The odds are clearly stacked against you. Even if you succeed at being one of the 9% who achieve weight loss as a New Year’s resolution, the stats are:
- 33% to 67% of dieters regain more weight than they lost.
- In one study 83% gained back more weight than they lost after 2 or more years.
- At best, 20% are “successful” if defined as losing at least 10% of their starting weight and maintaining the loss for at least 1 year.
One year? Hardly the definition of long-term success, is it? If the stats suggest sustained weight loss is the rare exception rather than the rule, and if those who gain back more weight than they lose is the norm, rather than the unlucky minority …
Should you even bother trying?
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
- Francis of Assisi
First, let’s figure out why the weight regain happens. Then, we’ll look at what successful folks do differently besides changing their diet.
It’s not your fault
Think about your car on cruise control at 65 miles per hour. You go uphill, the car slows down. But because it’s set at 65 miles per hour, the engine revs up to get your speed back up to 65. You go downhill, the car speeds up. But because it’s set at 65 miles per hour, the engine revs down to get your speed back down to 65.
In weight loss, your body is the car.
The cruise control speed is called your body weight set point. Your brain is the engine that sets the speed: your weight. And your brain keeps that weight constant.
It’s not a character flaw
Gaining back the weight you’ve lost isn’t a flaw in your character. It’s the subconscious part of your brain bringing back your weight to what it considers “normal.”
How does your body do that?
When you lose weight, your brain sends out hunger signals that make you more hungry. So you eat more. Even if you’re able to muster all the willpower to succeed at resisting the urge, your brain deploys another effective maneuver: it slows down your metabolism. So you burn less energy.
And now you’re thinking …
Why doesn’t this body weight set point kick in when you gain weight? Shouldn’t you also burn more energy and be less hungry when you gain weight if your brain is so skilled at keeping your weight the same?
The answer is those things do happen, but this mechanism is more effective in response to weight loss rather than to weight gain. From an evolutionary perspective, famine was a threat to our survival. If weight loss didn’t trigger “protective” mechanisms, the human species wouldn’t have survived. We didn’t evolve to need “protection” from a world with an abundance of food, we needed protection from famine.
The brain is biased toward “protecting” us from weight loss, not weight gain. That’s why it’s so hard for us to keep the weight off. What’s the solution, you ask?
Contrary to popular belief, restricting more food is not the answer. Instead, we’re going to talk about the conditions and behaviors that help you beat the odds.
1. Define “diet” differently
Let’s start with what the dictionary says. Diet, noun: the kinds of food a person habitually eats. What about the verb? “To restrict oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight.”
Studies showed weight regain happened after following up subjects “at the end of the diet” or “after the diet ends”. The weight came back after the dieting (verb) stopped.
Dieting as an action word is something you do. But a diet that you habitually subscribe to is part of who you are. Here’s an example of the difference:
A vegetarian who refuses an offer to eat a meat dish doesn’t say, “I can’t eat meat,” she says “I’m a vegetarian.” Because that’s who she is, it’s her identity.
An identity change won’t happen overnight. But you can start today. For example, the next time someone offers you a Coke. Instead of saying…
“No thanks, I can’t drink soda.”
“No thanks, I don’t drink soda.”
By changing “I can’t” to “I don’t”, you start believing you’re the type of person who just doesn’t drink soda. Over time, it becomes a habit that’s part of your identity: a diet (noun).
Easy enough? Give it a try.
2. Focus on maintaining the weight loss
The single best predictor of weight regain is how long you’ve successfully maintained the weight loss. If you can succeed at maintaining your weight loss for 2 years, your risk of weight regain is reduced by 50%.
You can’t make time go faster. But you can make time work for you while it passes by focusing on actions that help you stick to healthy eating habits.
- Pay attention to why you eat. Before you eat, ask yourself if you’re reallyhungry. Or is it out of habit (i.e. the clock says so, you’re in front of the TV), or out of emotion (i.e. stress, anxiety, sadness, boredom)? If you’re not sure, try a glass of water, tea, or coffee, take a walk, do some work or chore, perhaps call a friend. You’ll notice the “hunger” feeling disappear especially if you’re not truly hungry. And it’s okay to wait and eat only when you’re hungry.
- Tweak your environment instead of relying on willpower. Win the battle at the grocery store. If chocolate chip cookie is your kryptonite, why have it in your grocery cart to take home? You don’t have to use willpower if you don’t have a cookie to wrestle to begin with. Fill your fridge and pantry with foods that support weight loss so healthy eating becomes a default rather than an uphill battle.
- Pare down the action when (not if) you feel resistance. Can’t get yourself to meal prep 5 days worth of 3 full meals? Make it 5 days of just dinner meals. If you’re still struggling, it means it’s still too big. Keep paring it down until you no longer feel resistance. Just cook tonight’s meal. The point is for you to get started.
3. Build a routine
Those who maintained a consistent regimen across the week and year are more likely to maintain their weight loss over time. The study didn’t say they were perfect. Just consistent.
Here are some ways to build a routine:
- Plan and prepare meals. This way, you can choose dishes that support fat loss throughout the week, instead of obsessing over how you can hit your perfect carb, protein, and fat macros.
- Take a picture of your grocery cart before you check out. Fill it with real-whole meats, veggies, and healthy oils instead of sugary, processed, and refined carbs that come out of a box or package.
- Put grocery shopping and cooking on your calendar. Be intentional about giving it a block of time at the start of each week and defend that time fiercely.
Building habits doesn’t require that you’re perfect, it requires that you’re consistent.
4. Catch slip-ups in the moment
Reversing weight regain appears more likely to those who’ve regained the least amount of weight. They’re able to prevent small regains from turning into larger relapses.
This is a skill. You can learn it. It’s the ability to quickly get back on track before a mistake turns into a regular pattern. This doesn’t mean you have to do something epic to cancel out your mistakes. All you have to do is take the tiniest, but quickest action to get back in the right direction.
Here are a few examples:
- Throw away the last bite of the cookie you’re eating right now, instead of saying you’ll avoid sugar after the New Year.
- Walk once around the block today, instead of planning to walk 3 times a week for 45 minutes starting Monday.
- Sit down, close your eyes, and take 3 deep breaths before you go to bed tonight, instead of promising you’ll meditate for 10 minutes every day as of tomorrow.
Slipping up doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you’re human. We all make mistakes. So your objective isn’t to avoid mistakes, it’s to avoid making the same one twice in a row.
5. Forgive yourself for inevitable slip-ups
Another predictor of successful weight loss maintenance is a lower level of dietary disinhibition. Dietary disinhibition is a psychological term for a measure of periodic loss of control of eating, otherwise known as the What-the-hell-effect. It’s when a slip up or an indulgence (i.e. a cookie bite) turns into a food binge.
“What the hell, might as well eat the whole dozen, right?”
Psychologists say the way out of this downward spiral is self compassion, not self flagellation. If you find yourself tempted to throw your good habits out the window, after a binge, forgive yourself. Self-criticism doesn’t help.
I know it can be hard to forgive yourself in the moment when you’re staring at an empty plate of red velvet cake. So here’s a strategy you can borrow from economics: The Law of Diminishing Returns. It states that in production, adding more resources will eventually yield to a point where there’s a decrease in output.
For example, if you add a cook to a busy food truck, it speeds up the time the food is served. But adding 1 more cook to this small space slows it down because now they start to run into each other and take turns to wait to use the equipment. The point of diminishing returns is reached.
Let’s apply this to eating. Your 1st bite of red velvet cake is glorious. It’s moist and creamy with a hint of chocolate and vanilla that ends with a slight tartness. But on your 2nd bite, you no longer taste the different dimensions, it’s only half as good. The 3rd one is just good, or it’s just okay. In fact, if you kept going you’ll eventually get sick of it.
There comes a point where you’ll notice a “diminishing return” on the pleasure of eating a treat.
Here’s how to find it when you slip up or plan to indulge:
- Give yourself permission to have 3 bites. It helps avoid feelings of guilt that might ensue because the 3 bites is a part of your effort to stay on track.
- Be more mindful of each bite by slowing down. Put down the fork and pause in between. Savor the different flavors and textures in each bite.
- Notice how the 3rd bite is considerably less pleasurable than the 1st. Try to stop here. If you can’t, it’s okay. It takes practice. Just try to notice where eating the treat has crossed the threshold of its initial pleasure.
Knowing how to stop eating a treat when it has lost its initial pleasure helps you gain back control. It also allows you to indulge for pleasure without the guilt.
6. Visualize the consequences of inaction
A medical scare, an all time high in weight, or seeing a reflection of yourself in the mirror. These are trigger events and, though unpleasant, can lead to successful weight loss.
If you experience them, it suggests an opportune time to initiate healthy eating habits and optimize long term weight loss. However, you don’t need to wait for a trigger event for a better chance at successful weight loss.
Instead, try The Dickens Pattern.
It’s a neurolinguistic programming technique popularized by Tony Robbins. It’s based on Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge, who meets the Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Scrooge changes his ways after having met his unpleasant future, which will be the result of his current life choices.
Here’s how it works:
- Imagine what your future would look like if you traveled forward 15 years in time without changing your eating habits for the better.
- How does this future look like? Are you on medication? How’s your lab work? What clothes are you wearing?
- How does it feel? Are you tired all the time? In pain? Short of breath?
- How does it affect all areas your life? Are you enjoying time with your loved ones? Achieving your goals and dreams? Your best self?
- Is this what you want?
The pain that comes from visualizing this future scenario can help motivate you to make changes today.
Fortunately, none of this has happened yet and it doesn’t have to if you make some changes, so take some time to write down your biggest challenge to eating healthy.
For example, “I don’t have time to cook healthy meals at home.” Then, write a sentence that solves that problem, “I will block time on my calendar for meal prepping.”
Write it down and come back to this written solution when you get off track. Remember what you you’ll lose and what you’ll miss out on if you don’t make this one change.
Permanent weight loss without restricting more food is possible
Maintaining long-term weight loss is tough.
But there are other strategies to use when your weight starts to creep back up besides restricting more food.
Make healthy eating part of the new you, form new habits so the weight loss can stand the test of time, have a meal routine, avoid making the same two mistakes in a row, forgive yourself, ask yourself what you’ll miss out on if you don’t make changes today.
My suggestion is to start with what you can do today.
But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: You will make mistakes … and that is okay. So start by forgiving yourself because it sets a positive tone so you can stay confident in your ability to tackle the other steps. Getting off track doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for this, it means you’re normal.
But you do have to act.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
- Nelson Mandela
How would you feel if the weight stayed off once and for all?