By Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BC-ADM
Many people with excess weight or obesity are led to believe that the hardest part of tackling extra pounds is shedding them. Thus, most of the focus around weight management aims to answer the question: What’s the best eating plan (aka diet) to lose weight? We’re led to believe that once we reach our goal weight, keeping lost pounds off is the easy part. However, research and reality make it clear that keeping pounds off is far from (pardon the pun), a cake walk.
Today, experts in weight management encourage healthcare providers to be much more open and honest with people who attempt to lose weight about what it really takes to maintain weight loss long term. Briefly summed up, it’s a blend of behavior changes, fortitude and persistence. These experts also point out that the skills and strategies to lose weight are often NOT the same as those that need to be employed for long term weight loss maintenance.
Here are seven steps culled from two decades of research on weight loss and maintenance that can, when put into practice regularly, help keep the maximum number of lost pounds off.
1. Find your own path.
Know there is no one right way to do this. Your weight loss, as well as your efforts to keep those pounds off, is your own unique journey. Day by day, month by month and step by step you will try out different strategies. You will, without a doubt, experience setbacks (more about that under step 6). What’s critical is that you figure out, with trial and error, and support (that’s step 7) what will work best for YOU. This includes food choices, eating habits, physical activity plan, and, importantly, a healthy mindset. All of these topics are addressed in the steps below.
2. Realize your body will experience physical changes with weight loss.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s important that you know and face the facts that research shows as a person loses weight, their hormones and metabolism changes. Hormones, like leptin, that help you feel more full and less hungry decrease, while the hormones that increase appetite, like ghrelin, increase. Yes, frustratingly the reverse of what would benefit your weight management efforts! Research also shows that people who are trying to maintain a weight loss of 10% from their starting body weight, or more, generally will burn about about 300 – 400 fewer calories than one might estimate based on the lower body weight and body composition. Additionally, people who’ve lost weight seem to show a preference for more calorie dense foods. But knowledge is power and learning how to manage these physical changes is critical to success.
3. Adopt and adapt to a positive, can-do mindset.
You’ve got to practice, practice and practice your new healthy behaviors around food, eating, physical activity and more. Practice cements healthier behaviors until they become your natural response or instinct. Another important tip? Be clear about your whys for maintaining your weight loss. Make sure your reasons are for YOU and you alone. Not for anyone else. Another key for success is to remove a whole lot of decision-making about food choices and amounts. Minimize the variety of foods you eat to keep meal planning very simple and think about being on autopilot for at least one or more meals each day. For example, eat a similar breakfast and lunch most days of the week and make these meals easy to prepare. (Again, try different strategies out and identify the ones that work best for you).
4. Learn new skills and strategies to cook and eat healthier.
As you’re losing weight and working to keep the weight off, assess new skills you need to learn to cook and eat healthier. It might be choosing healthier foods, preparing meals, enjoying healthier restaurant meals or another topic. Once you’ve completed your assessment, set out to learn the skills you’ve identified to be helpful. Maybe you need to watch some cooking demos on YouTube to pick up skills like cooking with less fats and oils, preparing beans, stir-frying, etc. If you need simple, healthy recipes, start searching online. They’re plentiful! Perhaps you need a couple of good quality knives in your kitchen to quickly cut plenty of fruits and vegetables and prepare more meals at home. You may need pointers about how to choose healthier restaurant foods and strategies to implement portion control or manage your sweet tooth. Use online resources like My Weight What to Know or seek out the services of a local registered dietitian nutritionist (RD or RDN) or weight management group. Build healthy lifestyle skill power. Don’t just rely on willpower!
5. Get and stay physically active regularly.
You may be aware that weight loss studies don’t give physical activity a gold star for assisting with weight loss. When it comes to keeping weight off, however, research shows physical activity is simply put, a MUST. Experts cite that physical activity can counter some of the metabolic changes of weight loss discussed in point 2. There are three types of physical activity. You want to be sure to include and do sufficient amounts of aerobic and resistance training and do less sedentary activity, such as spending time in front of any type of screen. Thirty years of self-reported data from the more than 10,000 people registered in the National Weight Control Registry (http://www.nwcr.ws/) shows that, on average, those who have successfully maintained weight loss do at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day -and they usually do a combination of aerobic and resistance training. They also report minimizing their sedentary activity. And just because exercise doesn’t help specifically with weight loss doesn’t mean you should wait until you’ve lost weight to start exercising. Find ways that you enjoy being physically active as soon as soon as possible. Put a plan in place to fit that requisite 60 minutes of physical activity into your life and lifestyle each and every day….forever.
6. Put together your plan for setbacks and have it at the ready.
Plateaus and even relapses (defined as the regain of a few or more pounds) will happen, as research studies show. For this reason, it’s critical to put together a plan that’s at the ready if and when setbacks occur. A big reason people regain lost weight is that they don’t solidify their new healthier lifestyle before they hit one or more of life’s hurdles. Perhaps you or a loved one experiences an illness or something happens with your or your partner’s employment. The resulting tension in your life may lead you to regain five pounds, then 10 pounds. These pounds and reverting to some old and unproductive behaviors can make you feel defeated. Understandable! That’s exactly why you need to have a relapse prevention plan at-the-ready. You also need to define your weight regain window. This means define an acceptable weight range for you to regain within a few pounds. If you hit the top of that weight range, immediately put your relapse prevention plan into action. Perhaps that means going back to limiting your meal choices, revisiting your meal plan or doing what it takes to ensure you’re getting exercise every day. Some studies recommend using meal replacement drinks or bars to minimize the number of food choices you need to make. Keep in mind that success with a relapse is defined by how fast and well you get back on track. The faster the better! This is one reason research has shown that weighing oneself at least weekly is an effective strategy to stop weight regain.
7. Stay engaged with or line up ongoing support for the long run.
Perhaps you worked with a registered dietitian to lose weight or maybe you were part of a local or online program or support network. Don’t stop that support when you hit your weight loss goal! Do continue to seek out support for your ongoing weight loss maintenance journey. After getting to a healthier weight it’s very common for people to feel confident that they can now maintain their weight loss on their own. But evidence shows that most people keep more pounds off if they stay actively engaged with some type of support so don’t call yourself weak for needing this support. You are strong for recognizing that you do need support. Search and find the support that works for you.
Keeping pounds off is a daily challenge that takes cementing those new behaviors with repeated practice, along with large amounts of fortitude and persistence. Good luck with your weight loss maintenance journey! You can do this!
1 M. Rosenbaum, R. Leibel. Adaptive responses to weight loss. Chapter in book: Treatment of the Obese Patient. May 2014. DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4939-1203-2_7
Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BC-ADM, has been a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for 40 plus years. She’s a nationally recognized expert in diabetes care and weight management. Hope owns a diabetes-and nutrition-focused consulting business based in Ashville, North Carolina and is the author of numerous books published by the American Diabetes Association. She’s passionate about encouraging more healthcare providers to talk to people with overweight and obesity about the evidence-based actions it takes to keep lost pounds off…forever.