That’s the graph of search volumes relating to weight loss, taken from Google. At the start of every new year, without fail, interest spikes drastically, and then fades away quickly over the next few weeks.
The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result – but isn’t this in essence what we’re doing every year? We sign up for a gym membership, get on the latest fad diet that promises to be different, and pray that things will somehow work out differently this time. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re part of the statistics, the weight loss industry has set itself up to run this way. There is good money to be made in supporting fads and prolonging the problem.
We’ve spent a long time studying why people fail their weight loss programs - our approach to weight loss is a result of analyzing and working upon these findings. We’ve summarized this approach into 5 actionable points supported by scientific evidence. And no, this won’t be another article prescribing you a ‘miracle diet plan’ for weight loss with little evidence or context. We’re appealing to your intelligence, not your ability to follow instructions blindly.
We want to provide you with a framework to think about losing weight, a framework that allows you to understand fat loss from first principles rather than from abstract, anecdotal advice. Here are 5 pointers to get you moving in the right direction:
1. Think calories in vs calories out, it will bring much-needed clarity as to how weight loss works
∆ (Change in) body's energy stores = Calories in – Calories out
The energy balance equation governs weight loss. If you consume more calories than you expend, weight is gained. If you burn more calories than you consume, then weight is lost. The energy balance equation is the first principle of weight loss. Like the law of conservation of energy, it will always hold true. A caloric deficit is the only way to lose weight.
Find us any study that has proven that this equation doesn't hold, we challenge you.
To understand weight loss, you must baseline the energy balance equation as the scientific first principle of weight loss. This will make you understand that fad diets like juice cleanse programs may have briefly worked for you in the past only because they somehow induced a caloric deficit through their diet regimes, not because of the 'miracle' ingredients or revolutionary systems they came wrapped in. Everything that causes you to lose weight works by shifting either calories in or calories out. The next time you come across a weight loss program that seems to work well for others, don’t ask yourself ‘what’s the magic?’. Instead, ask yourself ‘How does this reduce calories in and/or increase calories out effectively’?
From the energy balance equation, we can think of 2 possible approaches to induce a caloric deficit and lose weight:
- Decrease calories in by consuming less food
- Increase calories out by exercising and being more active
Your next question might then naturally be, ‘which of the two is more effective’? Which brings us to our next point:
2. Prioritize diet over exercise, it’s far more effective for weight loss
A study published in the International Journal of Obesity analyzed over 700 peer-reviewed, scientific papers published over a 25-year period; it is the most extensive research of its kind done to date. The effectiveness of just dieting, just exercising, and combining diet with exercise across all 700 studies was examined. Controlling for other factors, on average, the diet-only groups lost 370% more weight than the exercise-only groups (10.7kg vs 2.9kg lost) over a 16-week period. The diet + exercise groups performed only marginally better than the diet-only groups (11.0kg vs 10.7kg lost):
Exercising is next to useless if there is no diet plan to complement it. So, your focus should be on first reducing calories in by restricting food intake; it is far more effective for weight loss than exercising. Once you have your diet down, incorporate a simple weight lifting regime or other high intensity interval training (e.g. sprinting) – it’ll maintain your metabolism at healthy levels. It’ll also make you look good by preserving your muscle mass.
So, to see the best results, you have to nail your diet. But this is one area where most people struggle, even seasoned dieters. And it's because the fundamental driver of sustainable weight loss is overlooked for fancy gimmicks that don't work. If there's one thing you want to take away from this article, let it be this:
3. Consistency is key, and you need to be make small changes iteratively instead of drastic lifestyle changes to be consistent
(Very, very important.)
We are conditioned to believe that we reap rewards in proportion to the intensity of our efforts. While this holds true in other aspects of our life, such as work and relationships, the inverse is true for weight loss. The ideal approach to weight loss is rather counter-intuitive – you need to keep your eyes off the ball instead of fixating on it. Spending hours at the gym and trying extra hard to eat perfect is a sure-fire way to burn out and fall off the bandwagon. Scientific research has concluded time and time again that sustainable weight loss takes consistent effort, maintained over a long period of time.
In a study published in the US National Library of Medicine, 90 obese adults were randomly assigned one of two diet plans, one based purely on solid foods and one based on liquid meal replacements. 4 months in, the meal replacement group on average lost almost twice as much weight as the food-based group (12.3% vs 6.9% of starting weight lost). In addition, a much higher portion of the meal replacement group saw successful weight loss – a stunning 93% lost notable weight as opposed to only 55% in the food-based group.
This huge difference in weight lost and success rates were attributable not to any miracle supplements or diet plans, it was just because the meal replacement group had a simple, convenient diet plan they could stick to easily in the long run without much hassle or preparation.
