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The psychology of weight loss.

Why Does Weight Loss Feel Like 2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back?

The most frustrating thing about losing weight is watching it creep back on.

The most frustrating thing about weight loss is the two steps forward one step back experience. One day you are down a couple of pounds, then a few days go by and poof! one pops right back on, often inexplicably. This makes us feel like we are struggling, not trying hard enough, but the truth is, this is not a sign of failure at all. It is a normal part of the process.

Consider the graph. This person lost 50 pounds and plotted their weekly weight for 1 year. I call it the "road to 50" because it illustrates a pretty typical trajectory for a successful loser of 50 pounds. Notice that the line is not a perfectly straight downward slope.

It is extremely important that you realize this: IT NEVER WILL BE.

A perfectly straight downward slope is virtually impossible to achieve from a physical standpoint. It would require control over so many variables that affect your weight some of which we don't even understand. I have never met a single "loser" who didn't experience fluctuations on the way down.

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Each time your weight plateaus or jumps back up it provides you an opportunity to improve because it calls attention to your danger zones.

When you find yourself frustrated by a setback, consider these 5 steps:

1. Acceptance. Accept that setbacks are part of the process, not a sign that it is going awry. Olympic ice skaters didn't learn to ice skate without a thousand wipe outs. And keep in mind, the person who quits after a few wipe outs never becomes an Olympic skater. It's the quitting not the wiping out that makes a failure.

2. Post-Mortem. Immediately figure out the cause of the setback. Each time the scale shows an extra pound or two, before even stepping off stop to think about what might have been the cause.  Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it is a mystery. The more insight you have into the causes of your weight fluctuations, the more equipped you are to deal with them next time.

3. Don't Play It Again, Sam! If you were able to identify the cause of your weight gain, anticipate the next time that challenge is going to happen and make a plan for dealing with it. The key to weight loss is to avoid repeating the same mistakes. If every time you go to your favorite pizza joint you overeat, it may be time to reduce how often you put yourself in that situation. Repeating mistakes is the main reason people get stuck indefinitely in the one step forward, one step back cycle.

4. Zoom Out. To get a better perspective on the magnitude of today’s 2 pound gain, zoom out to bigger picture, just like the one above. What does your overall trajectory look like? Have you been gaining weight for two weeks or longer? It is important to keep an eye on day-to-day progress but just as important to keep an eye also on your longer term trajectory (past one to two months).

5. Even The Best Fall Down Sometimes. Even the most skilled skaters will wipe out. Ask anyone who has lost a lot of weight if they have setbacks and every single one will say "YES!" Carry the notion that you can screw up along with the notion that you are on the right road. It's not one or the other, you can be both at once.

Like everything else in life, wrong turns, bad calls, setbacks, losses and disappointments are just a part of the journey. If you perceive a setback as the beginning of the end, it will be.

Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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