People who have struggled with being overweight for years know that the hardest and often most frustrating job is not losing it, but not regaining it.
Over the past few decades, countless popular diet regimens have promised to help people shed those unwanted pounds, and as each of these diets failed in the long run, it spawned its successor.
After all, a diet is something people start to finish. Most think of a diet as a means to an end, and few who follow a food-restriction diet to lose weight expect to have to eat that way indefinitely. Therein lies the problem, and the current epidemic of uncontrolled obesity is the sad result.
Rich or poor, most of us are surrounded by high-calorie foods, many of them tasty but deficient in ingredients that nourish healthy bodies.
“We can’t go two minutes without being attacked by a food suggestion,” said Suzanne Phelan, lead author of an encouraging study published in the journal Obesity in 2020.
Even the most diligent dieters may find it difficult to constantly resist temptation. And after people fall off the diet wagon they often stay out, and the lost pounds reappear much faster than it took them to shed.
But these facts need not discourage anyone from achieving lasting weight loss. Researchers have identified the strategies and thought processes that have enabled thousands of people, including myself, to lose a significant amount of weight and stay in shape for many years.
The study led by Phelan, a professor of kinesiology and public health at California State Polytechnic University in the United States, identified habits and strategies that could be the key to the success of millions of people.
Yes, like most smart weight loss plans, they involve healthy eating and regular physical activity. But they do include important self-monitoring practices and non-punitive coping measures that can be crucial to long-term weight management.
The study, supported by a grant from WW, the current name of Weight Watchers in the U.S., was carried out among nearly 5,000 of its members who reported having lost an average of 25 kg and staying that way, or nearly so, for more than three years. Their habits and thought processes were compared with a control group of over 500 obese people who reported not gaining or losing more than five pounds in more than five years.
Phelan recognizes the emotional challenges involved in lasting weight loss. “Weight loss itself is a very rewarding process. Other people notice and encourage it. But it all comes down to maintenance,” she said.
However, she quickly added, “Maintaining the weight loss can get easier in practice. Over time, less intentional effort – although it is necessary not to stop trying – is required to be successful. After about two years, habits healthy eating becomes part of the routine. Healthy choices become more automatic the longer people continue to make them. They feel awkward when they don’t.”
Study co-author Gary Foster, who is WW’s scientific director, explained: On the WW show, “everything is on the menu. Fad diets are overly restrictive, which dooms them from the start. We advocate moderation, we are anti-diet.” . People need to find habits and routines that make lasting weight loss sustainable.”
As reported by many in the study who have successfully maintained their weight, for me, time and practice have permanently changed what I’m attracted to, so I rarely feel deprived and have less of a need to deny myself all the time. I admit, though, that I’m less good at ignoring wishes than many in the new study. I’m more likely to give in, but control how much I consume.
People should let go of the idea that they “can’t like themselves until they lose weight,” Foster said. “Instead, they need to start with a sense of self-worth and compassion. Weight management is a positive process, not a punitive one. Beating yourself up doesn’t help, it’s demotivating.”
Among the helpful strategies identified in the new study is keeping low-calorie foods such as fruits and vegetables more accessible. “We eat what we see,” Phelan noted. The opposite is equally important: keep high-calorie, less nutritious foods relatively out of sight, or out of the house altogether.
Other helpful tactics used by the successful maintainers in the study are setting daily calorie goals and keeping a food diary, noting everything you eat each day. This helped another friend of mine maintain her loss of approximately 15 pounds for decades. “It keeps me honest,” she told me.
While physical activity alone is not very helpful in losing weight, adopting an exercise routine can give weight maintainers more freedom and help prevent them from putting on those lost pounds. As Foster told me, “Calories in must balance calories out if you don’t want to gain.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves