These are my personal thoughts on weight loss that I've developed over a lifetime. They're targeted for people who have struggled with weight loss and want to find an alternative way to think about it. I wanted to stick them some place to avoid repeating myself too often. It's a first draft and written hastily so please forgive me if it's a bit disorganized. I'll try to refine it in the future, yet I think it can offer a useful perspective to some individuals with a history of struggling with weight loss.
Psychological: Tailored to Individuals
One of the key focuses of this article is on the idea that weight loss is a psychological transformation, not a physical one. If there's anything to take out of it, it is that. Your body will reflect the psychological changes over time. Psychological means permanent changes to your lifestyle. It means permanently eliminating your worst habits, permanently altering some of your tastes, and possibly even permanently broadening your horizons to develop a lifelong love for new kinds of activities.
This also changes the question we should be asking ourselves. We could ask ourselves, "What is the most effective way to lose weight?" to which I might respond by suggesting you train and eat like the most disciplined professional athlete: pre-prepping meals, measuring everything on a food scale, consistently hitting your macro targets while getting the perfect balance of micros, and grueling and constantly challenging training for hours each day. That should be extremely effective and not only get you in decent shape but in elite, world-class shape. But how many people can sustain such a lifestyle for the rest of their lives? That question ignores the psychological aspect of weight loss.
So instead the question should be, "What are the most sustainable, permanent lifestyle changes I can personally adopt and maintain?" And the answer will vary from individual to individual. That is tackling weight loss from a psychological standpoint, and any psychological approach requires taking into account the differences from one individual to the next.
As a background, I was one of those teenagers accused of a ridiculously fast metabolism because I was drinking 12-packs of soda a day, eating two large pepperoni pizzas in one sitting, eating two-three times as much food as my sister even though she was much softer and heavier and shorter than me and even though she was a long distance cross country runner, getting two or more servings of food at my school cafeteria and eating what my friends didn't want to eat, etc, and all while being extremely vascular with chiseled obliques and abs.
But what people ignored and what I even came to ignore as I took my "fast metabolism" for granted is that I was training very intensely for around 4-6 hours a day. I was the fastest sprinter and long jumper on my track team as well as a sponsored vert skater, going straight from school to a skate park nearby with my skateboard and practicing big airs on a vert ramp and often even beyond the time the park closed at night (the guy who ran the park became a buddy of mine and kept the park open so that I could keep training for an extra hour or two). On weekends I often went to the skate park from morning all the way until midnight, even eating on the vert ramp in between runs. And while vert skating burns a whole lot of calories in general, I probably burned far, far more than most pros in the same time period, since I was the only vert skater around in the park. Just about everyone else used the street course and quarter pipes in my skate park, while I'd be alone on the 12-foot vert ramp and taking runs back-to-back for hours on end (normal vert skaters at more crowded parks often take 15+ minute breaks between runs, while I was often just taking 10-second breaks).
Yet when I graduated high school and went to university, I dropped these physical activities outright to focus on my studies. Then my body became soft really fast. I gained about 20lbs in just my freshman year and looked like a completely different person already, because you don't go from training intensely for 4+ hours a day and eating 3,000+ calories/day to then being like, "Oh, I stopped exercising for hours every day. I'll compensate by eating half the calories I normally eat." That was a very humbling experience that required me to start focusing on real nutrition and training, cutting out sodas and fruit juice, substituting my favorite food for things a bit lower in calories, and so forth, and I realized I didn't really have the godly metabolism people accused me of having.
And that struggle became increasingly pronounced as I got older. I no longer take six-packs and chiseled obliques and veins popping for granted. It takes some conscious effort on my part. Yet I've managed to find a way to do this that I can personally sustain without training like a madman as I did in my teenage years, and I want to share the overall mindset, not the precise techniques, that I've found most effective for that.
Pragmatic, Tailored Nutrition
So one of the first things I'll suggest for those who have been struggling is to be tailor your nutrition to what personally works for you and experiment. This is the opposite of blindly following some fad diet. It means looking honestly at your personal habits and trying to change some of the worst.
It could start as simply as working your preference from milky chocolate gradually towards increasingly dark chocolate (ex: 90+% Cacao as a final goal) for chocolate lovers. It could be as simple as cutting out sugary drinks (fruit juice, sodas, sweetened tea and coffee with cream and sugar, etc) and developing a taste for zero-calorie drinks (water, sparkling water, black coffee, unsweetened tea, etc). If that's too difficult, then it's still progress if you can just acquire a taste for the zero-calorie drinks and halve your intake of sugary drinks while filling up the rest of your day with zero-calorie drinks. All of this is real psychological progress that will translate to fat loss in the long run if you can sustain it.
