Given the thousands of diet schemes, diet experts, and weight loss products marketed to Americans daily, it’s easy to believe that if you could just identify the right approach for your body type, you could lose weight quickly and for good. But is it really that simple? Yes—and no. A recent study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that any diet that reduces calories—regardless of whether those calories come from carbohydrates, proteins, or fats—leads to weight loss. But many dieters gain the weight back in the first year, and many more after five years. So what’s the secret to losing weight and keeping it off?
First, you need to get a handle on how you eat and why you may overeat, says Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat (Greenleaf, 2010). Second, weight loss must be a long-term commitment. When you’ve lost weight, your body needs fewer calories forever (a smaller body needs less fuel) and there’s some evidence that weight loss causes metabolism changes that also result in needing fewer calories. Finally, it’s important to think about losing weight as part of a greater plan to take care of your body. (Wanting to fit into your “skinny” jeans is not reason enough!) If people start eating a certain way only for the sake of weight loss and then do not lose as much as expected, they are likely to give up the healthy habits, says Janna Fikkan, PhD, a psychologist and mindfulness researcher at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. “If [they] have a bigger idea of how they could care for their bodies by using food as nourishment and add pleasure to their lives by being physically active, they might adopt behaviors that will make them feel better. They also might get to healthy weights that are right for their bodies,” says Fikkan. If you’ve tried everything and still struggle with weight issues, you’re not alone (that’s why the diet industry made $59 billion in 2008). Here are some of the most common hurdles to lasting weight loss—and what really works to overcome them.
Hurdle #1: Stress
We’re wired to eat when we’re under stress. Evolutionarily, that was a good thing. If you needed to escape a dangerous situation, high calories would give you the energy to do it; but in today’s modern society, the stress-food response no longer works in your favor. “Every time you reach for food when you’re stressed, you deepen the wiring,” says Mary Dallman, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor emerita at the University of California, San Francisco. To compound the problem, the release of stress hormones causes a surge of insulin, which turns extra calories into belly fat, says Dallman. A recent Harvard study found that the most common triggers for stress-related weight gain are work and bills. In men, hot buttons include feeling a lack of authority, and in women, family pressures and perceived life constraints.
Distinguish between stress-induced cravings and true hunger. Pause, take a few breaths, and look for physical signs of hunger, such as a growling stomach, low energy, or difficulty concentrating, says May. If they’re not there, scan your thoughts and emotions and ask, “Am I anxious, guilty, sad, or stressed?”
Have a glass of water. If you experience what Fikkan calls “mouth hunger” without feeling hunger in your belly, you may be thirsty. “Hydrating first may help you distinguish between thirst and hunger.”
Check in after snacking. Dallman and May both say it’s OK to reach for a snack when you’re under pressure; the trick is to know you’re doing it and assess the outcome. “If you eat two cookies and your craving isn’t satisfied, then you know the craving did not come from real hunger,” says May. Next time try a different solution.
Take a walk or make a phone call. When you’re at work, it may be quicker and more socially acceptable to grab a snack when you need to unwind than to take a time-out, says Fikkan, but this can take a toll on your waistline—and your health—over time. It also limits your repertoire of skills to deal with stress, she says.
Depriving yourself of your favorite foods is a powerful trigger for overeating. “Humans naturally want what they can’t have,” says May. In order to avoid certain foods you tend to focus on them more, increasing the risk of bingeing. Plus, a diet of low-calorie foods simply isn’t satisfying, says May, so it’s easy to eat too much. A new study in Appetite found that people ate about 35 percent more of a snack they perceived as healthy rather than unhealthy. Another, in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that when people go to “healthy” fast-food restaurants such as Subway they choose sides (such as chips), beverages, and desserts containing up to 131 percent more calories than they would have consumed if they’d gone to a restaurant they perceived as less healthy.
Follow a plant-based diet of whole foods. “It’s a diet you can live with,” says Susan Levin, RD, director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). She points to a PCRM study of diabetics that found that those who followed a plant-based diet stuck to it better and lost more weight than those on a standard diabetic diet. A plant-based diet is full of high-fiber foods, which are naturally low-calorie and very filling. “You won’t be deprived,” says Levin. Focus on fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, and eat healthy but calorie-dense choices such as nuts in moderation.
