Ask the Coaches: Can I Lose Weight WITHOUT Dieting?
My goal is to lose weight—about 15 – 20 pounds—but instead of “going on a diet,” I want to adopt a lifestyle-based approach.In other words, while my short-term goal is to lose weight, my long-term goal is to keep it off.
As far as nutrition, I was thinking I’ll replace my breakfast with a shake, and then I’ll eat meals at lunch and dinner. This will give me the freedom to choose while practicing good eating habits, such as portion control and making healthy food choices. Do you think this is an effective and feasible long-term strategy?
Hi, Tanya! Thanks so much for stopping by, telling us a little bit about yourself, and for sharing your question with us. There’s some great stuff here, so let’s dig in!
For starters, I love your thought process and commitment to a lifestyle-based approach. It’s essentially unanimous among the scientific community and practitioners (e.g., health and fitness coaches, nutritionists) that a lifestyle-modification-based approach is key for successful weight loss as well as long-term weight maintenance.1
Having said that, there are at least three components—although not mutually exclusive—to behavior-based weight control. These include diet, exercise, and behavior therapy, or behavior change intervention.
With regard to your proposed nutrition strategy, I think it’s great. It’s actually one I use with many of my coaching clients. You see, a fundamental principle of weight loss is that you have to consume fewer calories than you burn, consistently over time. Unfortunately, most people are pretty poor at accurately estimating portion sizes. And, when they’re trying to lose weight (which involves controlling calories), this invariably leads to overeating, which obviously stalls or prevents weight loss.
The Value of Portion Control
Practicing portion control is one of the key variables of a lifestyle-based approach. And, using liquid meals (such as a shake) to replace 1 or 2 meals per day helps take the guesswork out of estimating portion sizes. Not surprisingly, research and real-world experience shows quite reliably that when liquid meal replacements are used, people tend to lose more weight compared to folks who only receive nutrition counseling.
For instance, in a recent study published in the Nutrition Journal, women who replaced 2 meals a day with shakes lost 47% more body fat over the course of 8 weeks than women who received diet counseling and followed a food-based diet.2
Meanwhile, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that participants who replaced 2 meals a day with shakes lost over 5 times more weight in 3 months compared to folks who were prescribed a diet of conventional foods with the same calorie goal. Even more interesting, those participants who continued to replace 1 meal a day with a shake maintained a loss of over 20 pounds after 27 months.3
With all that in mind, if a template like this helps you consistently achieve a caloric deficit, then you’ll be on the right track. Even better, if it’s something you can stick to, then it’s even more likely to be very effective. After all, while there are a lot of effective diet plans, it’s a matter of finding something that works for you that you can adhere to long term.4
While how much you eat is the linchpin in whether you lose, gain, or maintain weight, what you eat is arguably the next most important factor. In fact, for some people, the composition of their diet is actually the primary variable. It can have a tremendous bearing on food intake.
Speaking generally, high-protein diets, for example, are extremely and reliably effective when it comes to quality weight loss and improving body composition. You see, protein-rich foods are very satiating (that is filling and satisfying). And when it comes to weight loss, high-protein diets tend to help control appetite, cravings, and overall caloric intake.
In addition, we can also say unequivocally that replacing ultra-processed foods (which contain refined grains, added sugar, and refined oils) with whole, minimally-processed plant-based foods (such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains) is optimal for weight management and overall health.
There are many examples of “styles” of eating, including Mediterranean, Paleo, and low-carbohydrate. You don’t have to prescribe to any of these specifically, but they can be helpful in providing some framework for you to tailor your approach. Although there’s no “best” diet when it comes to weight loss, speaking generally, a Mediterranean-style diet has emerged as a leader when it comes to optimizing health outcomes when talking to a broad audience.
With that background as context, we can lay out some general guidelines for “building” each of your meals (assuming 3 – 4 meals per day):
- Protein. For foods like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, use a palm-sized portion. We recommend consuming a portion of protein at each feeding. Generally speaking, a portion provides about 20 – 30 grams of protein. Men and more active folks may need two portions per feeding.
- Veggies. For veggies like greens, cauliflower, and broccoli, use a fist-sized portion. We recommend consuming 1 – 2 servings of veggies at each feeding, although there’s not really a limit per se.
- Carbs. For carb-dense foods like fruits, potatoes, whole grains, and legumes, use a cupped hand portion. Generally speaking, carbohydrate intake should be inversely proportionate to body fat (i.e., more body fat, fewer carbs) and directly proportionate to activity levels (i.e., more active, more carbs). When trying to lose weight, men typically do well with about 1 – 2 portions per meal while women seem to fair well with ½ – 1 portion per meal.
- Fats. For healthy fats like oils (e.g., olive, macadamia, avocado, and coconut oils), butter/ghee, nuts, and seeds, use a thumb-sized portion. Speaking generally, men typically do well with about 1 – 2 portions per meal while women seem to fair well with ½ – 1 portion per meal.
The Value of Exercise & Behavior Therapy
As I mentioned, when it comes to taking a lifestyle-based approach, it’s imperative to discuss the other key variables besides diet: 1. Exercise; and 2. Behavior therapy.
By itself, I’ll be one of the first to admit that exercise is a pretty poor weight-loss tool. There are many reasons for this, whether it’s inadequate volume (i.e., “you can’t outrun a ‘bad’ diet”), increased appetite, hedonic compensation (e.g., overeating because you “earned” it), or changes in body composition (e.g., fat loss, lean muscle gain) that may not be captured on the scale.
Be that as it may, exercise is a potent strategy for weight maintenance, and when combined with a good diet, it’s also extremely effective for quality weight loss, which simply means reducing body fat and visceral fat while maintaining or even adding calorie-burning lean muscle. In general, a combination of resistance training (i.e., weight lifting) and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and/or high-intensity interval training seems to be ideal for fat loss, muscle gain, and weight maintenance.
Having said that, you have to start where you are, and that may mean walking daily. In the grand scheme of things, progressions rule. In other words, keep improving. Of course, if you’re not regularly exercising, please talk with your doctor before you engage in a vigorous exercise program.
When it comes to behavior therapy, there are many variables and strategies involved. The most effective approach is one that is tailored specifically to an individual’s needs. The following is a list, though not exhaustive, of some of the most common and effective tools in this toolbox:1,4–6
- Setting specific behavior-based goals that specify what you will do and when, where, how, and for how long (e.g., “I will walk on the track at the local high school for 30 minutes at a brisk pace every day, Monday through Saturday, at 7 am. If it rains, I will exercise at the gym for 30 minutes.”)
- Hiring a lifestyle coach for accountability
- Joining a group for social support
- Regular self-monitoring (e.g., weighing yourself daily, journaling, taking pictures of food)
- Establishing a healthy food environment (e.g., remove junk food, have healthy food available)
- Eating slowly, mindfully, and until 80% full
- Increase non-exercise physical activity (i.e., be more active in your daily life)
- Identify cues and triggers that encourage overeating and poor food choices and discourage physical activity
- Choose one new behavior or habit to practice at a time
- Eat similar foods/meals daily (i.e., less food variety)
- Practice consistent eating patterns across the week (weekdays and weekends)
- Prepare more meals at home (i.e., eat out less)
- Sharpen mental ninja skills (e.g., maintain a positive attitude in the face of setbacks and challenges)
- Practice stress management
- Get plenty of restorative sleep
- Establish healthy circadian rhythms
As you can see, there are quite a few variables involved, but the good news is that you’re in it for the long haul, so you’ve got time to address the areas that are relevant to you and your success. And the great news is that we’ll be here for you every step of the way. Just let us know how we can help. We look forward to hearing from you!
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