We’ve been told for years that losing weight is as simple as: eat less and move more. ‘Eat less, move more’ is often thought of as the foundation of weight loss. It sounds incredibly simple and manageable. However, most of us who have tried to lose weight knows that the process is often far from simple. If it were, obesity wouldn’t be a global epidemic.
By this theory, consuming fewer calories seems like the only way to lose weight. Although following a low-calorie diet might work for some people, it’s usually a short term solution. Most people find it difficult to maintain in the long term.
Creating a calorie deficit fails to take into consideration is the fact that calories aren’t created equal. Our bodies process calories differently based on whether the energy comes from refined carbohydrates, complex carbs such as whole grains, fat, or protein. For example, eating an excessive amount of refined carbohydrates, for example, can lead to high blood sugar and promote fat storage. In the short term, blood sugar spikes can leave you feeling low on energy and increase your cravings for sweet foods.
At Second Nature, we help people shift their mindset from obsessively monitoring their calorie intake and yo-yo dieting towards thinking about health holistically. When we make small healthy changes that we can stick to, weight loss is a natural consequence.
After years of counting calories, it might feel counterintuitive to ditch counting calories once and for all. The dietitians and nutritionists at Second Nature have put together their top 7 ways to lose weight without even thinking about calories:
1) Think about ‘adding’ rather than ‘subtracting’
The diet mindset has us constantly thinking about what we ‘shouldn’t’ or ‘can’t’ have. A much healthier behaviour is considering what we can add to our meals to diversify the nutrients we take in or keep us fuller for longer. Vegetables are a great example. Second Nature recipes provide creative ways of adding more veg to your meals. If you’re looking for extra support with losing weight without calorie counting, try our 7-day lower-carb meal plan which can help you kickstart your journey to healthier habits.
- Swap half the pasta for courgetti (spiralised courgette)
- Swap half the lasagne sheets for butternut squash sheets
- Add avocado, courgette, or carrot to breakfast smoothies
- Cauliflower mash instead of potato mash
- Lettuce wraps instead of bread wraps
- Substitute half the mince in bolognese recipes for lentils and diced mushrooms
- Add an afternoon snack of veggies with hummus or nut butter
Watch your portion sizes of calorie-dense foods. Instead, ensure your meals consist of lots of vegetables and whole foods.
2) Limit ultra-processed foods (they trick our brain!)
We all know we should eat fewer cakes, sweets, and crisps but sometimes it can feel impossible to stop ourselves from overeating them. But, what is it that makes certain foods seemingly irresistible? And, what keeps us coming back for more, even when we know we’re full?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just down to a lack of willpower on our part. In fact, the food industry deliberately engineers foods to taste the best they possibly can with the goal of overriding our internal satiety signals and encouraging us to buy and eat more.
Research suggests that our taste system can be tricked when salt, fat, and sugar are carefully combined in expertly measured amounts to be ‘just right’. At this so-called ‘bliss point’, we keep coming back for more, even when our bodies are trying to tell us to stop because we keep experiencing pleasure.
Food manufacturers capitalise on this combination, as it results in our hunger and fullness signals getting overridden in the brain, meaning we can’t stop eating these foods, even if our mind and body are telling us to. It’s a vicious cycle that creates cravings, especially when we’re tired, as our brain remembers the delicious taste of these things.
To overcome this, try to limit foods that have ‘added sugar’ in the ingredients list or more than 5 ingredients listed. At Second Nature, our nutritionists have developed hundreds of delicious recipes you could try in place of ultra-processed foods when you really fancy something sweet. For example, our chocolate mug cake, which has 7 ingredients and takes 15 minutes to make!
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3) Prioritise a restful bedtime routine
You might notice that, if you’ve had a night of poor sleep, you’ll have stronger food cravings and less willpower to resist unhealthy snacks. Is this just an illusion or is there a scientific explanation?
Research shows that when people get at a good night’s sleep (at least 8.5 hours), they are less hungry, eat less, and have fewer cravings the next day. When the same people got just 4.5 hours of sleep, their appetite increased, and they were unable to resist ‘highly palatable, rewarding snacks’ (usually high carb, calorie-dense foods like cookies, ice cream, and crisps) even though they had eaten a satisfying meal two hours earlier.
So, getting enough sleep means you’re better prepared to make healthy choices and are more likely to resist temptations.
Understandably, a lack of sleep also means we’re less likely to exercise the next day. This means we’re facing a double issue of eating more and exercising less, which, over time, can lead to weight gain.
To sleep better, aim to avoid screen time before bed, limit caffeine to before lunch, and consider supplements such as vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc.
4) Consider savoury breakfasts
High carbohydrate pastries and sugary cereals are popular breakfast choices, and, as a result, we often overlook savoury options beyond a cooked breakfast at the weekend. Lots of us rely on these quick fixes for breakfast as a time-saver, but a savoury breakfast doesn’t need to be complicated or take a long time to prepare.
