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The Science and Psychology of Weight Loss

    Science and psychology of weight loss

    The science of weight loss is ridiculously simple. However, the psychology of losing weight is extraordinarily complex. Compounding the mental challenges is an overabundance of information that leads to confusion and paralysis by analysis. 

    Several recurring themes are constantly being repackaged and delivered as unique or novel strategies to lose weight. Some of these strategies can be beneficial for some people in some circumstances. However, many of them are unnecessary complications. Throughout this post, I’ll explain the basic science of weight loss and how to overcome social and psychological challenges.

    The Easy Science of Weight Loss

    I’ll discuss the complexities of metabolism, hormones, food choices, and eating schedules in another post. For now, I want to focus on the undeniable evidence and fundamental principle of weight loss, which is creating a sustainable calorie deficit: consuming fewer calories than your body needs. When you take in fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight, regardless of the specific types of foods you eat or when you eat them. I’m not advocating making food choices like a five-year-old. However, I also want to clarify that consuming fewer calories is the most essential component of weight loss. It’s also crucial to stress the importance of consistency. Cycles of calorie reductions followed by overconsumption lead to excess fat storage and more challenges with losing weight.

    Determining How Many Calories To Consume

    When reducing calories for weight loss, it’s essential to do so consistently, safely, and sustainably. The key is creating a calorie deficit while ensuring you get the nutrients your body requires to perform its most basic life-sustaining functions, known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

    Although assessing and monitoring calories is extremely helpful when beginning a weight loss journey, it can be optional. Feel free to skip to “Is it Necessary to Count Calories” if you have an aversion to calorie counting. 

    If you subscribe to the philosophy “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed,” these are the critical numbers you’ll need to start.

    1. Current Calorie Intake—Use easy and free calorie tracking apps such as myfitnesspal or fatsecret to determine how many calories you consume daily. Tracking for an entire week can help you obtain a more accurate number. Most importantly, be honest with yourself and track truthfully. Inaccurate data may be more harmful than no data at all.
    2. Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)– This is the number of calories needed to maintain your status quo weight. TDEE is the number of calories needed for basic life survival at rest (breathing, circulating blood, controlling body temperature, and brain function) plus the calories necessary to sustain your current daily activity level (working, walking, talking, and exercising). Free online tools, including this link, can quickly and easily calculate your TDEE.

    Once you have these numbers, there are a couple of strategies you can use to determine how many calories you should be eating per day.

    1. Reduce your calorie intake by 10-20% of your current level for sustainable weight loss. This reduction is generally considered safe and can help avoid feelings of deprivation or potential metabolic slowdown that can occur with more drastic cuts. Keep in mind that the precise percentage is variable and will depend on your current weight, body fat, and personal goals. Seek the guidance of a nutritionist for a personalized plan. 
    2. Reduce your calorie intake as necessary based on your TDEE. For example, if your TDEE is 2,000 calories based on your current or expected activity level, you must eat less than 2,000 calories to lose weight. How much less than your TDEE will depend on how much weight you would like to lose and your personal goals. For example, 500 calories less than your TDEE is fairly standard for sustainable weight loss. Keep in mind that safety and sustainability are essential. It’s dangerous and only advisable to go below your basal metabolic rate (BMR) if supervised or working with a professional nutritionist. In addition to calculating your TDEE, this free tool also shows your BMR.

    Monitor and Adjust

    A recurring theme for nutrition and weight loss is that strategies should be tailored specifically for you. Although online BMR & TDEE calculators are incredible resources, there is some variability between people based on genetics, metabolism, hormones, and other unknown factors. Monitor how you’re feeling and progressing, then be prepared to make subtle changes as necessary. 

    If you feel tired or hungry all the time, consider adjustments. Also, if you lose weight too rapidly (more than 2 lbs/week consistently), your calorie deficit may be excessive. On the other hand, if you’re not getting the desired results, consider a more significant calorie deficit or increase your activity level with exercise. Finally, if you feel tired or hungry all the time yet are not making progress, it’s time to work with a professional. Stress, psychology, sleep quality, and hormonal changes can all impact how you feel, making it more challenging to maintain the necessary calorie deficit for sustained weight loss.

    Is It Necessary to Count Calories For Weight Loss?

    Counting calories is extremely valuable, especially when starting a new plan. However, for some people, it is too time-consuming, distracting, or emotionally draining. Although counting calories can increase the chances of success, it is not mandatory. Here are some tips to consider if you want to create a calorie deficit without tracking calories.

    1. Portion Control: Eat smaller portions than is typical for you. A great strategy is to place a predetermined amount of food on your plate that is reasonable but less than usual. Then, only eat that. An incredible pro tip is to use smaller plates, bowls, and cups to make portions appear bigger.
    2. Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods: Check out these calorie differences. 2 ounces of spinach (roughly 2-3 cups) contains 4 calories vs. 250 calories in a 2-ounce Chocolate chip cookie. Two large eggs (close to 4 ounces) would be around 150 calories, whereas 4 ounces of cheddar cheese is closer to 500 calories. Some people lose all the weight they want by cutting out soda, snack foods, or sweets alone.
    3. Meal Planning is critical to any nutrition or weight loss plan. We tend to make bad choices when hungry, in a hurry, or without a plan. Having food prepared beforehand for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners increases the chances of sticking to a plan.
    4. Use Points Instead of Calories: Systems such as Weight Watchers/WW have simplified counting calories by using points, streamlining food intake tracking. Instead of counting calories, foods are assigned point values based on their nutritional content. Healthier foods have fewer points, encouraging users to make more nutritious choices.
    5. Mindful Eating: Eating slowly with a depth of awareness can help you recognize hunger cues earlier while preventing binge or emotional eating. The goal is to take your time, engage your senses, and appreciate the eating experience. The benefits of mindful eating include improved eating behaviors, better food choices, and enhanced digestion.

