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Forget diets: This is how to lose weight and keep it off for good

Losing weight is the easy part — here are nine ways to keep the pounds from creeping back.

Losing weight is notoriously difficult. And as hard as it is to get the scale to tick down, it's even harder to keep the weight off. Unfortunately, recent studies show that most of us will put weight back on in two years. By five years, almost all of it may come back. Further, many people end up gaining more weight than they lost.

But keeping your focus on the end goal — better health and longevity — may increase your odds more than any extreme diet and fitness regime. In fact, the path to maintaining a healthy weight starts long before you get close to your goal weight. Here are some evidence-based ways to approach weight loss and maintenance in a healthy way.

Don't fixate on the number on the scale

When I see patients for the first time, we discuss their health goals. The truth is that most people are aiming for a particular number. “I want to lose this many pounds,” or “I want to reach this number on the scale.” But fixating on a goal weight may work against a lot of us. Studies show that focusing on the numbers that speak to overall health may be more impactful in sustained behavior change. So, throw out the scale and focus on your lipid panel, your blood-sugar numbers, or perhaps even your inflammation markers.

Paying attention to health, rather than weight can shift the reason why you want to drop pounds in the first place. Other quality of life parameters — like better sleep, less chronic pain or increased energy —can all be major motivation for changing your habits. Finally, if you must rely on a scale, choose an option that assess body fat and muscle mass. 

Learn from weight maintenance warriors 

Multiple studies have tried to demystify why one person succeeds at weight loss while another doesn’t. Two studies in the journal Obesity surveyed almost 6,000 individuals who had participated in a structured weight-loss program. The surveyed participants lost on average 50 pounds and kept their weight off for three years or more. 

Based these studies, as well as previous data, people who were successful at losing weight and keeping it off did these things:

  • Made healthy food choices most of the time — and found that these choices effortless and “unconscious."
  • Self-monitored and journaled about their food intake.
  • Consumed lower calorie, yet higher nutrient dense foods.
  • Engaged higher levels of physical activity.
  • Made continued goal setting a priority.
  • Celebrated their past achievements and embraced their current health.

Another crucial component of weight loss success was mindset — especially in the face of challenges and adversity. While both health and appearance were significant motivating factors, greater confidence and being more mentally and physically fit topped the list for being able to maintain healthy habits.

Move more

Exercise, as it turns out, is not the secret weapon to successful weight loss. When it comes to weight loss, your diet has been found to play a much more significant role in terms of pounds lost. However, when it comes to keeping those pounds from coming back, you need to move more.

A recent study from the University of Colorado found that when individuals engaged in physical activity, they maintained more steps per day (about 12,000) and maintained a higher energy expenditure. Another study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that in order to maintain weight loss, women needed to exercise at least 55 minutes, five days per week. This recommendation surpasses the current guidelines for exercise, which calls for only 150 minutes of moderate physical activity throughout the week and two days of muscle-building training

Adding protein to each meal — like enjoying an egg white omelet for breakfast — has been shown to help maintain weight loss.
Adding protein to each meal — like enjoying an egg white omelet for breakfast — has been shown to help maintain weight loss.Sergio Amiti / Getty Images

Fall in love with protein

2020 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that high-protein diets were associated with greater success in maintaining weight loss. The study showed that having more protein often counteracted the process of adaptive thermogenesis — a state where the body adapts to a new weight by altering energy expenditure. An easy way to up your protein intake is to add some kind of protein to every meal and snack. For example, consuming eggs whites at breakfast, hummus for a snack and wild salmon for dinner.

Assess your social circle

If you've ever had a friend tell you that “one bite of something won’t kill you," you know that your loved ones can have a major influence on your health habits. A study from The University of North Carolina found that individuals that lose weight may face a “lean stigma” where friends and family consciously or unconsciously sabotage or undermine efforts of the successful weight loss.

Researchers found that effective communication techniques were one way to mitigate comments and discouraging attitudes from friends and family. For example, telling loved ones ahead of time your motivation to lose weight or communicating weight-loss efforts as a way to obtain better health — and not better appearance — is a good way to let your loved ones know why your health goals are important to you.

Accept the fact that there's no magic weight loss fix

"Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to lose weight quickly and sustainably," Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian and author of "Sugar Shock," told "Some people like the idea of a jump-start plan, which may involve fewer calories or carbs as you’re starting out. If that helps you feel motivated and get in the right mindset to form lasting habits, go for it. But for permanent weight loss, be realistic about what you can sustain," Cassetty explained.

Also, Cassetty added, it's important to keep in mind that when you fast weight loss, you might overlook behaviors that need to be addressed — such as nighttime snacking or eating when you’re bored. Cassetty said that a jump-start plan probably doesn’t include your favorite foods, but it’s much more realistic to learn how to live with indulgences than to try to avoid them forever. "Overly restricting less healthy foods can be stressful, which can stall weight loss efforts," said Cassetty.

Embrace your body — and adapt to it when it changes

Studies indicate that frequent attempts to lose and then regain weight (often referred to as yo-yo dieting) can have an adverse impact on health and lead to an increased risk of further weight gain. A 2016 study showed that repeated dieting could cause the brain to think it’s going through periods of famine. In response, the body continues to work toward fat storage to prepare for the next round. The body adapts and becomes efficient at the current lower weight, and if you don’t adapt with it, you will most likely gain the weight back.

Imagine putting on a 20-pound vest and taking a walk around the block. The walk would be challenging, and you may have to work harder during the activity. Exertion is higher, and with it so are the calories you are burning as well. Now imagine taking the vest off. The body does not have to work that hard anymore to get you around the block. If you’ve lost 50 pounds, and changed nothing in your physical activity or eating habits, you are more likely to gain that weight back. Your metabolism works with the new weight, so constant adaptation is essential.

Let go of the idea that you can target belly fat

There's a lot of trending advice about how to lose belly fat, but the truth is that it's difficult to target weight loss. "If you lose weight, you will lose fat in your midsection, but it’s impossible to target belly fat,"Cassetty told TODAY. However, belly fat tends to respond well to modifications in your diet and activity, Cassetty explained. "And there’s evidence that when your waist shrinks, cholesterol and blood sugar levels improve," she said.

If you experience, belly-specific health issues, you may need to address those. "If your belly seems bigger after you eat and you experience painful bloating, it could be a sign of a food sensitivity or gut health problem," Cassettty said. "If this is the case, consult with your healthcare provider to determine the cause and treatment plan."

Take a break from dieting

If your idea of weight loss and weight maintenance is a “diet,” then studies show you are likely bound for failure. A 2017 randomized controlled trial found that individuals that took breaks from dieting were more likely to lose weight and keep it off. The cornerstone of dieting is often restriction. The more restricted, the less we lose. So, take a break from diets and embrace lifestyle changes instead.

Weight loss — especially when the reduction occurs in the midsection — can have a significant impact on health and longevity, though. When you focus on longevity, happiness and increased energy, your reasons for losing the weight in the first place will be clear and your ability to maintain better health will be easier.