As we all know, when it comes to achieving a healthy weight the challenge is not just losing the pounds but keeping them off.
Like most people, I struggle with temptation — my particular weakness is chocolate and biscuits, so I have to keep these treats out of the house. I also try to keep trim by wearing a tight belt (but more on this later!).
Another thing you might want to do is take the official daily calorie recommendations with a pinch of salt.
As we all know, when it comes to achieving a healthy weight the challenge is not just losing the pounds but keeping them off
As we discover in a new programme I’ve made for Channel 4, How To Keep To A Healthy Weight, being shown this Thursday, for some people these ‘recommendations’ can be too high.
The new programme is actually a follow-up to one I made last summer, where I helped five volunteers, who were overweight or obese, lose what they had put on during lockdown by sticking to an 800-calorie diet for three weeks.
Although this sounds harsh, a number of recent trials have shown that, done properly, a rapid weight-loss diet is safe and can be far more effective than the standard slow and steady approach.
Indeed, my wife, GP Dr Clare Bailey, who provided the recipes for our five volunteers, published a study with researchers from Oxford University last year showing that patients who followed this approach lost an average of 9.5kg (nearly 21lb) in eight weeks and felt good on it.
The good news was that our five volunteers not only hit the first weight-loss target, they also saw some major improvements in their health markers.
Katie, a 34-year-old teacher and mother of two young children, was significantly overweight when we met and, worryingly, had pre-diabetes (particularly concerning in someone so young).
Although this sounds harsh, a number of recent trials have shown that, done properly, a rapid weight-loss diet is safe and can be far more effective than the standard slow and steady approach
In three weeks, she shed 7.7 kg (17lb) and her blood sugars came down to healthy levels.
B ut did our fabulous five manage to keep their weight off? Six months later, I caught up with them for this new programme, and despite it being just after Christmas, they’d managed not just to keep the weight off, but in some cases lose even more.
These are not just stories of personal success, for what happened with our volunteers highlights how wrong some of the most enduring mantras of the diet world are.
Take the common belief that your body will respond to rapid weight loss by causing your metabolic rate to crash, so you’ll find it harder to keep the weight off. Our tests showed this wasn’t true; the volunteers’ resting metabolic rates, the number of calories needed to stay alive, was almost exactly what you’d predict based on their age, gender and weight.
Significantly, we also discovered that to keep the weight off, long term, most of them would need to consume 200 to 300 calories less than current Government guidelines, which recommend 2,500 calories a day for men and 2,000 for women.
Interestingly enough, a few years ago Public Health England ran a campaign encouraging us to aim for ‘400–600–600’ — that is, 400 calories for breakfast, 600 for lunch and 600 for our evening meal.
This adds up to only 1,600 calories a day, and it applies to men and women — though you could boost those calories a bit with the occasional snack or drink. With most of us overeating by around 300 calories a day, aiming for 400-600-600 could reduce rising rates of obesity.
But calories are not the only factor, as emerged in the largest and longest randomised controlled diet trial ever carried out.
The Look Ahead study involved more than 5,100 overweight and obese middle-aged Americans with type 2 diabetes who were asked to go on a low-calorie diet (with lots of behavioural support) or to follow healthy eating advice. After eight years, those on the diet had lost and kept off 10 lb (4.5 kg) on average, more than twice the other group.
The successful long-term dieters were those who’d lost the most weight within the first few months. They’d also increased their activity levels, but not by much — the equivalent of a brisk, one-mile walk, four to five times a week.
And they continued to weigh themselves at least once a week, with the aim of acting swiftly when the number started to creep up.
Based on this, and other research on successful long-term weight losers, these are my Golden Rules for keeping to a healthy weight:
1 Clear the junk food out of your cupboards and instead stock them, and your fridge, with healthy foods. You have to create an environment where it is easy to be good. I know that if there’s chocolate or biscuits at home, I’ll find and eat them.
2 Keep score, in some way. It could be by weighing yourself regularly, or wearing a tight-ish belt, or snug-fitting clothes. Most people who’ve been seriously overweight need some sort of feedback to tell them when they’re putting on weight in the wrong places (i.e. around the tummy).
I find it helpful to weigh myself regularly, but I also always wear a tight belt, so I know when my waist is starting to expand.
3 Get more active. You don’t have to go to the gym, but you’ll need to do more brisk walking, ideally at least 30 minutes most days, plus some resistance exercises, such as squats and press-ups.
4 Build up your support network. When we first met, I advised my volunteers to get their friends and families onboard. One of them, trainee teacher Curtis, 30, is currently living with his parents because of Covid. His mum, a great cook, makes tasty, filling but lower-calorie meals. With her help, Curtis has lost more than 16 kg (2 st 7 lb) — but his dad has lost even more!
How To Keep To A Healthy Weight is on at 8pm Thursday, February 25, on Channel 4.
Are you using our ‘work at home’ rules to fit in a sneaky siesta or power nap? When my wife, Clare, has had a bad night, she finds a 20-minute nap in the early afternoon makes her feel bright and alert. I, on the other hand, really don’t enjoy them.
And now a new study of data from the UK Biobank (which includes genetic information from 452,633 people) suggests the urge to nap may be down to our genes.
So, if you’re caught having a crafty 40 winks while you were supposed to be on yet another Zoom call, you now have a perfect excuse!
Covid vaccine sent in a pill sent in the post
One of the few good things to come out of the Covid crisis has been the rocket booster it’s given to vaccine research.
Not just the vaccines we currently have, but more futuristic versions researchers are working on that could help both in our battle against Covid-19, as well as future pandemics.
These innovations include vaccines in pill form and vaccines that produce an immune response the virus will find harder to elude. Having a vaccine in pill form would mean you could avoid an injection —and that it could be sent by post (a U.S. company, Vaxart, is working on a pill already going through early trials).
Even more important is the development of vaccines that can cope with a virus that can readily mutate.
A team from the University of Nottingham is developing just that. Unlike our existing vaccines, which target only the spikes on the virus surface, the Nottingham one also targets the virus’s nucleocapsid, the shell that contains the virus’s genetic material. This shell is much harder for the virus to change.
By targeting this shell, as well as the virus spikes, the hope is to produce a universal vaccine that works against new, more resistant, variants.
In the meantime, I’m counting down the days until I get one of the current vaccines.
Last time I checked, there were fewer than ten million people ahead of me in the queue and there’s a chance I’ll get it in time for my birthday in late March. That would make a fabulous present.