking to make long term changes to your life and introduce habits that you will follow forever. Starting off with aspirations to eat in a way that is not sustainable given the constraints of your personality, lifestyle, family etc. is going to seriously set you back, so do some research before you jump in.
Eat proper food
The only thing, apart from the above, that I will preach about what you eat, as opposed to how, when etc. is this: eat proper food. This means naturally-occuring things in as close to their natural state as possible. I will summarise them as: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, fruit and fat. If you want to eat grains and legumes then go for them in as unprocessed a form as possible. I mostly eat high fat, low carb, which is the exact opposite of the conventional (and in my opinion wrong, unnecessary and outright damaging) food pyramid.
In case you aren’t sure, or need some clarifying, the following things are not proper food:
- Belvita breakfast bars
- All breakfast cereals (except porridge and unsweetened museli, just)
- Anything that has the words “diet” or “light” or “low fat” on the label
- Bread (properly made sourdough, made by a small bakery, is the only exception I make to this rule)
- Anything that comes in a packet – cakes, biscuits, snack bars etc.
- Low fat yoghurts
- Ready meals
- Anything which contains ingredients that you don’t know what they are
It’s not to say that you should never eat those things, but they should by no means be eaten every day, nor form anything approaching a staple part of your diet.
If you’re looking for some guidance on what to buy next time you’re at the supermarket, this is a pretty good place to start.
Being hungry and not having (or, more often the case, not being able or willing to make) the time to cook can take us swiftly down the path of ready meals, chocolate bars, the deli counter at the supermarket and the branch of Subway down the road. Being prepared is the only way to stop the temptations that an empty stomach leads us to.
Prepare your meals in advance, especially dinner. Make a large amount of something that fits your diet (eg. stew soup, curry, roast chicken etc.) and keep it in the fridge. That way you only need to heat it up, steam some veg or make a quick salad and you can eat quickly.
If you think carefully about what you make a large amount of, you can adapt it to create even more meals. For example, a roast chicken or marinated grilled meat can be eaten as-is cold in a salad or thrown into a soup or stir-fry.
Planning ahead is especially important if you know you’ve got a busy few days coming up. Think ahead and if you know you won’t be home much then plan ahead accordingly. Take snacks into work so you don’t feel hungry.
Also take lunch into work – if you want to lose weight, every meal counts. Don’t go undoing your work by scoffing a mayo-laden Pret sandwich when you could be eating proper nutritious food.
If you don’t have a good range of tupperware containers then go to Poundland right now and get some.
Go to the supermarket and check out their range of frozen vegetables. You might be surprised. Whilst I wouldn’t go for broccoli, which tends to go a bit mushy once defrosted, mixed veg (carrots, corn, peas) and spinach are especially good, as are frozen berries.
Not feeling full is one of the complaints of most dieters, although I would say this is a direct result of poor diet choices – either by trying to reduce caloric intake too much, or by eating things that fall into the “not real food” category above. Having a Muller Light is not going to make you feel good. Having something with protein and fat will be much more satiating.
My top tip is to fill up with vegetables. Tasty, satisfying, easy to cook and only needing a bit of salt and butter or olive oil, they are the easiest way to feel satisfied. Add some protein and tasty fats for a healthy meal that will leave you full and not wanting more.
My second tip is to go for meals that have a high water content like soups and stews. Water will make you feel full in the shorter term, but by having good quality protein, fat and lots of vegetables in it you will feel full for even longer. Stock cubes are great – put water in a pan, add stock cube, throw in vegetables, add some stir-fried meat (stir-frying = browning = more flavour), add some fat (coconut milk, butter, olive oil etc.) and season with herbs and spices. You end up with a big bowl of tasty broth with enough stuff in to really fill you up.
Eat fat. Fat is satisfying and not eating it is not a good idea. I cannot overstate this point enough.
There is a lot of nonsense circulated about what to eat when. Here are a few myths:
You don’t have to eat breakfast. That whole thing about it kick-starting your metabolism is nonsense. If you don’t feel like eating in the morning then don’t. Just make sure that your first meal, whenever it is, is healthy and balanced, and is most definitely not a can of Red Bull and a chocolate croissant.
There is nothing wrong with eating carbs at night, but only if you need them. Carbs give you energy by putting glycogen in the muscles. This glycogen is expended through physical activity. So if you’ve worked a long day then hit the gym for a hard session, by all means come back and scarf down a plate of sweet potatoes. However, if you’ve sat on your ass all day then eating a big bowl of pasta is pointless. Excess carbs are more likely to get laid down as fat, although this is an in-depth issue about which I will not go into further (not least because I don’t know enough to write authoritatively about it!). So in short – work hard and eat carbs, or take it easy and eat more protein and fat.
It helps me to think of food as having a nutritional value, and to not eat too much of stuff that offers little benefit. I put booze in this category, along with things like cakes and biscuits. Sugar is the epitome of this – all empty calories, fast-acting carbs and nothing in the way of vitamins or minerals. You will notice that the things in the list of “not real foods” above are all things that offer little or no nutritional value.
And no, whatever the ads say, Belivita breakfast bars, mass-produced bread (even wholemeal loaves) and low-fat chemical-laden yoghurts have absolutely nothing to offer your body. The fact that these products have to be fortified and have vitamins and minerals added back into them should tell you all you need to know.
Even if you love eating healthily, as I do, there will be times when you just don’t want to. If you aim to stick to your diet for at least 80% of the time, you will be left with 20% to mess around. This translates roughly to two meals a week. It’s not a green card to go compeletely wild, nor is it a “cheat day”, which some diets advocate (and, in my opinion, are not a good idea either mentally or practically). What it is is leeway – the chance to relax, enjoy foods you don’t have every day, and to actually really appreciate them now that they’ve become a rarity and not the norm. Eat out with friends, bake a cake, chill and enjoy yourself.
Whilst it is true, at a very very basic level, that if you eat less calories than you burn then you’ll lose weight, it is not a helpful way to look at things.
Don’t get sucked into counting calories – if you’re eating the right things it won’t matter so much how much of them you eat. Calorie counting is psychologically unhealthy, but also unnecessary if your diet is on-point.
And definitely do not get sucked into the “eat calories burn calories” mentality, which is responsible for 95% of the women at the gym spending hours on the treadmill, crosstrainer and stepper. Eat hearty, lift heavy shit and you’ll feel and look awesome. But that’s a post for another time ;)
Anyhow, hopefully these tips help you on your journey. Feel free to add comments and suggestions below.