A Roadmap to Healthy and Sustainable Weight Loss

According to a YouGov survey, 52% of UK adults are trying to lose weight. We asked dietitian Laura Tilt for her advice on doing it in a healthy and sustainable way.  

Laura Tilt profile photo
By Laura Tilt

The secret to weight loss...  

You might have heard the statistic that 95% of weight loss diets fail. This information might create the impression that weight loss is an uphill battle, and the odds are stacked against you. 

However, this stat isn’t routed in science. While it’s true that losing weight is challenging, it is possible with the right strategy and support.  

So, what’s the best diet?  

Research shows many different diets (low carbohydrate, Mediterranean, low fat) can lead to significant weight loss, so long as they result in a calorie deficit.   

But success tends to fizzle out when it comes to maintaining weight loss. A comprehensive review of 29 weight loss studies revealed a common trend—people tend to regain at least half of the lost weight within two years, and by the five-year mark most, if not all, the weight lost is regained. 

Why is maintaining weight loss so hard? There are a few reasons. First, our food environment makes it difficult. Foods high in fat, sugar and salt are on offer almost everywhere. They're often cheaper than healthier alternatives too. Many jobs now involve sitting for a large part of the day. This means we aren’t using as much energy as we did in the past.   

People also find it difficult to stick with the approach that helped them lose weight. This might be because the approach was too restrictive or incompatible with their lifestyle in the long term. What predicts weight loss success is adherence to the approach. This means choosing something you can keep going with for years and years, even after you reach your goal weight.  

We also know that there can be changes in appetite regulation after weight loss. This means people often feel an increased drive to eat after losing weight.  

What makes a good approach?  

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to lose weight. Instead, give yourself the best chance of success by choosing a healthy and sustainable approach. Here's what that looks like: 

1. It won't promise you’ll lose 7lb in a week

Diets that promise rapid weight loss are tempting, there’s no doubt about it. But losing weight too fast can have negative consequences for your health, like increasing the risk of gallstones. Rapid weight loss also tends to involve super restrictive or crash diets. These can result in nutritional deficiencies, tiredness and irritability. And they're difficult to stick with, which means they tend to lead to yo-yo dieting.   

2. It’s balanced and meets your nutritional needs 

If you’re going to be eating a particular diet for a long time, it needs to provide the right mix of nutrients to keep you healthy. And ideally, it'll reduce your risk of conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and be enjoyable and allow you to live your life too!  

This means avoiding diets that cut out entire food groups or have lots of rules. For example, only eating raw food or not combining foods like protein and fruit at the same meal.    

Instead, focus on a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods that support long-term health. A Mediterranean style diet is a great example.  

As for portion sizes, a simple tip is to divide your plate into quarters. Fill two quarters with vegetables, one quarter with protein and one quarter with wholegrain carbohydrates like brown rice or wholemeal pasta.    

3. It results in steady weight loss of around 0.5-2lb a week  

A gradual and steady weight loss of about 0.5-2 pounds (0.2-1kg) per week is realistic for most people. This usually means reducing your calorie intake by around 500- 600 calories a day.  

If that seems like a lot, bear in mind that smaller reductions (for example 250-300 calories a day) will also lead to weight loss, just at a slower rate. With this approach, you could lose about 2 pounds per month. This might not sound like much, but over 6 months, the results will stack up.   

4. It’s something you can stick with 

If you can't see yourself following a particular approach in the long term, it's likely not the best fit for you. The best diet is the one that includes the types of food you like to eat and works with your lifestyle. That means it’ll allow you to eat out, enjoy special occasion food and eat with your family, if these things are important to you.   

5. Helps you develop the skills to maintain weight loss  

Relationships with food can be complex. You might have learned to use food as a coping mechanism for difficult life situations. As part of a journey to reach a healthy weight, people often need to work on their relationship with food. For example, identifying emotional triggers to overeating and learning new ways of coping. A good weight loss programme will help you develop these skills and give you tools to navigate obstacles and overcome challenges.   

6. Includes some kind of support   

Research shows weight loss can be more achievable with support. This could be from a dietitian, an online programme, or even via friends and family members. People who have some sort of ongoing support are also more likely to maintain weight loss. If you’re in the UK, your GP can let you know about what services are available.   

7. Includes physical movement that you enjoy    

Exercise can help with weight loss by increasing the amount of energy (calories) you use each day. There's also strong evidence that people who are physically active for about an hour daily are more likely to keep weight off.  

Beyond this, regular exercise has many health benefits. It can reduce your risk of developing conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It strengthens bones and muscles and improves your ability to do everyday activities. But like diet, you need to find what works for you. Find activities that you enjoy, whether it's walking, dancing, cycling, or any other form of movement.  

A last word about progress.   

If you’re starting a weight loss journey, you will need to have patience with yourself and the process. Weight loss is not a linear process, and the scale will not always reflect your efforts consistently each week. That means you can be working hard and not see the numbers on the scale budge. Sometimes they might go up.   

Don't let these random fluctuations distract you or make you doubt your plan's effectiveness. Daily shifts in weight are often down to changes in fluid changes. Instead, focus on the broader trend from the beginning to the end of the month. Stay patient, stick with the changes you’ve made and celebrate progress, no matter how small.