Diets are mind boggling things. How do you maintain a healthy weight without feeling like you’re depriving yourself? Does fasting deserve the praise it’s received? Do diets even work? We tracked down Hala El-Shafie, who co-presents of Channel 4’s How to Lose Weight Well, to ask her all the burning questions we have surrounding this very topic. With a career in nutrition spanning over 15 years, listen up…
Is there a set recipe for a “good body”?
The main recipe for a healthy body is a healthy mindset - one that doesn't obsess about every morsel but nurtures your body with non-processed foods that you've lovingly prepared or that has been prepared for you. It’s important that you keep variety in your diet and enjoy it. Ditch the processed foods and strike a balance but don’t focus on deprivation and “shoulds and shouldn'ts”. Our internal dialogue is very important when making changes so if you just deprive yourself, you’re much more likely to give up.
What is the key to long-term weight loss?
Sustainability and not going on a diet! Yes I did say that: Diets do not work. Well, at least not in the long term.
Let me explain: the problem with diets is there's a “start point” and an “end point” and if people don't address their eating behaviour for more than a set amount of time, ultimately they go back to the way they were eating originally and wonder why they've regained the weight they lost. Long term weight loss is completely reliant on consistent steadiness.
The show proves that crash diets do work however, they’re not sustainable. So, how do you avoid putting the weight back on in the long term?
The show does prove is that they work in the short term but they don't prove that they are sustainable in the long term. Anyone can lose weight - the holy grail is keeping that weight off. With crash diets, what you're actually seeing when the scales go down in the initial stages is a drop from water and glycogen stores and possibly some muscle mass also. This isn’t actually fat deduction. There are some schools of thought that show that a sudden drop on the scales can boost morale and keep a person motivated to change however this can only happen with sustainable changes. Most people associate diets with deprivation and that's where they fall down.
Is exercise or diet more important for weight loss?
Both are very important. Activity is excellent for positively changing your body composition, building muscle (which helps with weight management), boosting your self esteem and keeping your blood pumping which is excellent for heart health and keeping your blood pressure stable, however you can't out exercise a bad diet. What you’re eating is absolutely key no matter how much exercise you’re doing.
What tips do you have for changing your eating behaviour?
Start with where you are now with your diet - write it down, keep a food diary and a mood journal - be honest and I mean really honest. Know your triggers and clock your emotions - we don't just eat because we're hungry we also eat because we're tired, anxious, bored and lonely - so get to know yourself in the first instance as that's the start.
Check your environment; if you know you have a weakness for chocolate - don't buy it. If you're surrounded by cakes and biscuits in the office, then try and get the whole office to commit to healthy eating - if you can. Our environment really is vital - if we're surrounded by junk food, it's really hard to resist, even if you ordinarily don’t have a sweet tooth. Avoid looking at foods that are screaming “eat me!”.
What is the most realistic time frame for losing weight?
Six to eight weeks. Aim for 1-2Ibs a week - when it's slow and steady it's likely to be sustainable. If you lose 7Ibs in a week you're likely to regain that weight - possibly more - by the time you've reached the following month. Obviously this is seriously demoralising and then you've entered the yo yo dieters club - a merry-go-round you really know you should get off but can't. It's miserable - I know, I have a client list full of people who wish they'd never embarked on a diet - 10 years later and several stones heavier they're wishing they'd had this advice in the first place!
Is it true that your body remembers your former weight so, when you stop dieting, it just returns back to its old state?
Your metabolic rate drops when you deprive yourself of enough food - so the tragedy of all this dieting is that you ultimately start gaining weight on less food than you used to eat as your metabolism has adjusted itself to accommodate your ‘state of deprivation'. Herein starts the uphill struggle....
Is sugar the devil?
Sugar has absolutely no nutritional benefit and that's why it is regularly termed as “empty” calories - there are no vitamins or minerals in it at all. Large amounts of sugar have been linked with raised levels of insulin, which increase the risk of diabetes. The body also turns surplus sugar into fat and stores it around the vital organs, placing us at risk of liver and heart disease. On top of this, we all know sugar isn’t great for teeth either because it provides the perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria in the mouth. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. You can indulge your sweet tooth from time to time. You just need to choose foods that are naturally sweet - fruit for example. That way you’ll be getting a sweet hit but also benefiting from vitamins, minerals and fibre too.
What should dieters be ordering when they go out for dinner?
All restaurants have vegetables and lean protein whatever culinary fusion you're looking for and most restaurants can tell you what they're healthiest options are. But honestly? If you're only going out for dinner occasionally then remember one meal is not a deal breaker - it's what you eat 'most of the time' that's going to make a difference not one meal out - enjoy it.
Fasting has been proven to help people lose weight, but would you actually recommend it?
I would never recommend fasting for anyone that has suffered an eating disorder or suffers from irregular blood sugar or type one diabetes for obvious reasons. For others, yes, it has very strong scientific evidence behind it but as humans we're not created in a lab so if you can achieve it great - but most people would struggle. Not everyone is cut out for fasting.
How do you reprogramme your brain to stop treating food as a “reward”?
Food is food but when we're categorising it as “good” and “bad” and rewarding ourselves using foods as “treats” we're setting ourselves up for a challenging cycle to break. We need to find other ways of coping when we've had a bad day - other than ordering pizza or getting through a vat of chocolate. Working with people to repair their relationship with food is exactly what I do through workshops and one-to-one sessions. Essentially there are lots of experts who can provide people with practical coping strategies for exactly how to let go of “treat food” mentality.
When it comes to portions – what’s the best way to know if you’re eating the right amount?
The healthy portion plate is a brilliant tool for people wanting to lose weight - you can see at a glance the proportions of what you should be eating and how much. You then just choose how to fill your plate without counting a single calorie.
Junk food is typically cheap, how can I eat healthily on a budget?
To eat better for your health you don't need to break the bank, neither do you need to sink a ton of chia seeds before 8am. Aldi and Lidl are fantastic places to shop for good organic produce as is your local green grocer and markets. Go at the end of the day on a Saturday and you'll find they're selling produce really cheaply and you'll get some amazing bargains. In simple terms, don't complicate it - max out on fresh produce, aim for a majority plant based diet that is nutrient rich, go for lean proteins and also ensure that you include a balance of complex carbohydrates to keep you powered through - especially when you're working out. Last but definitely not least ensure you're fully hydrated.
Article credit: GlamourMagazine