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Principles of Weight Loss: How to Lose Weight in a Healthy, Lasting Way


At its core, weight loss/gain comes down to calories in vs. calories out (CICO). Calories in, we control through consumption of food & drink; calories out we control via activity (i.e. basal activity or your basal metabolic rate, the energy we expend to function, and physical exercise). I should note — don't take this CICO approach too literally; you shouldn't have to count every calorie you consume. We'll get to this later, but this is a short-sighted approach that depletes your willpower and narrows your focus on the wrong goal. A normal, healthy weight is a part of a healthful, disease-free life — which is the real goal of weight loss. Weight loss, on it's own, is just a way to get there. Keep your eye on the prize.

Related: The Science of Habits


For those just starting, you can try eating less AND exercising more right off the bat, but this is a tall order for anyone starting out on this journey. If you've struggled with sticking to habits, take it step by step, get one thing right at a time, build momentum, and then level up. Lets start with the dietary part of weight loss. There are a few rules I’d live by here, barring any pre-existing conditions or other restrictive diets (e.g. renal diet, diabetic diet, etc.):

  1. Man-made vs nature-made. Eat whole foods over processed foods as often as you can; this helps minimize exposure to additives and empty calories, or ingredients used to help sell a product (texture, taste, smell), but have no nutritional backbone.

  2. Moderation. For people who get adequate nutrition but are still struggling with weight loss, this is by far the biggest problem — overeating. Pre-portioning or eating while drinking water (filling your stomach with non-calorie dense foods) are a few tactics used to solve this. Reiterating from before, this doesn’t mean counting every calorie — this draws our attention away from the real goal: being healthy and living a disease-free life.

  3. Consistency. Stick to a mostly whole-food diet while non overeating — most of the time. Ideally, as often as you can. This doesn’t mean a strict, restrictive diet every day. That’d be a good way to encourage relapse. Give yourself cheat days, but only for good behavior. Earn them. Build a system that encourages gradual progress — stay on a restrictive diet for 2 days, earn your 1 cheat meal. Try it again, and, if you succeed and feel like progressing, then try staying on the diet for 2 days, then cheat meal. Then 3 days, and 4 days on a diet, and so on. The idea is to wean yourself off of needing junk food — by gradually replacing a poor, unhealthy habit with a better one. Minimal wear on your will-power maximizes your return and creates lasting change.

These last few principles apply to the "Calories Out," or fitness, part of the puzzle. There's a lot of nuance in the types of exercises to engage in, but moderation and consistency are both key here. The goal is to build a habit, which means you'll have to stick to something long enough for it to become a habit (popular science has this number at ~21 days, or 3 weeks of continual use). If you exert yourself too much, it'll be hard to continue engaging in the aforementioned habit. Think of it this way: it's much better to do 20 pushups a day for 21 days than it is to do 100/day for only 4 of those 21 days. Choose consistency over maximal exertion, whenever appropriate.

Related: The Biggest Problems with Nutrition Today, an Interview with Kath Younger, RD

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