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How to lose weight safely


Expert reviewers, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian and Lauren Gordon, Behavioural Insights Adviser
Next review due April 2023

The best way to lose weight is to reduce how many calories you’re eating and get more active at the same time. To put it simply, you need to burn off more energy than you take in from food and drink. It’s important to set yourself some realistic, achievable targets so that you lose weight gradually, and keep it off for the long term.

Here we explain what you need to do and give some tips to help you put your plan into action – and stick to it.

 woman preparing healthy fresh food in her kitchen

Healthy eating for weight loss

To lose weight, you need to reduce how many calories you take in. Reducing your portion sizes may help you to achieve this, but it might also mean choosing different types of food. Here are some pointers.

  • Cut down on foods and drinks that are high in fat and sugar – for example, sugary drinks, cakes, biscuits and fried foods. Have these less often and in smaller amounts.
  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables – aim for at least five portions a day.
  • Try to base your meals around wholegrain, starchy carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread or pasta or potatoes with the skin on.
  • Go for low-fat milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt.
  • Substitute fatty meat with leaner cuts or meat-alternatives such as beans and pulses.
  • Boil, steam, grill, poach or microwave food, rather than frying it.
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day.
  • If you drink alcohol, try to cut down on this because alcoholic drinks are high in calories. Try having some alcohol-free days each week. You can also try alternating your drinks with non-alcoholic options or diluting your drinks with sparkling water or sugar-free mixers.

Be wary about claims made on food labelling. For instance, something that's labelled as low-fat may seem like a healthier option - but could actually be high in sugar, or vice versa. Use the 'traffic light' symbols on the packaging to help you compare foods at a glance and see how healthy they are. Try to pick foods with more greens and ambers and few reds.

Don't feel you have to cut out all the foods you enjoy from your new eating plan. You might only crave them all the more if you do that. Instead, make sure you eat them only now and again and in small amounts. The key is to reduce your calorie intake while maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.

Beware of 'crash' or 'fad' diets that recommend cutting out whole food groups or fasting for long periods. While they might promise rapid or extensive weight loss, they can be difficult to stick to and won't help you to maintain a healthy weight in the long term. They can even be dangerous as they may deprive you of essential nutrients. There's simply no quick-fix answer to long-term weight loss. It takes time to build new, healthy eating habits that will help you to lose weight for the long term.

Research has shown that eating a healthy, balanced diet with lots of fruit and veg, wholegrains, oily fish, modest amounts of meat and dairy, and olive oil in place of saturated fats can help you to maintain a healthy weight over the long term. It may also reduce your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This way of eating is often referred to as a 'Mediterranean-style' diet.

Adopting healthy eating habits

As well as looking at what you're eating, it also helps to think about your behaviours and habits around food. You might already know which foods are healthy and unhealthy - but in practice it can be hard to break old habits. Here are some tips that may help.

  • Try to stick to regular, planned meal times. If you feel hungry between meals, try having a glass of water and waiting 20 minutes to see if you still feel hungry. If you are, go for a small, healthy snack - like fruit or vegetables - to tide you over until the next meal.
  • Drinking a large glass of water with your meal can also reduce the urge to overeat, and might mean you eat less.
  • Eat mindfully. Eat slowly, chew every mouthful thoroughly and really concentrate on what you’re eating.
  • Try not to eat at the same time as doing something that can distract you such as working, reading or watching TV. This might make you eat more.
  • Have a break after your meal before deciding if you want dessert. It takes time for your brain to recognise that your stomach is full. Wait about 15 to 20 minutes before deciding if you’re still hungry.
  • Cut down on take-aways and convenience foods, which can be high in fat, salt and sugar. Aim to cook fresh food at home more so you know what’s going into your meals.
  • Aim to eat a variety of foods to help you ensure you’re getting a balanced diet that will help to keep you feeling full. Try to get into the habit of including fruit and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates and lean proteins on your plate at every mealtime.

Getting active

Being more active in addition to making changes to your diet will give you the best chance of losing weight and keeping it off. This is because your body needs energy (calories) in order to move. So, as well as having a whole host of benefits for your health, exercise can help you to burn more calories.

As a first step, think about reducing the time you spend being inactive - for instance, watching television, using a computer or playing video games. Then look at how you can build more activity into your daily routine, whether it's walking rather than driving, taking the stairs or doing the gardening. You might find it useful to use a pedometer or app on your phone to monitor how many steps you do every day.

If you're feeling ready, this might be the perfect opportunity to try out a new sport or activity. Try a few things until you find something you enjoy - that way you're more likely to keep it going.

Once you've started building up the amount of exercise you do, start to aim for the following over the course of a week:

  • at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate-intensity exercise

    OR

  • at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity such as running

    OR

  • shorter durations of very vigorous-intensity activity such as sprinting

    OR

  • a combination of different intensity activities

It's also recommended that you do exercises that strengthen your muscles twice a week.

Don't worry if you're not doing as much as this yet though; any activity is always better than none.

Setting achievable goals

Losing weight and keeping it off for the long term takes time. So, it's a good idea to set some short and long-term goals to give yourself something to work towards and help keep you motivated.