    Avoid Fluctuations in Calorie Intake

    As you’ve seen, the most crucial component of weight loss is creating a calorie deficit over a prolonged period. It’s also necessary to reduce caloric intake consistently and without interruption. For example, Creating a calorie deficit for a week or two and then binge eating for several days is counterproductive. These fluctuations confuse the body, causing it to hold on to fat, making weight loss more challenging. This is why “lose weight fast” plans are so ineffective for long-term success.

    Beyond Calories: The Social and Psychological Challenges of Weight Loss

    The science of losing weight is simple and straightforward: eat fewer calories than your body needs. However, the reality is much more complex. Psychological and social influences are so ingrained that it’s tough to appreciate healthy eating habits. 

    Here are some of the complexities that make losing weight so challenging, especially in the US, where more than 70% of Americans are overweight, and over 40% of those are obese. 

    1. Overeating is socially normalized. With more than 70% of the population being overweight, it’s understandable that moderation is abnormal. Large portion sizes in restaurants and even home cooking distort perceptions of how much food is enough, leading to drastic overconsumption of calories. 
    2. Food and drinks are vital components of social interaction. Celebrations and gatherings often involve eating, drinking, and being merry. This can make reducing food intake or choosing healthier options difficult without feeling isolated or deprived.
    3. Hyperpalatable foods are addicting, abundant, and convenient. Highly refined foods high in fat, sugar, and salt taste so delicious that they can be nearly impossible to turn down. The famous potato chip brand Lays’ sums it up perfectly with its slogan, “Bet you can’t eat just one.” You can’t stop because calorie-dense snack foods and sweets create a very brief euphoric feeling in your brain. Just like with drugs, the consumption of highly palatable foods can lead to changes in the brain’s chemistry and function that lead to a cycle of craving more. Reducing these foods can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, cravings, and irritability, further indicating the addictive potential of these foods.
    4. Food is used for emotional coping. People may turn to food for comfort during stress, anxiety, or depression, leading to patterns of emotional eating that are difficult to break. Emotional eating is a significant challenge; many people eat in response to feelings of sadness, or boredom rather than hunger. Breaking these habits requires not only changes in diet but also in managing emotional health.
    5. Body Image and Media Influence: Media and advertising often promote unrealistic body standards, leading to a poor body image among individuals. This can result in unhealthy weight loss methods or demotivation due to a perceived lack of progress.

    Overcoming The Social and Psychological Challenges

    The good news is that there are strategies to help generate momentum and keep you on track. Subtle mindset shifts, planning, and finding support can set you up for success. Here are some ideas:

    1. Start With A Sense Clarity: A specific plan is essential for cultivating purpose and direction. Unfortunately, people are often too vague with their plans and goals. For example, “I’ll start tomorrow.” Or they vaguely state their goals without any plan at all, such as, “I’d like to lose weight.” What you should be asking is how much weight? Why do I want to lose this weight? How badly do I want to lose it? Finally, what’s my plan for doing this? Enhance your chances of success by clearly writing down and thoroughly reviewing your plan.
    2. Set Realistic Goals: If it’s not sustainable, it’s not obtainable. Small steps taken consistently will outperform drastic actions in short bursts. Setting outrageous goals or taking on too much at once is daunting and leads to procrastination or burnout. Instead, aim to accumulate small victories at a time. Continued momentum will eventually lead to the long-term habit formation necessary to achieve grander goals.
    3. Find Support: The best chance for success is to join a culture of people who have the same values, practices, and goals that you want yourself. Having an accountability partner, joining a group fitness class, or using a nutrition coach is an excellent way to stay motivated. Supportive people around you serve as a constant reminder of what’s important. Nutrition coaching is especially beneficial, partly for the information but mostly for the accountability. 
    4.  Reframe Your Identity: It has been said that in order to achieve new things, you must become a new person. Becoming a new person sounds dramatic, but a drastic change in perspective is sometimes necessary. In the long run, identity influences behavior. Make a strong stance within your mind about who you are and what’s important, and as frequently as possible, back that up with appropriate actions.
    5. Environment matters more than motivation. Avoid temptations by keeping trigger foods or substances out of sight and out of mind. Clean out your refrigerator and cabinets of unnecessary junk foods and sweets. Go grocery shopping after you’ve eaten and with a specific list of what you plan to eat. Keep healthy and low-calorie food choices on hand and readily available at all times to avoid temptation in desperate moments.

    Genetics, Metabolism, Hormones, Nutrition, Exercise, Supplements, and Meal Spacing

    Although a sustained calorie deficit is the most crucial element of weight loss, other factors must also be considered. For some, weight loss occurs slowly, which can be very discouraging. The complexities of metabolism, hormones, and nutrition will be explained in an upcoming blog post. In the meantime, you can contact us if you have any questions or want to discover what nutrition coaching can do for you.

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