How to be a healthy weight without counting calories

by Hattie Ellis

If lockdown weight gain has focused your mind on how to lose extra kilos and maintain a healthy weight, experts now suggest a range of strategies to help you find good daily ways to eat. Calorie counting works for some, but there are other options.

Real food makes a difference

“There needs to be a shift towards realising food is more than calories”, says Dr Sally Bell, a GP who specialises in lifestyle medicine. “Different foods do different things to us and carry different messages.”

Nearly 57 percent of the food we eat in Britain is ultra-processed. “This is high in calories but lacking in nutrients”, Dr Bell continues. She believes your body instinctively searches for the micronutrients you need and this leads to over-eating. “When we get people switched onto wholefoods and real food, they naturally eat less because they feel more full and get more nutrients”, she says. “We’re an obese nation, but some of us are actually malnourished.”

Nutrient-rich foods are best for optimum health and feeling full. Meat, dairy and dark chocolate are examples of satisfying foods that are rich in nutrients and easy to absorb, she says. “I literally prescribe dark chocolate.”

Having protein at each meal helps make you feel full and stops you eating too much, as well as providing good nutrients. The same is true for protein-rich snacks.

Feel full by eating nutrient-dense plant or animal protein

Fill up on fibre

As well as lacking some micronutrients, as a nation we’re deficient in fibre. The recommended daily intake of fibre for everyone over 16 is 30g a day, but women in the UK eat around 17g and men around 20g. A study at the University of Texas, published in The Journal of Nutrition, found the amount of fibre eaten was the strongest predictor of losing weight and keeping it off.

Fibre is particularly important for good gut health, which is linked to overall health and weight. “It’s well established that for good health we need a diverse gut biome”, says Dr Bell. Your gut microbes help release nutrients from food, and are linked to hormonal health, which is related to weight loss and gain.

To boost your microbiome, gut-health advocates such as Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London and Dr Megan Rossi, The Gut Health Doctor, advise eating at least 30 different plants over a week – a mixture of nuts, pulses, grains, seeds and herbs, as well as fruit and vegetables. Sprinkle seeds and nuts onto salads and breakfast yoghurt. Fry chopped vegetables and add herbs for an omelette. Make salads with different leaves, raw vegetables and cooked grains. Pile veg into soups. Eat fermented plant foods, such as kimchi and sauerkraut.

A variety of fibre-rich foods is good news for a healthy weight

Fasting: A useful biohack?

Some health professionals think intermittent fasting can be useful for losing weight and keeping it off, leading to the rise of the 5:2 diet, with very restricted eating on two days of the week. Then there are time-limited diets, such as the 16:8, when you eat a well-balanced diet within an eight-hour window, for example having supper at 6pm and not eating until 10am the next day (it’s easy to adjust: add four onto the time you ate your evening meal – supper at 7pm or 8pm means you eat your next meal at 11am or 12pm). The 14:10 (eating within a 10-hour time-slot) is another version of this approach. A small study at the University of Surrey found even moderate adjustments to eating times can be helpful for weight and health.

Such diets may work because they limit the amount you eat and allow your gut microbes to rest and be more responsive to food, increasing your feelings of fullness. But Andrew Hill, Professor of Medical Psychology at Leeds University, thinks most people have an established pattern of eating and that it’s better to change what you eat than the timing. “Skipping, avoiding and sacrificing meals isn’t a good way to manage or lose weight”, he argues.

When you eat can make a difference to weight loss and gain, and different kinds of fasting are becoming more popular

Adjust the size of your plate and food shop

There’s a lot of straightforward advice we forget when it comes to weight control, says Professor Hill. One of the best tips is to eat from smaller plates. “The size of the portions you consume on a regular basis is partly dependent on the plate or bowls you serve the food out of”, he says.

We can also think about the amount of food we put in our shopping bags. “During the pandemic we have been told to go out and shop infrequently”, says Professor Hill. But this stockpiling, along with the temptation of multi-buy deals, can be bad news for weight-watchers. “If you’ve got multiples of food that you are trying to refrain from over-eating, it’s far harder to do when they’re in the cupboard and easy to get to”, he says.

Be aware of how and where you eat

Large-scale surveys show how we eat is connected to being overweight. Have your meals at a table and focus on your food rather than partaking in ‘distracted eating’, for example in front of the TV. “Eat slower, take smaller mouthfuls, chew more, in a sense be mindful”, advises Professor Hill.

Variety can stimulate appetite, and a tapas- or mezze-style arrangement can lead people to eat more. “With a variety of flavours and textures there can be a tendency to over-eat”, he says. Instead of having four types of sandwich on offer, stick to one. Have a single main course and not a starter or pudding.

You can eat together but have different portion sizes and fulfil varying nutritional needs

Each of us is different

In the end, we are individuals when it comes to weight-loss and gain, says Tim Spector. In his book Spoon-Fed, he argues calorie counting can be misleading because we don’t know how much energy we expend – we have different metabolic rates as well as levels of physical activity – and our bodies react differently to different foods. Two people can eat the same foods and one will put on weight while the other won’t. This is partly down to the individuality of our gut biomes, and underlines why it is important to eat a varied diet.

It’s also important to be aware that people around the same table will have different nutritional desires. Some will want bread with their meal, others will want to avoid it, for example. “Respect the differences and don’t feel pressure”, says Professor Hill. You can eat the same meal with others, but serve yourself a smaller portion of a dish or some of the foods, such as potatoes, if you wish.

Diet and weight-loss advice, overall, don’t take into account how different we are. “We give out general guidance to tens of millions of people and forget they live in different circumstances and have different needs, and are unable to follow that advice”, he says. One of the reasons weight-loss diets notoriously fail is they promote strict short-term restrictions that are impossible to maintain, rather than a healthy diet that suits us as individuals. Stick to the basic principles of what you’re trying to do but stand back from clear rules, advises Professor Hill, as these can set you up for failure.