Don’t completely eliminate certain foods. There’s no such thing as good food and bad food, says May, even when you want to lose weight. Any food, including chocolate or butter, can have a place in a balanced diet. To reintroduce foods you’ve come to think you shouldn’t eat, experiment with them mindfully. “Pay attention to every single bite,” says Fikkan, and you may surprise yourself by not wanting as much as you thought you would.
Branch out. Enjoying other parts of your life can help you feel fulfilled, and not deprived, while trying to lose weight, says Dallman. Activities like fun exercise, walks in nature, or taking a class to learn a new skill can center you, she says.
Sure, you know that exercise counts, but when it comes to losing weight and maintaining a lower weight you may need to step up your commitment to being physically active, no matter how difficult it is to fit workouts into a busy schedule. The National Weight Control Registry, a program funded by the National Institute of Health, has tracked around 6,000 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least one year. There are four behaviors these individuals consistently demonstrate, says James Hill, PhD, cofounder of the program. They follow a low-fat, high-carb diet, they eat breakfast every day, they frequently monitor their weight, and most important, according to Hill, they “have high levels of physical activity.” A 2008 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that the women who maintained the most weight loss exercised the most, about 275 minutes per week. That’s about 40 minutes every single day.
If possible, get 60 to 90 minutes of moderate exercise every day to lose and keep weight off. You can break it up into smaller amounts of time (30 minutes, twice a day, for example), and if you can only work out a few times a week, increase the length and intensity of workouts on those days. Think of this 60 minutes per day as a goal to build toward; start slowly and add as you can, says Timothy Church, MD, MPH, PhD, at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Also, find a form of exercise you love and work out with a friend or group; this increases your likelihood of keeping it up, he says.
Don’t view exercise as punishment for overeating. If you exercise just to burn calories you’ll likely end up yo-yo exercising, just as you might yo-yo diet, says May. So toss the calorie-burning chart and use exercise to improve your health, increase your energy, and feel better about yourself, she says.
Tie exercise in with another important part of your life, such as friendships. Participants from the National Weight Control Registry report that if they talk to their best friends every day while exercising, for example, they’re more likely to stick with their routines.
Be careful not to overeat because you’re exercising. A recent study found that of three groups of women exercising different amounts, those exercising the most (194 minutes) lost only half the weight that researchers expected (based on their energy outputs) because they rewarded themselves with food.
Mindful eating encourages greater satisfaction, which leads to eating less. If you’re eating while you’re talking on the phone, nibbling long into the evening hours after dinner, or reaching for office candy when you’re tired, you’re likely consuming unnecessary or unhealthy calories. “We sometimes eat when we are not physically hungry but in need of something else, such as a distraction, a reward, or quick energy,” says Fikkan. Pausing between the thought, “I want to eat” and actually eating gives you a chance to figure out if food is in fact the right choice, she says. “People make about 200 choices a day [about food] and they’re only aware of about 25,” says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating (Bantam, 2007). In addition to the risk of packing on pounds, “when you’re not paying attention, you can miss out on a lot of the satisfaction of eating,” says Fikkan.
Prepare the table. Take a moment to lay your food out and observe the setting, says Fikkan. Also “pause to appreciate the effort that went into that food being there,” she says. Finally, keep serving dishes off the table, says Wansink. This encourages you to consider whether or not you need another serving before digging in.
Be aware of the first three bites. “Pay exquisite attention to all aspects of your food—the temperature, texture, and flavor and how it tastes from beginning to end—as if you’ve never tasted it before, or as if you’re a food taster or connoisseur,” says Fikkan. Then notice when your mouth’s interest in that flavor starts to decline, she says, which means you are on your way to reaching taste satiety. Mindful eating leaves satiety up to the body, says Fikkan, but sometimes you might need to start out using an external method to determine portions such as a serving size. Go to deliciousliving.com/portioncontrol for help.
Slow down and put your utensil down between bites. Eating fast is a hard habit to break, says Fikkan, and putting your fork down helps you focus on the bite that’s in your mouth rather than simply moving on to the next one.
Watch out for liquid calories. The problem with some beverages is that you don’t get the sense of fullness that you do from food but you get all the calories, says Fikkan. When you’re thirsty, stick to water and tea.