Another year long study published by the USDA Human Nutrition Center compared weight loss based on diet type on 160 overweight adults. The results showed that weight loss ultimately boiled down to consistent calorie restriction. The strongest predictor of weight loss over a 12-month period was not the type of diet or macronutrient intake, but the dieters' ability to consistently reduce their caloric intake in the long run.
The key to being consistent is to not treat weight loss as a full-time job; strive to make your weight loss program ‘run in the background’. About a month into your regime, it should almost become second nature to you, like brushing your teeth or bathing. To achieve this state, you need to moderate. Make small changes iteratively to your diet and keep your comfort foods in. If you love eating chicken rice, make it a point to order lean meat (e.g. chicken breast) and ask for less rice – don’t strike it off completely from your diet. Want to have that occasional meal at McDonald’s with your favourite garlic chili sauce? Have it anyway, but make sure you ask for small fries and make your drink a diet soda. Hate the taste of celery? Don’t force it into your diet. Every time you make a change to your eating habits, ask yourself this: Can I put up with this change for the rest of my life? If the answer is no, don’t do it.
4. Consume foods that keep you full for little calories
You will get hungry from time to time on a caloric deficit, there’s no way around it. You can’t always reason your way out of these hunger pangs – willpower is a finite resource that you can’t consistently rely on. Instead, you need to actively manage your hunger by eating foods that suppress it. Incorporate more foods that are high in protein (lean meat, low fat dairy, lentils etc.), dietary fiber (fibrous vegetables) and omega 3 fatty acids (fatty fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds) into your diet – they will suppress your appetite for relatively little calories and induce you to consume less calories for the day. In general, switching from refined, fatty foods (sugar, fried food, white bread/rice) to minimally processed whole foods goes a long way in keeping you filled for little calories.
5. Set a tangible goal and be clear on what needs to be done to get there
Set a realistic goal for yourself (e.g. lose 3kg of fat in 3 months). From there, work backwards to derive your ideal caloric intake. For this, you need to at least have a rough estimate of both your current caloric intake and daily energy expenditure. The steps to derive these numbers can be a bit complicated, but we have a free tool to help calculate this for you.
Our tool will give you a rough estimate of your total daily energy expenditure, current caloric intake and ideal caloric intake for weight loss. You can use a calorie tracker like MyFitnessPal along with our tool to ensure that you’re roughly landing within your stipulated caloric intake every day. Weigh yourself every week, on the same day, in the morning after you use the toilet. If you don’t lose weight over the span of 3 weeks, you’re still eating too much. Monitor your calories more carefully and cut back further on your intake. Don’t worry, you don’t have to count calories like this for the rest of your life. After a few months, you will develop a knack for estimating how much calories there are in most dishes. Until you reach that stage, count diligently.
So, that’s pretty much it – a 10-minute crash course on the basics. If we were to compress the key takeaways into short, succinct advice, it might be:
1) Take in less calories consistently, over a long period
2) Ditch the all-or-nothing mentality and instead make small, sustainable changes to your eating habits
3) Eat more whole foods to keep you full and
4) Track if you’re losing weight and cut back further on your caloric intake if you have to.
Hardly anything revolutionary. But this is what fundamentals usually sound like - general, intuitive and lacking shortcuts. Every single one of our customers has seen great results by focusing just on restricting caloric intake consistently over a sustained period. The problem starts when you look for miracle cures – this is where the health industry comes in with its ‘secret sauce’ and starts selling you snake oil.
Simple right? You can get started right away if you want to. If you want more specific steps to follow, fret not - this will be a 2-part write-up. Part 1 is aimed at bringing some clarity to the mechanics behind weight loss. The next part will give more practical tips to approaching weight loss (utilizing intermittent fasting, how to eat your favourite foods and still eat at a caloric deficit etc.). Like our Facebook page and stay tuned if you're keen on part 2.
(P.S. We're very active on the internet and always respond to queries. If you're reading this and you have any doubts, don't hesitate to reach out via Facebook messenger or email.)
 Hall, K. D., Heymsfield, S. B., Kemnitz, J. W., Klein, S., Schoeller, D. A., & Speakman, J. R. (2012). Energy balance and its components: implications for body weight regulation. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95(4), 989–994. http://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.036350
 Miller, W. C., Koceja, D. M., & Hamilton, E. J. (1997). A meta-analysis of the past 25 years of weight loss research using diet, exercise or diet plus exercise intervention. International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders, 21(10).
 Davis, L. M., Coleman, C., Kiel, J., Rampolla, J., Hutchisen, T., Ford, L., … Hanlon-Mitola, A. (2010). Efficacy of a meal replacement diet plan compared to a food-based diet plan after a period of weight loss and weight
 Dansinger, M. L., Gleason, J. A., Griffith, J. L., Selker, H. P., & Schaefer, E. J. (2005). Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for weight loss and heart disease risk reduction: a randomized trial. Jama, 293(1), 43-53.