As new research suggests getting more sleep could help people lose weight by affecting metabolism, experts discuss how early nights and other unexpected lifestyle factors can help shed the pounds.
By Lisa Salmon.
Drinking red wine, nibbling nuts and having a lovely long sleep may not seem like the ideal recipe for weight loss.
But believe it or not, several respected university studies have recently suggested that such eating and drinking - in moderation, of course - along with a good night's sleep, might help people trying to shed the pounds, in combination with the necessary calorie-counting and exercise.
The most recent study, from Washington University last month, found that sleeping more than nine hours a night may suppress genetic influences on body weight, while sleeping less than seven hours a night was associated with both increased body mass index (BMI) and greater genetic influences on BMI.
Genetics can influence weight factors such as glucose metabolism, energy use, fatty acid storage and satiety (feeling full).
The study's principal investigator Nathaniel Watson explains: "It may be that extended sleep is protective by suppressing expression of obesity genes.
"Our study suggests that the longer you sleep, the more effect environmental factors such as meal type, timing, and physical activity levels, have in determining your body weight.
"How much sleep people need is individual, but in general, more sleep is good."
While not related to the genetics of obesity, Watson also points out that short sleep is associated with comfort eating.
Nutty snacks If comfort eating includes a few calorie-packed nuts, it might not be as sinful as you'd imagined.
Last month, researchers from America's Louisiana State University found that people who regularly ate just a handful of tree nuts such as almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios and walnuts, had lower body weight, BMI and waist circumference compared to those who didn't eat them.
Their findings echo those of a recent Barcelona University study which found that eating just an ounce of nuts a day was linked to higher levels of the 'happiness hormone' serotonin, which helps decrease appetite.
However Dr Matthew Capehorn, clinical director of the National Obesity Forum, stresses that the benefit of eating nuts when you want to lose weight is strongly dependent on willpower.
"Nuts are calorie-dense, but they're high in protein, which makes you feel fuller for longer.
"So if you've got the willpower to not just keep scoffing nuts, it's a really good snack - a small handful will keep you full until your mealtime much better than a chocolate bar.
"The problem is, how many people have the willpower to just have a handful? If you have too many, that's too many calories, and it doesn't make a blind bit of difference how full you feel if you've just had 1,000 calories of nuts."
A glass of red Similarly, a recent study has shown that a compound in red wine may help people lose weight - but at around 125 calories per glass, over-indulgence will clearly have the opposite effect.
Research from Purdue University in the US, published last month, suggests that the compound Piceatannol, found in red wine from red grape seeds and skin, as well as in blueberries, passion fruit and other fruits, blocks an immature fat cell's ability to develop and grow.
Lead researcher Kee-Hong Kim hopes the compound's ability to block the processes that allow fat cells to develop could lead to a potential method for controlling obesity.
However Paul Gately, a professor of Exercise and Obesity at Leeds Metropolitan University and director of the weight management service MoreLife, points out that hopes of a magic weight loss solution in a glass of wine may be a little premature.
"I think there's lots of research like this that shows the potential of a magic bullet, but much more research needs to be done and balanced against the implications of increasing access to such a compound.
"I think it's unlikely it will be an obesity solution now or any time soon."
Get organised Gately points out that instead of searching for non-existent magic weight loss solutions, people who want to get slim should look at their whole lifestyle, as well as changing their diet and exercising more.
"They need to take a step back, and rather than looking for a magic bullet, they should create an organised and structured routine," he explains.
"If your life is disorganised and chaotic, you're more likely to reach for convenience foods."
He suggests people should think about when they eat - if they don't eat breakfast, for instance, it may make them more likely to reach for snack foods when they get hungry mid-morning.
And a food and exercise diary can also help, he says. This should include everything you do and eat, and plan healthy meals into the day, thus avoiding missing meals because of a lack of time, which can lead to people grabbing high-calorie convenience foods instead.
Similarly, Dr Capehorn advises people think about why they're eating when they're not really hungry - is it habit, or peer pressure, for example?
"There's two options - you can either change your behaviour, and take yourself away from an environment where you're eating when you're not hungry," he says, "or change what you eat.
"Have a bottle of water and an apple instead of a sugary cup of tea and a biscuit with your mates at work."
When to eat Dr Capehorn says that while there's been huge debate as to whether what time you eat meals has a bearing on whether people put on/lose weight, reviews of all the studies have shown that when you eat makes no difference.
"There's lots of talk about eating an early breakfast stimulating your metabolism, for example," he says.
"But it doesn't stimulate your metabolism any more than eating your first meal of the day at any other time.
"The more research that's done, the more it's suggested that when you eat doesn't really matter - it's all about the calories that you consume in relation to how many calories your body's burning up each day."
Sharing the weight Consuming fewer calories and exercising more can be really tough, acknowledges Gately, and that's why a crucial part of losing weight successfully is having a good support network.
"Look for social support, possibly through social networking, or sharing weight loss stories and recipes with friends," he advises.
"Sharing experiences is very powerful and can be really encouraging."
The power of talking and sharing is why more structured talking therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), emotional freedom techniques (EFT), hypnotherapy and general life coaching can really aid weight loss, says Dr Capehorn.
"A lot of us eat when we're not really hungry, out of boredom, habit or for comfort," he says.
"There isn't a magic tablet that will deal with that, but one big new way of tackling it is to see a talking therapist to identify why you're eating when you're not really hungry, and to teach you techniques to break that habit.
"It retrains you into only eating when you're hungry by picking up on the physiological queues from your body, rather than just psychological cues because you've had a bad day at work."
Gately adds: "People would love a magic solution, but if there was one, we'd have found it by now.
"The reality is that lots of people know what they should do, but they don't necessarily do it. What success is really about is doing what you need to, the right way.
"It is hard work to manage weight, and it takes time and effort - often the greatest rewards come with the greatest efforts."