Losing weight isn’t easy, but shedding pounds – whether a little or a lot – is one of the most common health and fitness goals. According to a survey conducted by the CDC from 2013-2016, nearly half of Americans reported trying to lose weight in the past 12 months.
This desire to lose weight has led to a myriad of strategies and approaches, some of which are based on good science and other quick fixes championed by questionable “gurus” and late-night infomercials. But a recent study published in the journal Obesity sought to identify effective behavioral and psychological strategies shared by people who are able to lose and maintain weight.
The study analyzed participants who maintained 20 pounds or more of weight loss over a three-year period and identified several differentiating factors that separated them from their less successful peers. In addition to healthy eating, these differentiating factors included developing strong habits of healthy eating and exercise, self-monitoring and psychological coping strategies. These common traits lead not only to longer weight loss maintenance times, but also to lower perceived effort to maintain weight loss.
“It’s no secret that long-term weight maintenance is a challenge,” said Dr. Jason Doescher, chief medical officer of MOBE, a company that pairs people with dedicated health professionals.” This study tells us that taking a whole-person approach to weight management is critical – we need to take stock of the stressors in a person’s life, their habits, their sleep patterns and their mental health.” He notes that this study reinforces how successful weight loss is about more than just calories and food intake.” If other factors in a person’s life are inconsistent, such as exercise, sleep and emotional health, the perfect diet will be negated.”
1 Forming strong habits
Any successful long-term weight loss program requires a person to form lasting habits. Doing so reduces the chance of dramatic weight fluctuations or regaining lost weight. In the study, those who had the most success reported strong habit strengths associated with healthy eating and exercise. This makes sense. But how do you form these habits?
“Attitude and hard work are the basic ingredients of 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 to make it easier to be healthy. Keep your kitchen stocked with fresh vegetables, lean meats and whole grains, as well as snacks like nuts and fruit. When hunger strikes, you’ll be ready. If you need to remove something from your diet, Dr. Doescher suggests replacing it with something you enjoy.
“Removing an entire habit is more difficult,” he explains. Instead, try replacing it with a better option. For example, if you eat when you’re bored, take a different activity to cover the snacking routine, such as going for a walk or spending time on a fun hobby. You may get the same level of comfort from your new choices as you do from food.
“Progress is never linear,” reminds Dr. Doescher.” We move forward, and sometimes we get knocked back. This struggle is completely normal for everyone. Don’t choose to give up because of setbacks, just make the best choices possible and move on.”
2 Self-monitor your progress
There are several ways to self-monitor your weight loss. In studies, people have found success by tracking their weight on a chart, tracking calories, and setting specific daily calorie goals in apps like MyFitnessPal. You can also keep track of your workouts. The point is to be mindful of your decisions and how they affect your progress.
“Having a plan, setting steps toward a larger goal, and measuring progress helps us see and feel success,” says Dr. Doescher.” Success feels good, and it motivates us to do more.”
3 Cope with mental stress.
Any change in your life can cause stress, including changing your diet and exercise habits in order to lose weight. But learning healthy coping mechanisms can make those stresses dissipate all the time. In the study, specific coping strategies included thinking about past successes and staying positive if you hit a rough patch and regain some weight.
“Take note of your accomplishments, big or small,” Dr. Doescher advises. Then take the time to recognize and celebrate those accomplishments. By focusing on what you can influence, you’ll gain control over your environment and learn to accept what you can and can’t control.
It’s also helpful to focus on your thoughts when you do feel stressed. Identify what the problem is and see if there is a more positive way to look at the situation.Dr. Doescher suggests writing down steps or resources that can help you solve the problem.” Be both honest and kind to yourself as you assess health behaviors,” he says.
When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to focus only 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 of it,” says Dr. Doescher.” With more knowledge about how nutrition works, we can take control of what we eat and feel healthier and more comfortable. Our minds should guide us, not our stomachs.”