For years, I thought it was just me. Why staying slim felt so painful? How unfair. I would slim down with some diet, and then surrender to the Danish pastries thinking I could resume my restrictive diet on Monday. Ten Mondays would pass and, instead of dieting, I’d continue eating the universe!
This is why anti-diet campaigners tell you to ditch all the diets and, instead, focus on healthy eating and good ol’ habits. But losing weight this way can be slow and if you don’t see early results, why stick to a new habit?
On the other hand, after every single diet I’ve followed, I’ve gained the weight back. Does that make these campaigners right?
Not really. There’s a large number of women who do manage to maintain after a significant weight reduction. So, instead of focusing on those that fail, let’s have a look at the lucky few who actually succeeded.
Weight manipulation, which is great at the beginning, is discipline-based and not habit-based. The human brain is not hardwired to withstand indefinite periods of restriction and deprivation. Even less so when it comes to food. You can probably manage to do this for a short while with the right system in place. But the more you restrict and deprive yourself of the things that you naturally crave, the harder it gets to stay in control. Take for instance Atkins fans – studies suggest they carb-binge whenever given the chance! This is why I often say, cram in all the weight loss you can possibly get in the first month or two, because, longer than that, disaster happens.
What have you learned from your last dietary restriction? You’ve learned how to manipulate weight. You now understand how you can make your body thinner. So, logically, you allow yourself to eat whatever and delegate the responsibility of “impeccable behaviour” to your future self. Here’s where everything goes wrong.
Let me tell you, I’m the master at manipulating, but knowing how to lose weight can be a disadvantage… You know why? It creates the what-the-hell effect. That’s when you experience an obvious resistance against discipline and effort around food. What you need to understand is that impeccable self-control isn’t particularly reliable to maintain weight. This is one of the main reasons why 98% of dieters regain it all back – for them, it’s all or nothing.
Long-term maintainers may continue with some behaviours that helped them lose weight, but not all. Maintaining needs to feel easy and not as hard as losing. In order to achieve this, you need to focus on something called “habit forming.”
Through repetition, when we repeat the same action in the same situation, we’re teaching ourselves a pattern and that pattern becomes unconscious over time. After a while, we’ll perform that response automatically. In order to create a new good habit, you need to repeat the same action in the same situation to create that unconscious link between situation and action. Once established, habits take place spontaneously with zero willpower and no mental effort.
Scientists estimate that up to 95% of our daily food decisions happen as a result of habits. The exciting news is that you can train yourself to adopt new (good) automatic behaviours around food. I just love brain plasticity!
For a habit to stick, it needs to impart a meaningful reward in our brains. The reward for any new habit that you wish to implement needs to be immediate and tangible.
This means that, in order to achieve long-term weight maintenance, you need to, for example, find healthy foods you actually enjoy eating, physical activities you like doing, little rituals that you adore experiencing, and spend your time making these as convenient and accessible as possible.
Since our brains get easily overwhelmed, don’t try to develop too many habits at once. Research suggests that it’s best to work on just 2 or 3 habits at a time, and build from there. Start with the easiest ones on week one, add another one on week two, and work your way up.
As you focus on adding more to your life (more good nutrition, more hydration, more fun, more movement, more sleep), your weight takes care of itself. This is because your decisions are based on values and enjoyment, instead of restriction.
If you’re determined to make it work, once and for all, the following steps will give you some direction:
1. Take a piece of paper.
2. Write down your current weight.
3. Think of your ideal weight. We usually have 2 numbers in our heads: Optimal maintainable and skinny (for an event or an important moment in your life). Write both down.
4. Where can you fit in 8 weeks of fast weight loss in your calendar?
5. Schedule it!
6. Pick up a new diet book, and implement it. If you have already tried every printed diet in the planet, search for a new method or invest in a proper weight loss coach. The novelty of a new diet increases your chances for success – rather than repeating something old!
7. Weigh in yourself weekly (Never daily, it backfires!)
8. Observe your weight changes for 8 weeks (like a scientist, objectively)
9. Focus on re-training yourself, just like the long-term losers do. My clients, for instance, would send me their measurements bi-weekly for 18 months. What gets measured, gets done – even the maintenance!