Weight loss and weight maintenance are really two sides of the same coin. In reality, the habits that help you drop pounds are the same ones that will help you maintain your weight loss. After all, losing weight isn’t really considered a success unless you manage to keep it off.
If you ask people who have successfully lost weight how they did it, they’ll often say that losing weight is the easy part—but keeping it off is a lot tougher. Sometimes you’re so focused on weight loss that you’re paying more attention to the end results—like what the scale says or how your jeans fit—than you are on establishing new habits. But once you’ve reached your goal, it’s easy for those old habits to sneak back up on you.
Some people are more successful at losing weight than others. Many people set unrealistic goals or try to lose weight too quickly, and this can undermine dieting efforts in no time. Drastic changes, even if they lead to short term weight loss, are hard to sustain. And dieters then convince themselves that they don’t have what it takes to win the battle of the bulge.
Instead, it helps to think more about replacing old habits with new ones and shifting attention away from the end results. In other words, pay more attention to the journey rather than the destination. As new behaviors become established and take hold, the weight will usually take care of itself.
We’ve learned a lot from people who have successfully lost weight and maintained it through two studies. In Germany, the Lean Habits Study1 is following about 7000 successful weight losers. And in the US, more than 4000 people are enrolled in the National Weight Control Registry2. Participants in these studies say that the best weight loss strategy involves establishing new behaviors, rather than relying on drastic or unrealistic diet and exercise plans.
One key to success is learning how to manage your own high risk situations, such as eating when you’re stressed or cleaning your plate out of habit rather than hunger. Successful weight losers are adaptable and plan ahead. They know what situations might get them into trouble and have a backup plan for dealing with them.
On average, the National Weight Control Registry enrollees burn about 2000 calories per week through exercise. That’s a lot. They get about 60-90 minutes of moderate to high-intensity exercise daily. The most popular exercise is walking, and they average 5-6 miles a day.
Setting goals—ones you measure, like how many minutes you will walk, how many calories you will take in, or how many sit-ups you will do—are helpful because you can track whether or not you meet these goals. Successful weight losers keep track of how much exercise they get, and they keep food journals. Sometimes they use a food log to plan meals ahead of time. These self-monitoring strategies are critical and provide much needed feedback on behavior changes.
Many people get in trouble with their weight because their eating patterns are so disorganized. Successful weight losers report that eating at regular intervals and snacking only when they’re hungry are keys to success. Skipping meals usually backfires. And having routine meal times means that you don’t go long stretches without food, which often leads to excessive snacking or larger meals later on.
No surprises here, but a high-quality diet—one with plenty of protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains––is what keeps people satisfied. The fruits, veggies and whole grains are bulky and filling, but their calorie cost is relatively low. Adequate protein is key, since protein is highly satisfying and will keep hunger at bay between meals.
By learning what size portion you need to eat to feel ‘not hungry any more’—as opposed to feeling ‘stuffed’—you can trim your food intake significantly. Portion control strategies include using smaller plates, serving your food in the kitchen (rather than having serving dishes at the table), and using meal replacements such as protein shakes, bars or frozen meals.
Food is so often used as a comfort when we’re stressed, but we usually feel guilty afterwards which just increases the stress and keeps the cycle going. Successful weight losers have learned to find other ways to reduce their stress. They exercise, call a friend, or practice some meditation or deep breathing.
Many people who have successfully lost weight say that they had to change their thinking about dieting and weight loss. Some felt it was ‘in their genes’ to be fat, or that they couldn’t lose weight because they’d never been successful in the past. Eventually, they faced the problem head on, recognizing that weight loss and weight maintenance success would come through a series of small steps and a lifelong commitment to a healthy lifestyle.
Once you have an established routine of how you generally eat and how frequently you exercise, learn to stick with this routine day in and day out. People who have lost weight and are successful in maintaining that weight loss do this—even on holidays or when they go to restaurants. Many dine out less often, because they prefer having more control over what they eat by preparing more meals at home.
Successful weight losers learn how to control situations that are most likely to get them into trouble. The foods that are available in the refrigerator or cupboard at home, in restaurants, at the workplace or in the grocery store are in environments that can be controlled. To gain control over the food environment, keep ‘safe’ foods in the house, choose restaurants where you know you can get the healthy foods that you want, bring appropriate foods to work, and prepare a shopping list before you go to the supermarket.
1 Westenhoefer J, et al. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 28(2):334-5.
2 Wing R, Phelan S. Am J Clin Nutr 2005 82:222-5S.