Strange but true?

A BBC programme (10 Things you need to know about losing weightJanuary 2011) suggested some counterintuitive ways of losing weight – and the science behind this. For example:

  • Breakfast can help you lose weight. That’s because if you don’t have breakfast your brain tries to compensate by encouraging you to eat high calorie foods. So not eating breakfast is usually a false economy.
  • Eating protein and soup can help too. Both make you feel fuller for longer.
  • Dairy products can help in a different way. It seems the calcium in dairy foods (like milk, cheese and yoghurt) can bind to fat molecules in food, which can then be excreted rather than absorbed. However the effects may be short term rather than long term.
  • You can lose weight when resting after exercising – an effect the programme described as the ‘after burn’ effect of exercise.

Some of the programme’s findings were probably less of a surprise. For instance:

  • Don’t eat a buffet meal if you want to lose weight. Apparently evolution has wired our brains to seek out a variety of food. So eating at a buffet, given the variety on offer we tend to eat 30% more.
  • We tend to under estimate the amount of food we eat in a day and how many calories it contains. In experiments, when people are asked to keep a food diary they typically under report what they have actually eaten.
  • We tend to eat what we have in front of us, even if we’re no longer hungry – so smaller plates and portion sizes are a simple way to lose weight. We report on this and other ways to avoid mindless eating elsewhere on Age Watch.
  • If we keep moving we burn more calories. So take the stairs, walk up the escalator, go to see a colleague in a neighbouring office rather than sending an e mail or picking up the phone, get on and off the bus or tube a stop earlier, explore places of interest if you’re retired etc.

Our own research has suggested further tips for losing weight:

  • Online support can help. For example email counselling, online social support and individualized feedback all seem to make it more likely that you’ll act on your good intentions.
  • So too does taking part in a weight loss programme with other people.
  • Avoid yo yo dieting i.e repeatedly losing weight, then putting it back on again (what researchers describe as weight cycling). This can increase cardiovascular risk. It is also associated with greater weight gain, less physical exercise and greater likelihood of binge eating.
  • Eating a low Glycemic Index (GI) breakfast helps you feel full longer e.g. porridge, muesli, fruit, wholegrain bread or eggs with peppers, tomatoes or spinach. As we explain elsewhere on Age Watch, it also has health benefits 
  • Check the sugar content of low fat foods. This may be higher than you think. Some doctors now believe sugar is bad for your health and may contribute to weight gain (although others dispute this).
  • For most people exercise doesn't lead to significant weight loss but it has many health benefits, so is recommended in its own right.
  • People who lose weight and then maintain a healthy weight typically eat breakfast regularly; eat a low calorie, low fat diet; monitor their weight; do a lot of exercise; and don’t eat more at the weekend than they do in the week.


  • What we eat and when can make a difference. Eating breakfast, eating protein and soup and eating dairy products can each help – either by making us feel fuller, longer or by helping us excrete fat.
  • Conversely, we need to avoid buffets, large plates and large portions - to help avoid mindless eating.
  • We should also avoid yo yo dieting, as this increases cardiovascular risk.
  • Exercise isn't usually enough on its own to lose a lot of weight but is important as part of a healthy lifestyle, so is a useful complement to a healthy diet.
  • Support and encouragement from others (including online support) can help strengthen our resolve and improve our prospects of losing weight.

Reviewed and updated by Natnaree Kaewhin, September 2014. Next review date August 2018