Even when you are determined to make the changes that will help you get to and maintain a healthy weight, you might keep slipping into old, familiar habits simply because it’s so easy to forget that you’re trying to develop new ones. It happened to me.
Over the past few years, I gained enough weight (about 20 pounds) to officially put me in the “overweight” category. It happened for all the same reasons it happens to many people: I’d been sitting at a computer day and night for too long, my stress level was high and my exercise level was low, and I was eating anything and everything in sight. I was busy taking care of other people, but not taking care of me.
So, after years of doling out nutrition and weight advice, I had to turn the tables on myself, start looking at my own lifestyle habits, and put myself on some sort of weight loss plan. I started by cutting way back on the amount of food I was eating every day, and, by faithfully using a few techniques I’d been recommending to others for so long, I lost 11 pounds in 6 weeks.
At the 7-week mark, I went on vacation for five days. I stopped following my own advice, had to interrupt my exercise routine, and pretty much ate what I wanted—pancakes for breakfast one day, fried fish sandwiches or grilled cheese for lunch most days, ice cream twice, fast-food on the road and a couple of drinks as well. To make up for it, at least in part, I made sure that I walked far and as fast as I could, on beaches and trails, every single day.
Still, it was much to my surprise that I didn’t gain any weight on vacation. But by the time I got home, I started to get that familiar feeling that weight gain was imminent; my brain and stomach seemed to be sending out warning signals. And the scale was wavering towards the next digit up. So I went back on my plan, not quite as strict as when I left off at first, but rather easing back into the better habits I’d established during those first six weeks.
I'm back on track and here to write about it. These 10 techniques are working for me, and I know they will work for you whether you want to lose 10, 20, 30 pounds, or more—if you use them consistently.
1. Write Your Own Diet Book. At first, I sat down and thought about how I had been eating and how I gained the weight. I always recommended to others that they keep a food diary, so I wrote all my thoughts down and it started to read like the intro to a diet book. In the process, I recognized that my particular weight issues came down, in great part, to random eating. That’s more of a behavioral problem than a food problem. It’s not so much that I was eating the wrong types of foods, but that I was overeating because I ate at random times throughout the day, paying no attention to portion sizes. I then wrote a short list of things I knew I needed to do to make weight loss happen. Since that list included eating less food, I then wrote up a few days’ worth of calorie-restricted menu plans that I could start following that day.
2. Stop All Random Eating. Before I decided to crack down on myself, I had gotten into the habit of randomly grabbing a handful of nuts or pouring myself a large green smoothie in the afternoon, when I’d already had one that morning. These are healthful foods but I wasn’t eating them in healthy ways. I was overeating healthy foods, sometimes by at least 1,000 calories a day, because I wasn’t sticking to a routine. I wasn’t sitting down to eat balanced meals and snacks at specific times but instead was randomly eating whatever was in site that was easiest to grab throughout the day. I had a kitchen stocked full of ready-to-eat and prepared foods, but in addition to all the fresh fruits and veggies, there were a lot of high-calorie foods. Those extra 1,000 calories a day had, over the course of a year or two, added up to a 20+ pound weight gain.
3. Familiarize Yourself with Calories. This is a good idea, not to become obsessed with the calorie count of every food or meal you eat, but to understand just how much you are consuming when you eat different types of foods. When you plan your meals in advance, and look up the calorie counts for all the food you’re going to eat, it makes you stop and take notice of just how much you’re eating every day and which foods are contributing too many calories when you eat them in large amounts.
4. Keep Lower-Calorie Foods on Hand and (at first) Measure Your Food. When it came to my diet, I went back to some old-fashioned basics. For breakfast, for instance, I might have ½ cup lowfat cottage cheese with cut up fruit and 3 chopped brazil nuts. Why only 3? Because 3 brazil nuts = 100 calories, so that’s enough nuts! Sometimes it’s a cup of low-fat yogurt topped with fruit and a couple of tablespoons of granola. I have the benefit of knowing the calorie counts in most foods so I don’t have to look them up, but now that I’ve been doing this for a couple of months, I don’t even have to measure. Eating just the amount of food you need becomes second nature. That’s when you can trust yourself to go out to eat and eat some “fun food” because you know you can eat anything if you limit the amount. I never gave up my beloved smoothies, by the way, I simply had smaller portions and had them for lunch a few times a week, not in addition to lunch!
