Whether due to stress eating, boredom or taking comfort in old-time favorites, many people gained weight in 2020. Sarah Marion, Ph.D., director of syndicated research at Murphy Research in Seattle, told TODAY in an email that at any given time this year, 53% of adults in the U.S. (aged 18 and up) gave themselves a C, D or F grade on managing their weight; only 17% gave themselves an A. And she said, 95% of adults think about weight management, at least some of the time, according to the firm’s research.
If you’re concerned about your weight and want to make some healthy changes, there is a staggering amount of advice available on how to lose weight, but really, healthy weight loss boils down to just five basic principles. Use them to boost your chances of weight loss success in 2021.
1. Practice healthy eating habits
Some dietary strategies appear to have more impact than others, so if you’re attempting to lose weight in the next year, heed this advice:
- Eat more vegetables.
- Enjoy mostly whole foods.
- Limit the amount of added sugars and processed foods you’re eating.
Veggies play their part by allowing you to fill up on more food without overdoing calories. This principle is called volumetrics, and it produces the calorie deficit required for weight loss without focusing on calorie restriction or causing you to feel too hungry. And it’s backed by science. Studies support volume-eating for weight loss and, importantly, weight loss maintenance. That means that among people who’ve lost weight, this tactic helps them keep it off.
Whole foods are also more filling and satisfying than the processed foods they replace. Foods made with heavily processed grains, like pizza, whiz through the digestive system, leaving you hungry soon after eating. Almost 60% of what we eat comes from this category of less healthful foods. One small study suggested that foods like these promote weight gain, probably because they’re designed to be incredibly tasty and because they’re softer and easier to chew. That makes them easier to wolf down, and therefore, easier to overeat.
Processed foods also tend to have more calories per bite, which means they have a higher energy density. Additional research has found that people tend to eat the same amount of food, so foods with higher energy density can lead to weight gain because you’re unlikely to reduce your portion size when choosing these foods, which can put you in a calorie surplus.
Healthy weight loss doesn’t need to be over complicated, nor does it need to involve a laundry list of foods to exclude. Findings from another year-long study revealed that following the three basic tenets bulleted above mattered more than the type of diet (low-fat or low-carb) participants followed.
2. Pay attention to why you eat
2020 was the year of stress and comfort eating — two behaviors that can contribute to weight gain. If you’re attempting to lose weight, it’s helpful to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger.
Emotional eating doesn’t need to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes it’s soothing to participate in comfort eating — and it’s perfectly healthy to enjoy a holiday meal or a traditional recipe that brings a lot of joy. However, if eating becomes a go-to for handling your emotions or stress, it can lead to overeating, undermine your mental health and make it harder to manage your weight.
The first step toward breaking this habit is to identify your emotional triggers, whether happiness, sadness, anger, fear, stress, boredom or other feelings. The next step is to find an alternative to eating when these feelings arise. For example, if you’re feeling stressed or angry, it might help to burn some of your negative emotions by going for a walk.
3. Take on an “I got this” attitude
How confident are you that you can make some healthy changes to your eating habits? Studies suggest that an “I got this” attitude, known in the behavioral science world as self-efficacy, correlates to behavior changes that promote weight loss. In one study among 246 mostly female participants, having self-efficacy at baseline or building it while losing weight was strongly linked to greater weight loss. People with this skill set were able to rebound more quickly when they experienced setbacks, so instead of giving up, they were more likely to recommit, which makes them more likely to lose weight and maintain their results.
To boost your self-efficacy, determine one feasible change you can make to support your goal. Let’s say you decide to tackle the snack habit you picked up in quarantine. Instead of saying, “I’m going to snack less,” set a specific goal, like “I will eat fruit with a snack at least three times a week.” Next, figure out how you’ll do this, starting with adding fruit to your shopping list. As you put your plan in motion, you’ll begin encountering hurdles (like running out of bananas mid-week), requiring you to problem-solve. Learning to overcom
e obstacles builds your confidence, which carries over into other habits you’re working on.
4. Address stress and sleep issues
According to the 2020 Stress in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), almost 80% of Americans said the pandemic was a source of stress in their lives, and more than two-thirds said their stress levels rose during this period.
When your levels of overwhelm are on overdrive, your body pumps out cortisol, a hormone that’s been shown to increase your appetite and cause cravings for comfort and junk foods. Perhaps that’s why 86% of those surveyed by Researchscape International, a market research company in Sarasota, Florida, on behalf of The Monday Campaigns, a public health initiative associated with Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Syracuse Universities, reported having a hard time resisting junk food in 2020.
Stress takes a toll in other ways, too. Researchers at Ohio State University conducted a study that suggested stressed-out women burned 104 fewer calories after a big meal, and they had higher levels of insulin, a hormone that promotes fat storage.
Stress also disrupts your sleep, and when you’re under-rested, it can counter your efforts to lose weight. In one study, participants who spent 5.5 hours in bed (compared to 8.5) experienced an uptick in the hormone ghrelin, which makes you hungrier, reduces the number of calories you burn and promotes fat retention.
You can address stress and sleep issues with tips like these from the APA:
- Create meaningful opportunities to connect with friends and loved ones.
- Practice naming three good things that happened in your day.
- Before you go to bed, jot down the thoughts that typically keep you up at night.
- Have a consistent bedtime routine, to let your body know that it’s time to wind down.
5. Exercise, but not to lose weight
Exercise is excellent for many things, including stress relief and supporting better sleep, but it’s not as good as you might think for promoting weight loss. Results from a study that came out in November suggest that for exercise to help with weight loss, you’d have to work out for about an hour six times per week. However, according to the CDC, just half that amount reduces your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.
Although it makes sense that exercise would lead to weight loss, in actuality, it makes you hungrier, and you eat more to make up for the calories you burned. The study found that you’d need to burn about 3,000 calories a week through exercise to overcome the extra amount you eat when you work out.
Since getting sweaty for an hour six times per week isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, set aside the idea of exercising to lose weight, and instead, find ways to work out that make you feel good. That will make your workout habit more likely to stick in the new year.