PART 2: Strategies for Successful Weight Loss
I know what to do, I just can’t seem to do it
During this new normal, many of us are staying home and confined to smaller spaces. When we stay home day and night — for an extended period and without an end in sight — our physical and emotional energies are strained. We’re not feeling our best without our regular routine.
But many of my patients are telling me that what they’re struggling with most — even in the new normal — is an old problem. They feel they know what to do — years of losing weight only to gain it all back and start dieting again has left them quite knowledgeable on what it takes, and even what works best for them specifically. And yet, despite their best intentions, and for complex reasons, they find themselves unable to stick with a plan and sustain those efforts week after week.
This pattern is frustrating, disheartening, and over time can affect our ability to believe in ourselves and maintain hope that long-term success is possible.
If you find yourself in this situation and are ready to throw in the towel, my advice is: don’t, there are ways to break this pattern — make changes and stick with them — and understanding is the first step.
Science-Based Strategies Have Proven to Work
Over the years, research has provided evidence-based strategies for long-term weight loss. My patients who have lost and maintained over the long-term are always re-affirming that these can, and do, work, and that there is hope!
Think lifestyle, not “diet”
Keto, South Beach, Paleo… there are so many diets out there. The reality is that no one diet is best. The most important question to ask: is this diet sustainable for me over time? My experience (supported by a lot of research) is that people don’t keep up crash or extremely restrictive diets. When you give up specific food types or severely restrict calories, food cravings and binges may hamper your progress. The key to success is to treat weight loss as a healthy, new lifestyle. Whatever changes you make, make them a new part of your life, not a short-term commitment. A healthy goal is to reduce the amount of refined sugar, so work towards that by replacing just one processed choice per day with something from nature (fruits, veggies). Or start by tackling making breakfast healthier. Or by filling your plate with lean protein and veggies, with smaller portions of whole grain carbs. Making small changes over time, no matter how slow, adds up, and is more likely to be sustainable.
There is strong scientific evidence that physical activity helps maintain weight loss over time. Burning calories through physical activity, along with reducing the number of calories you eat, helps create a “calorie deficit” that results in weight loss. But don’t think of it as a trade-off: it’s not that the 100 calories you burned on the treadmill allows you to eat an extra 100-calorie treat. Exercise is a long-term investment. Regular physical activity helps build muscle, and muscle is more “metabolically active” than fat tissue, so it burns more calories — not just while you work out, but around the clock. And it doesn’t have to be 60 minutes of boot camp per day. Incorporating short bouts into your day can work just as well. So whether you play with your children, do light yard work, walk, run, take the stairs or log onto Zoom aerobics, staying physically active is key to long-term success. And by the way, a great way to relieve stress in these challenging times.
Changing our habits
I know everyone has heard “eat less and move more” before. But what can truly help you do what you know you need to do, and continue to do it day in and day out, is working with science-based strategies to change behaviors. Yes, I admit that some of my patients roll their eyes when I bring up examples like food journaling. But study after study has proven that self-monitoring truly helps change habits and make them stick. Our mantra has been “If you bite it, you write it,” and technology has made it even easier — you can use an app or just snap a photo of your meal before you eat. Any way you slice it, tracking makes you accountable, and is a powerful way to be mindful of what you eat. Plus, it provides a record to analyze if you get off-track.
There are lots of other strategies for making changes, and making them stick. Setting goals and keeping them SMART — which makes them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and within a specific Time frame. Rallying a support team, and an accountability system. On this front, consider working with an experienced health professional, or a team of them: research has shown that the more accountability touch points, the greater the likelihood of success.
For some people, even implementing all of these tools just doesn’t translate to results. If you have obesity, and a pattern of repeated weight loss and regain, or you are doing all of the above but the scale is not moving, prescription weight loss medications might help. Medications mostly work on the brain to curb appetite, and must always be used while continuing to eat healthy and stay active. When prescribed safely and appropriately, these can turn things around for you if you have not otherwise achieved success. Stay tuned for next week when I delve deeper into weight loss meds.
These are not quick fixes. You may not see results at the snap of your fingers; it takes time. But don’t let the new normal — or old habits — derail your plan. Because it is possible, it can be done. Get tips on eating healthy and beating cravings, and look for continued support and more information next week, when I talk about weight loss medications in Part 3 of this series.
Until then, be well.
Dr. Florencia Halperin is the Chief Medical Officer at Form Health. She is a Harvard-trained endocrinologist dedicated to helping people lose weight to improve their health.