As strange as it might sound, it seems that losing weight is actually easier than keeping it off. Studies show that many dieters are able to lose weight -- but before long, they return to old eating habits and the extra weight returns. Sometimes, they end up even heavier than when they started.
The challenge, experts say, is to sustain a healthier lifestyle forever without the reward of seeing the numbers on the scale go steadily down, or continually hearing compliments about your new body.
To maintain a weight loss, you must accept that this is your new lifestyle of eating healthy and being physically active, says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Fight Fat After 40 and Body for Life for Women. Some of the rewards you can focus on at this point might include getting off medications, lowering your blood pressure, sleeping better, and feeling energized.
Don't think of your weight loss efforts as dieting, but rather as shifting into a new gear in which you're adopting small, realistic lifestyle changes, suggests Elisa Zied, MS, RD, author of Feed Your Family Right.
"If you can't continue the behavior after you have lost the weight, don't bother -- because if it is not sustainable, it is a recipe for weight regain," says Zied, herself a successful loser.
Secrets of Long-Term Weight Loss
So exactly how do successful losers -- all those people we've seen on reality shows and in magazine articles - beat the odds to avoid regaining?
More than a decade ago, researchers James Hill, PhD, and Rena Wing, PhD, set out to answer that question. They initiated the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), which tracks the habits of more than 6,000 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for more than a year. (The average participant has lost about 70 pounds and has kept it off for six years.)
Hill and Wing learned that these successful losers tended to share several habits:
They follow a relatively low fat, calorie-controlled diet. "Controlling portions [and] eating foods high in water, like soups and vegetables, can make it easier to control calories," says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD. If you also limit the variety of foods you eat, you can simplify your diet and make it easier to not overeat. Zied cautions to choose your calories wisely; don't waste them on foods you don't love.
Whether it's Monday, Saturday, or a holiday, successful dieters follow a consistent pattern of eating from day to day. This establishes a routine, and even though there is room for splurges, this set eating plan is the cornerstone of their success. Since everyone needs a special treat once in awhile, Dix suggests planning your splurges in advance.
Successful weight loss maintainers eat frequently, every 3 to 4 hours, or 4 to 5 times a day. Hunger is the Achilles heel of any dieter, and frequent eating helps you control your blood sugar and manage your appetite. "And don't forget to drink plenty of water or unsweetened beverages, because thirst is sometimes confused with hunger and extra fluids can help take the edge off your appetite," says Dix.
They start the day with breakfast. This is an essential step to get your engine going and to help you perform better in the boardroom or at the gym. Breakfast doesn't have to be anything fancy, either. "Enjoy a bowl of high-fiber, whole-grain cereal with fruit and non-fat dairy for a great meal that will last for hours," suggests Zied.
They exercise for 60 minutes each day. Most successful losers are walking 11,000-12,000 steps, or the equivalent of 5.5-6 miles per day. For those in midlife who now find that it's now harder to lose weight and keep it off, Peeke suggests increasing intensity during your walks. "Stop looking in the past at what used to work," she says. "In order to achieve and maintain weight loss, you have to add in intensity to mobilize the fat." So add some hills, do some speed intervals, or do whatever it takes to boost your heart rate a little more.
Successful losers get on the scale regularly, whether it's daily, every other day, or weekly. "Everyone has their own formula of how many pounds it takes to trigger tightening the belt," says Zied. She personally allows herself 2-3 pounds to play with. When the scale goes up beyond that number, she steps up her activity and curbs her calories.
Members of the Registry limit television watching to about 10 hours per week -- about one-third of the typical American habit. This gives them more time to exercise, and no doubt reduces mindless munching in front of the tube.
In addition, Taub-Dix and Zied add these habits to the list:
Don't beat yourself up about your weight or about slip-ups; instead, engage in positive self-talk. "Being negative or feeling guilty is counterproductive," says Dix. "Talk to yourself in a positive manner, like a psychotherapist, not like the Wicked Witch."
Keep in mind, Dix says, that the weight loss or maintenance plan that has worked for your friend or co-worker might not be the best approach for you: "It is not about the diet, but about what works best for you because there is no right or wrong way."
Lose weight slowly. This approach is more realistic and gives dieters the chance to gradually settle into their new lifestyle and weight. "When you do it slowly, you can stop focusing on the numbers on the scale and work on changing your eating habits, improving your lifestyle, and [adapting] to the new way of life," says Zied.