There are lots of recipes for simple savoury breakfasts, including scrambled eggs, mini savoury muffins, shakshuka, or omelettes. You can add any vegetables or cheeses you have in the fridge to reduce wastage and ensure a healthy breakfast that will keep you fuller for longer.
Swapping a sweet flavoured meal for a savoury one means you’re naturally reducing the amount of sugar you’re consuming as well as increasing your nutrient intake if you add vegetables and healthy fats.
5) Practice mindful eating
It’s common to focus on ‘what’ we’re eating, but ‘how’ and ‘why’ we eat is equally important. Mindful eating is an important tool to help us become more aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and why we’re eating it. This can help us control our portion sizes and be more aware of what our body needs in the long run.
To start eating more mindfully, try:
- Eating away from distractions like the TV, your desk, or mobile phone
- Eating slowly to help us to stay in tune with our level of hunger and fullness
Testing out the ’20, 20, 20’ strategy, which involves chewing your food for 20 seconds, putting your fork down for 20 seconds between mouthfuls, and taking 20 minutes to eat your meal.
- Another way to begin eating more mindfully is to start engaging your senses. Before eating, take a moment to look at and smell your food. As you’re eating the meal, focus on what each element tastes like in your mouth and savour each bite. Are there certain textures or flavours which pair well together? Turn your attention to enjoying the food that you’re eating.
- You could also try dimming one of your senses to heighten the others while you eat a certain food. For example, you could blindfold yourself or close your eyes while you enjoy a piece of chocolate or a scoop of ice cream. This activity can make your other senses like taste and smell much more engaged, which means you enjoy the chocolate more and feel more satisfied afterwards.
6) Drink alcohol wisely
At Second Nature, we know that to achieve our goals in the long term, we need to build habits into our daily lives and not entirely deprive ourselves. It’s unnecessary to eliminate alcohol from our diet, but rather enjoy it in moderation.
Something to remember is that alcohol has both direct and indirect impacts on our weight. Beyond the calories of the actual drinks, alcohol can also cause problems when we reach our ‘tipping point’. This refers to the amount of alcohol it takes for your inhibitions to be significantly lowered such that your energy intake substantially increases over the following 48 hours. Most people’s tipping point is at around nine units (3.1 glasses of wine, 3.7 pints of beer).
A study suggested that we consume an average of 4,305 additional calories that same evening and continue to overeat the next day when we reach this point.
Drinking alcohol can also indirectly contribute to weight gain by lowering the quality of our sleep. Although we may initially fall asleep faster, alcohol impacts the critical stages of our sleep, such as deep and REM sleep.
A lack of sleep, or poor quality of sleep, increases your appetite and cravings for junk food and decreases your energy expenditure on the following day.
The good news is, it’s not necessary to abstain from drinking alcohol entirely to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Consider staying below your tipping point if you’re drinking, by alternating alcoholic drinks with soft drinks such as sparkling water.
7) Focus on stress management
When you think about the impact of stress on our weight, you might assume it’s because our eating habits change when we’re stressed. One research study investigated how our eating patterns change when faced with a stressful situation. It found that people who were in the ‘stressed’ group chose sweeter, high-fat foods and a more energy-dense meal overall compared to the unstressed group. If these habits continue over long periods of time, weight gain would be more likely.
Moreover, ‘stress eating’ isn’t the only reason we tend to gain weight if we’re constantly stressed. Research in mice suggests that if we eat an unhealthy diet when we’re stressed, we might be more likely to put on weight compared with eating the same unhealthy diet when we aren’t stressed.
Scientists suggest that chronic stress increases insulin levels, promoting fat storage. Gentle exercising, like walking or yoga, and meditation are the two best weapons against chronic stress and can boost your mental health. If you’re new to meditation, consider trying two minutes of deep breathing with your eyes closed at the start of each day.
Want more support?
If you’re searching for some extra support to help you lose weight and keep it off for good, you can trial the Second Nature programme for as little as £1. Second Nature is a digital programme that provides you with 1:1 support from your own qualified nutritionist and digital group. You’ll have access to support alongside hundreds of healthy, simple recipes, daily articles, and tracking technology all within one app.
Take home message
- Obsessively counting calories, points, or ‘syns’ isn’t sustainable behaviour. While you might see success in the short term, it’s unlikely that you will want to continue counting forever.
- The bottom line is that there’s lots of ways to lose weight without counting calories by making small food choices and following a healthy eating plan
- Practice mindful eating by paying attention to the food you’re eating, it may help to reduce your food intake by preventing mindless overeating
- Choose high-protein snacks such as boiled eggs, cheese, or nuts rather than high-carb snacks
- Manage stress so that you don’t fall into ‘stress-eating’
- Prioritise getting a good night’s sleep by limiting stress in the evenings and use of electronics in the hour before bed