How to lose weight in the healthy way
Reviewed by our clinical team
What is the best way to lose weight?
If you are overweight, speak to your doctor for advice about losing weight safely. Your doctor can advise you on the type of diet you should be following and how you much exercise you should do. They can also ensure any underlying medical conditions have been excluded.
Unfortunately there is no quick fix for weight loss. The healthiest and most effective way to lose weight is through regular exercise and a healthy diet - this is more likely to have a lasting positive change. It is important to swap unhealthy and high-energy food choices such as fast food, processed food and sugary drinks (including alcohol) – for healthier choices.
You should avoid fad diets that recommend unsafe practices, such as fasting or cutting out entire food groups. These can make you feel ill and are not sustainable, because they don’t teach you long-term healthy eating habits:
- Cutting out whole food groups can limit the intake of vitamins and minerals you need to remain healthy and can lead to health problems
- Very rapid weight loss is unlikely to lead you to a healthy weight in the long term and you are at risk of health problems that include malnutrition and gallstones, loss of muscle tissue, as well as feeling tired, unwell and unable to function properly
- Crash diets can actually make you put on weight in the longer term. Your body will be low on energy, causing you to crave high-fat and high-sugar foods. When you finally give in and eat those foods, you will often eat more calories than you need, causing weight gain
We put on weight when the amount of calories we eat exceeds the amount of calories we burn through normal everyday activities and exercise. An average man needs about 2,500 calories a day and an average woman about 2,000 calories to stay the same weight.
If you're overweight, you can start to get health benefits by losing 5-10% of your starting weight. It is best not to lose weight too fast. You should aim to lose weight gradually by losing 0.5-1kg (1-2lb) a week. You should be able to lose this amount if you eat about 500 to 600 fewer calories than you need a day and reduce the fat content in your diet (however this number depends largely on how heavy you are to begin with and how many calories you are already consuming in a day).
In general, you should aim to reduce your calorie intake and exercise more to achieve a safe, steady rate of weight loss that can last a lifetime. As you become fitter and healthier you can adjust your diet and exercise plans accordingly.
What should I adjust in my diet?
When trying to lose weight you don’t have to be hungry. By eating high volumes of healthy low calorie food such as vegetables and fruit you can stay full without eating your daily allowance in one meal. Research shows that it takes about 12 weeks on average to form new habits. By sticking to this routine for three months, healthy eating and regular exercise will become habits, which are key to losing weight and keeping it off.
Aim to include the following:
- Eating food with lots of fibre – this will help you feel full for longer, so you’re more likely to stick to your calorie limit.
- Aim to reduce your portion size.
- Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables - fruit and vegetables are a vital source of vitamins and minerals. It's advised that you eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day.
- Starchy foods are a great source of fibre. Try to choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties of starchy foods, such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta and brown or wholemeal bread. They contain more fibre (often referred to as "roughage"), and usually contain more vitamins and minerals than white varieties.
- Dairy products, such as yoghurt and skimmed milk are good sources of protein. They also contain calcium, which helps keep your bones healthy. However make sure you avoid the full fat variety!
- Lean meat, fish, eggs and lentils are all good sources of protein. Aim for at least two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish. You can choose from fresh, frozen or canned, but remember that canned and smoked fish can often be high in salt. Make sure you trim the fat off meat.
On top of this, you should aim to:
- Reduce your alcohol intake (alcohol contains a lot of calories)
- Avoid eating foods that contain high amounts of saturated fat (e.g. butter, cakes, biscuits, pies, cream, processed meats)
- Avoid consuming lots of sugar
- Avoid artificial sweetners
- Resist the urge to over eat
What exercise do I need to do?
The following exercise plan is recommended for adults who are generally fit and have no health conditions that limit their ability to exercise:
- At least 150 minutes (30 minutes on at least five days of the week) of moderate-intensity exercise every week) e.g. cycling, swimming, jogging or brisk walking, every week. You know you're working at a moderate intensity if you're able to talk but unable to sing the words to a song.
- Muscle-strengthening exercise twice a week e.g. yoga, sit ups, push-ups
- Taking the active alternative where possible e.g. walking up the stairs instead of taking the lift, standing up on public transport
If you are overweight or obese and are aiming to lose weight, if possible you should try to do around 60-90 minutes of exercise on at least five days of the week along with making changes to your diet to help you lose weight.
You should visit your GP for a health check-up before starting an exercise programme for the first time, or if you're returning to exercise after a long period of time. You may have to start with a less active programme initially and increase the amount of exercise you do as you grow fitter and healthier.
What happens when diet and exercise don’t work?
For some people, losing weight can be harder than for others. Having particular health conditions such as an underactive thyroid can also make it harder to lose weight. Other measures that can help, alongside a low fat weight-reducing diet, and exercising regularly include:
Weight loss tablets
There are no ‘wonder’ medicines available. The only licensed prescription medicine available in Ireland for weight loss is Orlistat. Orlistat is also available under the brand name Xenical. It should only be used (if medically suitable) by patients who are obese and in combination with a diet and exercise regime. Orlistat can help reduce the amount of fat that is absorbed into the body from meals by about a third.
In extreme circumstances, surgery may be a necessary measure to help with weight loss. Surgery is usually only suitable for people with a BMI of more than 40, or those with a BMI over 35 who also have serious health conditions like type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure that could be improved if you lose weight. Weight loss surgeries include gastric bands and gastric bypasses. However, it is always recommended that you try to lose weight through a healthy, calorie-controlled diet and increased exercise before you consider weight loss surgery, as surgery carries a risk of serious complications and requires a significant change in lifestyle afterwards.