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Secrets of the Big Losers

How to reprogram mental eating habits for physical success.

There's no question that losing weight is hard and keeping it off even harder. But it's not impossible. The National Weight Control Registry lists thousands of people who have lost more than 50 pounds and kept it off more than five years. Here's how to do the same.

  • Make radical changes. People think moderate dietary changes are easier to stick with. But as with quitting drug addiction, drastic changes are actually easier. "We don't tell heroin addicts if you stay clean all week, you can reward yourself by shooting up a small amount on the weekend," says Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of Waistland. "Sugar derails glucose metabolism in a similar way." She advises cutting out sugars, refined foods, simple carbohydrates, and trans fats.
  • Reprogram your brain. Losing weight means developing new eating habits—like reaching for an orange instead of an oreo. The hardest part is the first 72 hours, when eating right is an act of will. After two or three weeks of sticking to it, your hunger and cravings subside, and control over eating choices becomes more automatic. Voila, your brain is rewired.
  • Eat breakfast. Without breakfast, your body plunges into starvation mode, slowing your metabolism and tempting you to binge later. Over 78 percent of the registry's successful losers eat breakfast every day.
  • Exercise like you mean it. An evening walk every other day isn't going to cut it. Ninety percent of registry participants exercised—for a full hour, on average, most days of the week.
  • Stretch your mind. Stop living on autopilot. A study shows that people who push their comfort zones and try new things—like reading a different magazine or listening to a new radio station—lose weight and keep it off. Breaking out of your routine may make you more aware of your choices in general, and less likely to engage in mindless eating.