Dieting for Weight Loss

See also: Positive Body Image

Most of us have gone on a diet at some point in our lives, but do we really understand what dieting is all about?  Or are we just following the latest trends from magazines or celebrities?

Many people follow diet systems such as the Atkins diet, the 5/2 diet or Slimming World without really understanding the basic requirements for losing weight.

They just slavishly follow the lists of what you can have for breakfast, lunch and evening meals, often buying the specialist cookbooks and ingredients along the way, and look forward to reaching that all important target weight, whereupon they go back to eating what they’ve always eaten.

After all, you can’t live on pineapples and celery salad for ever can you?

Dieting is hard work. You have to make unpleasant choices like saying no to chips, cheese or a slice of cake. But if you understand what you are trying to do, making those choices becomes easier.

We've evolved from cave-dwelling ancestors who ate when there was food available and starved when it wasn’t. The people who survived and reproduced were the ones who laid down fat when there was plenty of food and burnt it off when food was scarce, and they passed this trait down to us today.  Problems arise now because food in the western world is never scarce and so we have to use our brains rather than our instincts when deciding what and what not to eat.


The energy we get from food is measured in calories (Cal or kcal). All food provides us with energy, so all food has a calorie value.

The amount of energy we use is also measured in calories. Our bodies use energy to survive, to breathe, to walk or run, to talk and think - we use calories all the time, regardless of what we're doing.

The Golden Rule of Weight Loss

The relationship between the amount of energy we use and the amount of energy we eat is very simple.

If you eat more calories than you use, you will gain weight; if you use more calories than you eat, you will lose weight.

There are no exceptions to this rule. While a number of medical conditions and hereditary factors make it easier for one person to gain weight than another, the simple fact remains that an increase in weight is the result of eating too much and doing too little. 

For example, if John has hypothyroidism (an under-active thyroid) he will put on more weight than Dave, who has a normal thyroid function, if they both eat exactly the same. This is because the under-active thyroid slows down John’s metabolism and so actually he should eat less than Dave.

Therefore, if you are overweight and want to lose weight, you must eat fewer calories and/or be more active.


There are a vast array of different diets that aim to help you eat fewer calories than you would normally eat.

Which approach you choose depends largely on the sort of person you are and your individual circumstances:

  • Groups such as Weight Watchers International or Slimming World provide motivational peer support as well as a flexible food choice system.

  • Meal replacement shakes are becoming increasingly popular as a diet system, with companies like Herbal Life promoting a process where all meals are replaced with shakes for an initial time period, then real food introduced gradually over a longer period.

  • Fasting, such as the 5/2 diet, is another simple approach where you eat normally for five days of the week then eat less on the remaining two days, thereby reducing your weekly calorie intake.

  • Calorie counting remains the most flexible approach to dieting. This involves deciding how many calories you require for your activity level, and then choosing foods through the day accordingly.

Calorie counting takes some thought and planning but is made easier by a number of mobile apps (for example MyFitnessPal) that help keep track of your intake and requirements. Portion size is key and, even using a calorie tracking app, absolute honesty is required to match the size of the portion you ate to the amount you entered in the app, hence weighing food is important. One of the main advantages of this approach is that the transition between weight loss and weight maintenance, once you have reached your target weight, is easy.

Accurately counting your calorie intake and calorie expenditure will also mean that you will quickly learn about the amount of calories in foods that you eat regularly and the amount of calories you use when exercising.


It may be useful to think about new eating habits as a lifestyle change rather than a diet. When people talk about 'going on a diet' they tend to aim for a target weight and then, when they reach their goal, revert to their previous eating habits and often regain some weight.

If you change your eating habits permanently then you will find it easier to manage your weight in the future.


Increasing your activity level is very important when you are trying to lose weight.

For example, a daily walk of 20-30 minutes not only increases the number of calories that you use, but it will also make you feel better and it is something everyone can do easily.  Exercise also helps to regulate the feelings of hunger, so you're likely to want to eat less too.

The more vigorous the exercise, and the longer you exercise for, the more calories you will use.  However make sure you check with your doctor before you start to exercise, and start your program gradually as you may experience muscle soreness at first.

Although increasing your activity level is important for weight loss, it will only work if you combine it with controlling your food intake.  If not, you’ll end up eating more to fuel your increase in activity level and your weight will not change.

See our pages The Importance of Exercise and How to Exercise Safely and Effectively for more information.

Weight loss Strategies

There are a number of points to bear in mind when you are trying to lose weight and various strategies you can employ to make the process easier.

  • Planning. Try not to buy high fat and high calorie foods – that way you only have to be strong willed when you are in the supermarket rather than all the time.

  • Drinks. You can often substitute a drink for something to eat when you feel hungry. Choose drinks with little or no sugar: water is best but also consider diet sodas and low-calorie squash concentrates. Try to reduce sugar in tea and coffee and use fat free, skimmed, milk.

  • High-fibre food makes you feel full for a lower calorie cost whereas high sugar foods don’t fill you up. See our page What is Fibre? for more information.

  • Portion size is key. It is very common for people to eat too large a portion of almost everything. Reduce your portion sizes if you want to lose weight; if you are still hungry fill up on fresh vegetables.

  • Plate size. A small plate heaped with food is more satisfying than the same amount on a half empty large plate.

  • Tell everyone you are watching what you eat. If you keep it quiet, people will still offer you cakes and sweets whereas if they know you are on a diet it will be easier to refuse.  Family and friends can help you stick to your goals.

  • Don’t just rely on weight; get a garment that is tight and monitor your progress by how loose it gets.

  • Make changes that don’t really cost you anything, for example substitute full fat mayonnaise with a lower fat alternative. You can still have the stuff you like, but with fewer calories.

  • Taste buds adjust – use skimmed milk and after two weeks you’ll prefer it to whole milk even if you hated it to start with.

  • Monitor your progress. Weigh yourself once a week at the same time of day – morning, before breakfast, is usually best. Keep a record of your weight so you can monitor your progress.

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Maintaining Your Ideal Weight

What is your ideal weight? See our page: Body Mass Index (BMI) and use the BMI calculator to find out.

Once you reach your target weight, you are not home and dry.  You need to work to keep the weight off and in some ways this can be just as challenging as losing it in the first place.

Remember that it was your old eating habits that caused you to be overweight in the first place, so simply going back to your old way of eating will only put the weight back on. You can relax the regime slightly, but the healthy eating habits you developed over the course of your weight loss need to form the basis of your eating regime for the rest of your life.

Dieting is not easy, particularly when you first start. It’s worth it though both for health reasons and for the fact that you’ll just feel better!  In time, your taste buds will adjust and you’ll actually like the healthier choices. 

Good luck!