Forget diets: This is how to lose weight and keep it off for good

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Losing weight is hard. Keeping it off seems, according to the data, almost impossible. Unfortunately, studies show that most of us will put weight back on in two years, and by five years, almost all of it may come back. Further, many people end up gaining more weight than they lost. Though these statistics are discouraging, focusing on the end goal — better health and longevity — may increase your odds. The path to a successful weight maintenance plan starts well before you reach your goal number. Here are ways to approach a healthy weight long term.

Fixate on your metabolic health numbers, not the number on the scale

When patients come to see me for the first time, they often discuss their goals. The majority of the time, those goals include a number. “I want to lose this many pounds,” or “I want to reach this number on the scale.” Instead of the number on the scale, studies show that focusing on the numbers that speak to health may be more impactful in sustained behavior change. Throw out the scale and focus on your lipid panel, your blood-sugar numbers, or perhaps even your inflammation markers. Paying more attention to health, rather than weight, changes the reason why you want to drop pounds in the first place. Other quality of life parameters, such as better sleep, less chronic pain or increased energy, can all be motivators for sustainability as well. Finally, If you must rely on a scale, choose options that assess body fat and muscle mass. 

Learn from weight maintenance warriors 

Multiple studies have been done to assess why one person succeeds at weight loss, while another doesn’t. Two studies in the journal Obesity surveyed 5000-6000 individuals who had participated in a structured weight-loss program. Surveyed participants lost on average 50 pounds and kept their weight off for three years or more. 

Successful weight losers from these studies, as well as previous data, were often more likely to do the following:

  • Make healthy food choices the majority of the time and found these choices effortless and “unconscious.”
  • Self-monitor and journal their food intake.
  • Consume relatively lower calorie, yet higher nutrient dense foods.
  • Engage in a higher level of physical activity.
  • Make continued goal setting a priority.
  • Celebrate their past achievements and embrace their current health.

Another vital aspect was mindset — especially in the face of challenges and adversity. While both health and appearance were significant motivating factors, greater confidence and being more mentally and physically fit topped the list for being able to maintain healthy habits.

Move more

When it comes to weight loss, your diet has been found to play a much more significant role in terms of pounds lost. Exercise, as it turns out, is not the secret weapon to successful weight loss. However, when it comes to keeping those pounds from coming back, you need to move more. A recent study from the University of Colorado found that when individuals engaged in physical activity, they maintained more steps per day (about 12,000) and maintained a higher energy expenditure. Another study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that in order to maintain weight loss, women needed to exercise at least 55 minutes, five days per week. This recommendation surpasses the current guidelines for exercise, which calls for only 150 minutes of moderate physical activity throughout the week and two days of muscle-building training

Adding protein to each meal — like enjoying an egg white omelet for breakfast — has been shown to help maintain weight loss.Sergio Amiti / Getty Images

Fall in love with protein

2020 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that higher protein diets were associated with a greater ability to maintain weight loss. The study showed that having more protein often counteracted the process of adaptive thermogenesis (a state where the body adapts to a new weight by altering energy expenditure). An easy way to do this is to add protein to every meal and snack. For example, consuming eggs whites at breakfast, hummus for a snack and wild salmon for dinner.

Assess your social circle

Have you ever had a friend tell you that “one bite of something won’t kill you?” A study from The University of North Carolina found that individuals that lose weight may face a “lean stigma” where friends and family consciously or unconsciously sabotage or undermine efforts of the successful weight loss. Researchers found that effective communication techniques were one way to mitigate comments and discouraging attitudes from friends and family. For example, telling loved ones ahead of time your motivation to lose weight or communicating weight-loss efforts as a way to obtain better health, and not better appearance, were often successful ways to avoid lean stigma interactions.

Embrace and adapt to the survival mechanism of your body 

Studies indicate that frequent attempts to lose and then regain weight (often referred to as yo-yo dieting) can have an adverse impact on health and lead to an increased risk of further weight gain. A 2016 study showed that repeated dieting could cause the brain to think it’s going through periods of famine. In response, the body continues to work toward fat storage to prepare for the next round. The body adapts and becomes efficient at the current lower weight, and if you don’t adapt with it, you will most likely gain the weight back.

Imagine putting on a 20-pound vest and taking a walk around the block. The walk would be challenging, and you may have to work harder during the activity. Exertion is higher, and with it so are the calories you are burning as well. Now imagine taking the vest off. The body does not have to work that hard anymore to get you around the block. If you’ve lost 50 pounds, and changed nothing in your physical activity or eating habits, you are more likely to gain that weight back. Your metabolism works with the new weight, so constant adaptation is essential.

Take a break from dieting

If your idea of weight loss and weight maintenance is a “diet,” then studies show you are most likely bound for failure. A 2017 randomized controlled trial found that individuals that took breaks from dieting were more likely to lose weight and keep it off. The cornerstone of dieting is often restriction. The more restricted, the less we lose. So take a break from diets and embrace lifestyle changes instead.

Weight loss, especially when the reduction occurs in the midsection, can have a significant impact on health and longevity. When you focus on longevity, happiness and increased energy, your reasons for losing the weight in the first place will be clear and your ability to maintain better health will be easier.