No one ever says, “I want to lose 30 pounds, keep it off briefly, then gain it all back, with some extra pounds for good measure.” But that’s exactly what happens to most people who lose weight. How do good intentions — and the investment of time and effort needed to lose weight in the first place — unravel?
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is quite simply dieting. Most traditional weight-loss plans call for adopting new food and exercise behaviors that you aren’t able to — or won’t want to — maintain for life. It’s about doing whatever it takes to lose weight, with weight maintenance taking on a nebulous “I’ll worry about that later” quality. One could argue that contestants on “The Biggest Loser” work harder at weight loss than anyone, and most of them have regained the weight.
Unfortunately, we humans are wired to seek instant gratification. I see this in patients all the time. Even though they’ve already tried a dozen diets, none resulting in lasting weight loss, they are still willing to severely restrict calories and cut out entire food groups if it will help them lose weight. I remind them that if they make changes they can’t sustain, they may lose weight initially, but it will come right back. It’s better to take the time to improve food quality and learn to adjust to hunger and fullness cues.
Anyone beginning to shape their behaviors with weight loss in mind would be wise to ask themselves, “Will I be happy eating this way or exercising this much for the rest of my life?”
Even among those who choose to make satisfying, sustainable changes to their nutrition and exercise habits, long-term adherence doesn’t always happen. Why? One danger is treating your weight goal as a finish line. Once you’ve crossed the line, the “diet” is over, a mindset that sets the stage for regain. This is amplified by the fact that the body adjusts its metabolism as weight drops — particularly in people who lose a lot of weight. The truth is that the effort required to maintain new habits never ends.
A better approach is to set goals around things that you actually have control over, such as consistently exercising five times a week or eating four cups of vegetables each day, and let weight loss be the outcome. Identify your triggers to overeat — stress, fatigue, being overly hungry — and build strategies to deal with them rather than relying on willpower. For example, plan a nutritious afternoon snack, keep tempting foods out of sight and so on. If you have a tendency to eat for emotional reasons, it’s critical to develop non-food ways to comfort yourself.
Another challenge is that the initial motivators for weight loss — health concerns, an upcoming class reunion, a tropical vacation — often fade. Compliments on your changing appearance and the need to buy smaller pants can keep the motivational fires burning, but what happens when the number on the scale stops moving? Waiting for fresh motivation to strike can cause you to slip back into old habits, but being open to new ways to eat well and stay active can help keep you action-oriented. That’s important, because action is often what primes the pump of motivation, not the other way around.
How well our expectations match reality can also affect motivation — and the odds of successful weight maintenance. People who are disappointed by how much weight they lost are more likely to regain. So are people who expect that losing weight will make them happier. The truth is that people of all shapes and sizes struggle with body image, relationships and job satisfaction.
It’s also important to expect — and prepare for — life’s inevitable curveballs. People who think in all-or-nothing terms tend to be less adaptable to change and more likely to revert to old habits. This leads to deciding “anything goes” on vacation, skipping exercise if weather or other circumstances preempt your normal routine and abandoning healthy eating when life becomes “too busy.” Part of treating health and wellness as a journey includes always having a plan B and being ready to course-correct immediately when life briefly knocks you off track.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.