So figure yourself out. Stop looking at fad diets that worked for some minority of people whose success stories are glorified with cherry-picked scientific research to justify their success while filtering out all the people who struggled and failed to permanently sustain weight loss on such diets. And do things you can sustain indefinitely. Don't look at weight loss as something you do temporarily with the goal of having no long-term plan to keep it off while expecting to magically sustain any results you get from it. So many fad dieters seem to expect magic to happen, since the majority of them I've seen are not looking at their nutrition as a permanent change to make, but something to temporarily endure. That's setting yourself up for failure, possibly even in the short run, but definitely in the long run.
Nutritional Awareness: Don't Shop Blind
A person who is serious about weight loss should be able to guesstimate the calories (and ideally macro ratios and even micronutrients) of whatever they eat or drink. It's worth knowing that a handful of peanuts has more calories than an entire boiled quarter pound chicken breast. It's worth noting that a glass of orange juice has about as many calories as that chicken breast.
If you can't do this whatsoever, then it is like shopping at a store whose prices are not listed and then just handing your credit card and accepting whatever it costs. You cannot shop economically if you don't know the prices of anything you purchase. Likewise if you have no idea how many calories are in what you eat or drink, you are being like that blind shopper just accepting any price, like happily paying thousands of dollars for plastic jewelry.
When you start becoming aware of prices, then you can start to make small compromises that go a long way, like buying something you like almost as much as something else but costs half the price. With food and drinks and condiments you buy, you often have nutrition labels. Look at them. Take note. Compare at least the calories to alternatives in similar categories. Get at least some broad feel for this stuff so that you at least have a "fuzzy price tag" on what you "buy".
You Need Energy to Burn Energy
If your nutrition is making you feel lethargic or degrading your training performance, then your energy output will inevitably drop in response. Even from a simple calories in/out perspective, the majority of calories most people burn throughout a day don't come from conscious acts of physical training. They come from non-exercise physical activities (NEPA) on top of regulating your normal bodily functions. If you're so tired that you can't even be bothered to climb the stairs to the third floor without waiting around for minutes to take an elevator, then you are inevitably going to burn less calories not just during that day but in the long run if you continue to feel this way, and that's going to counteract weight loss.
You still have to burn more energy than you feed your body, but if you're feeding your body in a way such that you are burning less energy, then that's a very counter-productive way to lose weight. So make sure whatever you are eating and drinking isn't cutting into your sleep, your energy levels throughout the day, etc. A nutrition plan should not be "endured". It should be something you learn to love as you get more restful sleep, wake up more refreshed, have more energy throughout the day, and learn to associate all that extra energy with the quality of what you're eating and how well your body responds to it.
Celebrate Your Progress
One of the common tendencies I've seen of people who see weight loss as extremely difficult and have struggled so much is that they take progress for granted, ignoring it while becoming so depressed and binging because they went two weeks where the scale didn't move while talking about giving up whatever they're doing.
Your progress should not be measured solely through the scale. Given how unreliable the numbers on the scale are (they could represent all kinds of things besides body fat, like water fluctuations), I would even recommend not to measure your progress even predominantly through the scale. I'd even recommend to halfway if not completely ignore it.
If someone has managed to eat even a little bit healthier than they started and stick to it, that's major progress worth celebrating regardless of the numbers on the scale. If someone has managed to be able to do a decent number of reps of regular pull-ups when they started off barely being able to to hang on a bar, that's progress worth celebrating. If someone has managed to run 100 meters in half the time they previously could, that's progress worth celebrating. If someone has managed to start becoming more aware of the nutritional factors involved in everything they eat and drink, that's progress worth celebrating.
Done right, and with the way I suggest, you will consistently have progress every single week in some way, and that's worth celebrating. It just won't necessarily be progress reflected on the scale (though it will reflect in the long run there as well).
Train, Don't Exercise
Just about everyone I've ever seen struggling with weight loss "exercises". They don't "train". They might walk for hours, measure the calories they supposedly burned (while ignoring critical factors like NEPA) and maybe make a little bit of progress and plateau and still remain overweight for years on end in spite of putting in so much effort to walk an hour or longer a day.
Exercising for many people is frustrating, monotonous, doesn't do much to improve your strength, coordination, skill, agility, balance, etc, and it actually becomes less effective the lighter you become. Walking burns less calories the lighter you become, which means if you want to lose weight primarily from doing that while keeping your caloric intake consistent, you will have to start doing it for longer and longer periods of time to continue to progress (and quickly go back to your original weight if you drop it off).
This might vary for individuals but I've also found that exercising lightly for long periods builds up quite the appetite compared to training. If I go sight-seeing and walk around for 3 hours, I tend end up being ready to eat a horse. Meanwhile if I do sprint intervals for 30 minutes, it doesn't build up that much of an appetite even though I might have burned just as many calories as the 3 hours of walking.
Training is a different mindset. It's seeking to do the activity with the goal of becoming better at that activity. If the activity starts to become easy and repetitive, you elevate the challenge. Any loss of fat is a secondary focus, not the primary one.
Unlike weight which can fluctuate a lot and become maddening if you constantly stare at the scale, training will yield consistent progress. You will get stronger, faster, more coordinated, skilled, whatever you are focusing on improving, by training properly. You won't put in a whole lot of work for two weeks and not notice any improvements. To the contrary, and especially when starting out, you can notice enormous improvements just within the first few weeks. Also, provided you are reasonable about the nutritional side of things, if you train consistently the loss of fat will creep up on you. Your body will shrink and become leaner and more defined, but it'll just be a very pleasant surprise while you're concentrating on becoming better and better at what you're doing while tackling harder and harder challenges.
There are all sorts of physical things you could do with a training mindset. It could be lifting weights with the goal of being able to lift heavier weights in the near future. It could be doing push-ups (even starting with knee push-ups if you can't do regular ones) with the goal of one day being able to do superman or proper one-arm push-ups with good form. It could be sprinting a fixed distance over and over with the goal of getting faster, and when you plateau, you might start sprinting uphills and even with weighted vests or backpacks to keep elevating the challenge and break through plateaus.
Unlike exercise you don't necessarily need to train for longer and longer periods of time to burn the same calories as you progress. In some cases you might even start to burn more and more calories in the same period of time as the challenge of the activity continues to increase even though you have lost a lot of weight. If you work your way towards sprinting up and down mountains and battling hordes of grizzly bears barehanded, you'll probably be burning 10,000 calories every half hour. Of course none of us will probably ever reach that, but that is the training mindset. You are working, no matter how modest your improvements and no matter where you started, towards a superhuman athlete. And you will make progress of all kinds and your body is transform if you do it right and consistently.
Naturally this advice is not applicable to anyone seeking to become a champion marathon runner, but for people who seek no such goal, I would suggest to make your workouts as time-efficient as possible. That means raising and raising the challenge and intensity.
For example, if a person can do 100 push-ups in a given set, and do 3-5 sets of that, it's going to take ages just to train the chest and tris and a few auxiliary muscles. That means it's an incredibly low-intensity activity for that person. How about try one-arm push-ups or plyometric variations like superman push-ups? Raise the intensity and challenge so that you get the most out of a shorter session.
If you can jog an hour non-stop without rest at a slow but steady pace, how about trying to repeatedly sprint for 2 minutes non-stop as fast as you can to lung-exploding levels for a total of 20 minutes? Make the activity harder. And when it becomes easy, make it harder yet. If we want the most bang for the buck, don't do motions you can do repetitively for long periods of time non-stop. This will also tend to build more muscle in the long run instead of working towards a skeleton:
Make your body into a fuel-burning machine. For example, every pound of muscle you gain contributes modestly to your basal metabolic rate and the amount of energy you burn even on vacations when you're just relaxing at the beach.
People point out that steady-state cardio can burn more calories than resistance training in a session, but so what? The goal should not be to try to burn all your calories in exercise sessions. That's generally not very sustainable for most people. If you build up muscle, strength, coordination, explosive power, etc, then you are turning your body into a fat-burning machine even on your vacation days. Steady-state cardio can be useful for cardiovascular health, but my suggestion is to focus on the long-term effects of what a training session gives you like improvements to cardiovascular health, not measuring how many calories it burns in one session.
More than muscle, if you build up your energy to the point where you freely choose to dash up stairs instead of taking elevators, see something high and want to jump up and reach it, power dance aggressively and skillfully to music, do handstands, cartwheels, leap out of bed instead of groaning out of bed, and so on in your spare time just for fun without even thinking of it as exercising, you are going to burn a lot more calories on average every single day. This is what I mean by turning your body into a long-term fuel-burning machine as opposed to trying to burn as much fuel as possible in one go.
Anyway, this is the overall attitude and mindset I've developed for weight loss (or more specifically fat loss) that I've developed and found most effective over the years. It is admittedly subjective and it may not be for everyone. It's also vague and doesn't go into specifics (not telling you exactly what to eat or do) because it is about psychological transformations, and that's going to require a different tailored approach for every single individual based on what they can permanently manage and what they enjoy.