5. Take it Slow and Give Yourself Some Leeway. When it comes to food, give yourself a range of calories that makes sense. You have to eat less than you’ve been eating if you want to lose weight, so you have to restrict calories, but you can leave some “cheat room” so that you never feel too hungry. It is always better to lose weight slowly, at a rate of 1 to maybe 2 pounds max a week, if you want to sustain the loss. Fast weight gain only leads to regain. Slow down, and if you fall too far off the wagon, just jump back on as soon as you can.
6. Use Reminders. Silly as it may sound, carrying a note to yourself, or hanging signs around the house (including on the refrigerator) can help. I started carrying and posting reminders of ways that I wanted to change. For instance, I hung up a sign on the fridge that said “Is it time to eat?” and another on the front door that said “You can do this!” Another way to stay on track is to read something every day related to health and weight control. Surround yourself with motivational reading material, on and off-line. If you can, find a friend to take the journey with you, someone you can count on for motivation and advice, someone who is equally interested in maintaining a healthful lifestyle.
7. Find Some Type of Exercise You Enjoy. For years, I dreaded the idea of formal exercise and even though I was always recommending physical activity to others, I always found excuses not to do much of it myself. But that all changed when a good friend gave me a pass for 10 Pilates classes several years ago as a birthday present. That gift got me started on an exercise regime I truly enjoy. It’s not aerobic, but by routinely taking Pilates classes, I have become stronger and healthier, and I once again have more energy for other types of exercise like fast walking, biking, and hiking, whenever opportunities arise. Even routine housework and errands have become much easier. The bonus for having stuck with Pilates for 2 1/2 years now, even while I was overeating and gaining weight, is that once I lost just ten pounds, I started to see the lean and fit frame that had been hiding under my excess fat. So the message here is: even if you’re not ready to change your eating habits, and even if you don’t have the energy for a lot of aerobic exercise right now, just do something healthy for yourself in the way of physical activity on a regular basis.
8. Stay Busy. This could be one of the most important secrets to losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight. Do what it takes to prevent boredom, loneliness, stress, and other emotional factors from sneaking in or you will turn back to food to fill in time gaps or settle uneasy feelings. Very often, this means routinely planning ahead and making a commitment to something or someone that will keep you occupied. If it’s someone or something you really enjoy, all the better, because you will not only be doing something healthier than overeating, you’ll be doing something that makes you feel happy and motivated to stay positive.
9. Take a Break from Time to Time. It’s usually best to lay low and stick to a restricted plan early on, at least for a few weeks or until your new habits are somewhat ingrained, and you lose a few pounds. I turned down a few dinner invitations and a party when I first start my plan because I knew I would undo all my hard work if I went out too soon. I was also feeling highly motivated by the loss of those first few pounds and really wanted to stick to my plan to lose more. Ultimately, however, you won’t regain your lost weight by eating a little more food once in a while or even once or twice a week (as evidenced by my vacation splurge). If your new habits have truly become habits, you will take them with you on vacation and know when to stop, no matter what you’re eating.
10. Be Realistic. I know there’s no way I’m going back to the weight or shape I was in when I was when I was 20 years old. That would be unrealistic and probably not very healthy, now that I’m midlife+. But I’m also not going back to a state of overweight. I’ve just proven to myself that I can replace bad habits with good any time I put my mind to it, and if I can lose 11 pounds in six weeks, I can do anything I set my mind to do. That includes losing another 5 to 8 pounds over the next couple of months, so that I’m once again well within a healthy weight range. The real secret to weight control is knowing you’re in control.
Wilson P. Physical Activity and Dietary Determinants of Weight Loss Success in the US General Population. American Journal of Public Health 106.2. February 2016:321-326. http://search.proquest.com/openview/652a0c3733a2c61ec8574db10223b7d2/1?p...
Laitner M, Minski SA, Perri MG.The Role of Self-Monitoring in Weight Loss Success. Eating Behaviors. April 2016;21:193-197. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S147101531630023X