August 2016 Issue

Weight Loss Success Depends on Sustainability

Look beyond the weight goal “finish line” to a life of healthful eating and joyful movement.

No one starts a diet with the intention of regaining the weight they lose. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens with most weight loss diets. One reason more than 95 percent of people who lose weight end up regaining is that diets tend to involve goals that aren’t realistic and behavior changes that aren’t sustainable. Those are critical flaws, because two key elements of successful weight maintenance are adherence to new nutrition and exercise habits and reasonable expectations about results.

What Really Matters

Despite attempts to pinpoint which combination of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) are optimal for weight loss, what research keeps pointing to is that, on average, the exact plan doesn’t matter as much as how well you stick to it. The key is to find a way of eating that is nutritious, allows you to lose weight, and is enjoyable and practical enough that you won’t mind eating that way long after you reach your intended weight.

Long-term adherence is difficult, if not impossible, if you embark on a rigid, restrictive food plan and an overly ambitious exercise plan. According to a study published recently in the journal Obesity, despite the fact that contestants on the reality show “The Biggest Loser” worked obsessively at weight loss, most of them have regained the weight. This is partially due to their metabolism slowing, but it’s also because their food and activity changes were not sustainable.

eating for weight sustainability

Yuriy Chaban | Dreamstime.com

Beyond the Finish Line

One barrier to successful weight maintenance is the dieting mentality itself. Many dieters view their weight goal as a finish line—when they reach it, they’re done. That’s a recipe for regain, because the reality is that weight maintenance requires just as much effort as weight loss. It takes persistence to maintain new food and activity habits and prevent old habits from returning, just at the time when motivation may be flagging.

Start thinking past the “magical” goal weight. Minh-Hai Alex, MS, RD, CEDRD, of Mindful Nutrition in Seattle, suggests you ask yourself what approach you will take once you are at your desired weight. The ideas you come up with are likely to be sustainable for you.

Tips for Creating Sustainable Weight Loss

Here are our tips for approaching weight loss with sustainability in mind:

Enjoy the journey. Think of maintaining the weight at which you feel healthy as a lifelong journey by playing with new recipes and trying new activities. This also can keep things fresh and help give your motivation a boost.

Set effective goals. Choose action-based goals to overcome your biggest healthy-living challenges, such as consistently exercising five times a week or eating four cups of vegetables per day; then, view weight loss and maintenance as the outcomes of those goals.

Practice intuitive eating. “Numerous studies indicate that making food decisions in response to the body’s internal cues of hunger and fullness helps people reach their natural healthy weight,” says Alex. A good place to start is to check in with your body before, during and after a meal to assess how hungry or full you are on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being ravenous and 10 being stuffed.

Change your environment. Identify your triggers for overeating—stress, fatigue, being overly hungry—and form smart strategies for dealing with them, rather than relying on willpower alone. Sometimes, it’s easier to change your surroundings than change yourself. For example, don’t keep snack foods out on the counter top and stock your pantry with healthful choices.

Address emotional and stress eating. If you have a tendency to eat for emotional reasons, cultivate non-food ways to comfort yourself. Alex also suggests experimenting with this question: “What am I asking the food to do for me?” After identifying what you really need, you can then make a conscious decision on what to do next. As Alex points out, “Eating is one option!”

Build a healthy food environment. Many eating decisions are made on impulse. If you think, “Ice cream would taste good right now,” but there’s no ice cream in your freezer, the impulse may simply pass.

Find joyful ways to move. “In our dieting culture, it’s common to approach exercise similarly to nutrition: a short-term commitment until the weight comes off,” Alex said. “Exercise is an opportunity to incorporate play into our day—something research shows is profoundly important to our mental and emotional wellbeing.”

Always have a backup plan. Life gets busy, and often throws curveballs. Keep a few so-simple-you-could-make-them-on-autopilot dinners in your repertoire, have alternate exercise activities if the weather is frightful or your yoga class is canceled.

Build a support network. Friend and coworker support for healthy eating and family support for physical activity help with weight management, according to a 2014 study in the journal Obesity. Spending time with people who also value health will make it easier for you to stick to your own healthful habits.

Be realistic. Losing weight may ease stress on joints, improve your lab results for your next doctor’s visit, and help you sleep better, but there are many things it won’t do: It won’t change who you are as a person, and it won’t change your relationships. Life will still have its ups and downs.