Many folks try to lose weight and it is no easy feat—those who do shed off pounds tend to regain it back. Oftentimes people intend to change their lifestyle habits only to break these healthy habits soon after. So what does it take to keep those habits in your life?
We spoke to a behavior change expert to find out why people have such a tough time losing weight and what are the best behaviors to follow that can help enable successful weight loss.
“For nearly all of us, there is often a gap between what we intend to do and what we end up doing,” says Allison Grupski, Ph.D. and Vice President of Behavior Change Strategies & Coaching at Weight Watchers. “This happens because we’re human—which means that pretty predictable things get in our way. But there are ways to bridge that intention-action gap, especially for those looking to lose weight or get healthier.”
Here are five behaviors that can help make your healthy goals doable. Then, for more on long-term weight loss tips, take a look at This Diet and Exercise Combo Is the Key to Long-Term Weight Loss, New Study Says.
“We often think that to lose weight, we must entirely change our lives,” says Grupski. “We imagine some version of our future self who is doing all of the ‘right things’ and living our best life. And for most of us, the distance between today-us and that imagined best-self-us is not insignificant.”
Behavioral theories suggest that the less attainable a goal seems, the less likely we are going to take action. Instead of envisioning a complete transformation, Grupski says to set goals that have a 95% chance of you completing and repeating. In order to do that, get really specific about what you will do and when; focus the goal on something you will get some enjoyment from doing; and make sure your approach is one that genuinely fits into your life as it is today.
Grupski explains that we tend to think about what we will or won’t eat or whether we’ll start jogging again or try a new workout. But we often stop short of really figuring out “how” to make it happen.
“This is why it’s important, when we’re deciding on what we want to do differently, to focus even more energy on precisely how we’ll make it happen,” she says. “We should ask ourselves questions like: what exactly am I going to do? When will I do it? What might get in the way and how can I plan for that?”
“We often have an all-or-nothing thinking style when it comes to making healthy changes,” Grupski says. “So when we miss the mark of what we planned to do, we think of it as a ‘mess up’ or as evidence that we ‘ruined’ the good stuff we already did.”
This way of thinking makes a big impact on what we do. For example, when we think “well, I already ate 2 cookies … might as well finish the sleeve.” This is where noticing our thinking patterns, gently challenging them, looking at the big picture, and practicing self-compassion come in.
Many folks like to see those numbers drop on the scale, especially when the results are quick. When weight loss occurs slowly, plateaus, or even reverses people tend to get discouraged and don’t want to continue on their weight loss journey—even though this almost always tends to happen along the way.
“This is where keeping the big picture of health in mind and focusing on off-the-scale progress—like improved energy and mobility—come in,” Grupski explains. “And some research even suggests that focusing on process more than the outcomes can help you stay on track.”
When it comes to eating behaviors, here are several behavioral strategies that Grupski suggests to help support your weight loss journey.
- Practice self-compassion: Most folks fall off the wagon or “mess up” and that is 100% normal and inevitable. Recognize that you’re human, talk kindly to yourself, and move forward.
- Track what you eat: Research shows that tracking what you eat is a powerful behavioral strategy for weight loss and maintenance. You don’t have to count every morsel or figure out how many calories you just ate in a meal. It’s a simple form of self-monitoring and developing awareness. Tracking what you eat gives you a chance to start noticing patterns and can be very empowering. Research from the WW Success Registry suggests that food tracking can help members successfully lose weight and keep it off says Grupski. “Specifically, 74.4% of WW Success Registry members (those who lost at least 20 pounds on WW and kept it off for at least a year) reported tracking what they ate “most of the time” or “always” compared to 7.4% of the weight stable control group.”
- Plan ahead: You’re much more likely to eat whatever is in reach when you get hungry. That’s when planning comes in handy. Having healthy foods inclusive of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, low and nonfat dairy available make them more likely to be included in your meals and snacks. Even better if you can pre-plan your meals and snacks so you don’t have to think twice when it’s mealtime.
READ MORE: These Behaviors Increase Your Dementia Risk, According to Doctors
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN