Losing weight isn’t easy, but dropping pounds — whether a little or a lot — is one of the most common health and fitness goals. According to a CDC survey conducted from 2013–2016, nearly half of Americans reported trying to lose weight in the past 12 months.
This desire to lose weight results in countless strategies and methods, with some grounded in good science and other quick fixes championed by questionable “gurus” and late-night infomercials. But recent research published in the Obesity journal attempted to identify effective behavioral and psychological strategies shared by people who were able to lose weight and keep it off.
The study analyzed participants who maintained 20 or more pounds of weight loss over three years and found several differentiators that separated them from their less-successful peers. In addition to eating healthy, those differentiators included the development of strong habits for healthy eating and exercise, self‐monitoring, and psychological coping strategies. These shared traits resulted in not only a longer duration of weight-loss maintenance but a lower perceived effort for maintaining the weight loss.
“It’s no secret that long-term weight maintenance is a challenge,” says Dr. Jason Doescher, chief medical officer at MOBE, a company that pairs people with specialized health pros. “This study tells us that taking a whole-person approach to weight management is essential — we need to take an inventory of stressors in a person’s life, their habits, their sleep patterns and their mental wellness.” He notes that the study reinforces how successful weight loss is about more than just calories and food intake. “A perfect diet can be negated if other factors in a person’s life are not aligned such as exercise, sleep and emotional health.”
Any successful long-term weight-loss program requires a person to form lasting habits. Doing so decreases the chance of significant weight fluctuation or regaining the pounds lost. In the study, those who achieved the most success reported strong habit strength as related to healthy eating and exercise. Makes sense. But how do you form those habits?
“Attitude and effort are the basic ingredients to any success,” says Dr. Doescher. “Decide what you want for yourself, be honest with yourself, and be good to yourself.” Remember: You make your own choices, so if something is important to you, discipline will help you protect it.
One of the best ways to form good habits is by making it easier to be healthy. Keep your kitchen stocked with fresh vegetables, lean meats and whole grains, plus snacks like nuts and fruit. When hunger strikes, you’ll be ready. And if you need to remove something from your diet, Dr. Doescher recommends replacing it with something you enjoy.
“It is more difficult to remove an entire habit,” he explains. Instead, try replacing it with a better choice. For example, if you eat when you’re bored, take up a different activity to overwrite the snack routine, like going for a walk or spending time on a fun hobby. You might get the same level of comfort from your new choice as you would from food.
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“Progress is never linear,” reminds Dr. Doescher. “We move forward and sometimes get knocked back. This struggle is totally normal for everyone. Do not choose to quit with setbacks, just make as many good choices as possible, and keep going.”
There are several ways to self-monitor your weight loss. In the study, people found success by tracking their weight on a graph, tracking calories and setting a specific daily calorie goal in an app like MyFitnessPal. You can also record your workouts. The point is to pay attention to your decisions and note how they impact your progress.
“Having a plan, setting steps toward a bigger goal, and measuring progress helps us see and feel the success,” says Dr. Doescher. “Success feels good, and that motivates us to do more.”
Any change in your life can cause stress, including changing your diet and exercise habits in an attempt to lose weight. But learning healthy coping mechanisms can make those stressful moments dissipate. In the study, specific coping strategies included thinking about past successes and remaining positive if you hit a bump in the road and regained some weight.
“Take note of your achievements, big and small,” suggests Dr. Doescher. Then take time to recognize and celebrate these accomplishments. By focusing on the things you can influence, you’ll gain power over your circumstances and learn to accept what you can and cannot control.
It also helps to pay attention to your thoughts when you do feel stressed. Identify the problem, and see if there’s a more positive way to look at the situation. Dr. Doescher suggests writing out the steps or resources that could help you solve the issue. “Be both honest and kind with yourself as you evaluate healthy behavior,” he says.
When you’re attempting to lose weight, it’s easy to focus solely on calories in versus calories out. But achieving healthy weight loss is more nuanced than that.
“When it comes to maintaining a healthy diet and understanding our appetite, it’s crucial to consider the science and psychology involved,” says Dr. Doescher. “With more knowledge on how nutrition works, we can control our diet and feel healthier and more comfortable. Our heads should lead us, not our stomachs.”
Originally published May 2020
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