Set a realistic target

When thinking about how much weight you want to lose, it's a good idea to aim for a weight that will give you a healthy BMI and waist circumference recommended for your gender and ethnicity.

If you're overweight, you should initially be aiming to lose between five and 15 per cent of your current weight over a period of six months. Losing this amount has proven health benefits. So for instance, if you're currently 100kg (15 stone 10lb), this would mean losing 5 to 15kg (11lb to 2 stone 5lb) over six months. Your doctor may suggest more than this if you're very overweight or obese. A weight loss of about 0.5 to 1kg (1 to 2lb) a week is a safe and realistic target to aim for. Losing weight gradually like this means you're more likely to keep it up and maintain a healthy weight in the long term.

When you first start to cut down on calories, you might lose weight quickly at first and then reach a plateau. If you still want to lose more weight at this point, you'll need to look again at how many calories you're eating and the amount of exercise you're doing. You might need to adjust the balance to keep making progress.

Create an action plan

Once you've set a realistic goal for how much weight you want to lose, decide what changes you're going to make to achieve your target. This might be reducing your daily calorie intake by a certain amount, cutting out high-fat and high-sugar foods, or increasing the amount of time you're active every day. Try to be as specific as possible and write out a clear action plan for yourself. Aiming for just one or two small changes at first might feel easier to achieve.

Focus on making changes that you feel happy to stick to over the long term. When you've reached your target weight, it's still important to keep up healthy habits to keep the weight off and improve your health.

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Keeping motivated

It's normal to have good and bad days when you're trying to lose weight. We tend to set goals when we're really motivated, and motivation can begin to wane if we're feeling stressed, tired, frustrated or are very busy. So, it's important to plan ahead and think of things that will help you to keep going and stay motivated.

Here are some ideas that may help.

  • If you've tried to lose weight in the past and it didn't go too well, try to identify what went wrong. Were there any triggers that made you eat more? Maybe you eat more when you're bored or stressed? See if you can identify how your mood affects what you eat and ways you might overcome this.
  • Plan ahead for the times when you know your willpower may be tested. For instance, if you tend to eat unhealthy snacks at work, then you could bring your own healthy snacks with you. Or if you order takeaway when you're busy, then you could decide to order a healthy salad from your favourite restaurant. Decide what you will do ahead of time, and add this to your action plan.
  • Think about your environment and how this affects your behaviour. If you buy a pastry every day on the way to work, think about going a different way to avoid the pastry shop. Or, if you always have chocolate in the evenings, make sure you don't have it in the house so you won't be tempted.
  • Think about what really motivates you and how you can use this to stick to your weight-loss plan. Do you want to have more energy to play with your children? Or improve your health? It might help to write down your goal and put it somewhere you can see it as a reminder.
  • You may find it helps to measure your waist or weigh yourself regularly to monitor your progress. But remember that it's normal for your weight to fluctuate from day to day. So, look for other positive changes such as feeling healthier and having more energy.
  • Make sure you build some rewards into your plan for when you achieve your goals - but keep them non-food-related. It might be buying a new item of clothing or a trip to the cinema.
  • Don't be too hard on yourself if you slip up once in a while. Remember you're human and this might happen from time to time. If it does happen, start again straight away by eating healthily, exercising more and remembering why you started and what motivates you.

Getting support with weight loss

Support from family or friends is essential when you're trying to lose weight. It might be helpful to make changes in what you're eating as a family or with a group of friends. And you may find it helps to motivate you if you involve them in activities such as walking, cycling or going to an exercise class.

Talk to your family and friends about what you're doing and why it's so important to you. Ask them not to offer you food or buy it for you as gifts. You'll be making changes to your whole lifestyle, so it's good to get your family and friends on board so they can support you every step of the way.

There are other sources of support too, including community-based schemes, online communities and organised slimming groups. They might not suit everybody, but can be helpful for some people.

Medical support

If you've spoken to your GP about losing weight, they may suggest referring you to a local supervised exercise or weight management programme. Weight management programmes address diet and physical activity, as well as behaviour changes. They may involve a dietitian, psychologist and qualified physical activity instructor.

A dietitian will tailor advice specific to you. For instance, if you're very overweight and have struggled to lose weight despite eating healthily, they may recommend a very low-calorie diet. This involves replacing conventional meals with drinks, soups and bars. This is an extreme measure that you should only do for a short period of time, under supervision from a health professional.



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Frequently asked questions

  • If you're trying to lose weight, it's really important that you aim for a healthy weight to maintain. Check your BMI to find out what a healthy weight is for you. It's just as important not to become underweight because losing too much weight can also cause long-term health problems.

    There are also occasions when you may need to seek medical advice before trying to lose weight. For instance, if you have a medical condition or if your child is overweight or obese, you should seek advice from a health professional first.

    You shouldn't try to lose weight when you're pregnant, although it's still a good idea to eat healthily and keep active.



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Related information

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    • Personal communication, Lauren Gordon, Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK, 10 March 2020
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, April 2020
    Expert reviewers, Mr Paul McArdle, Freelance Registered Dietitian, and Lauren Gordon, Behavioural Insights Adviser 
    Next review due April 2023

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