If you’ve been having trouble with dieting, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the vast majority. Losing weight requires major lifestyle changes that can be hard to stick with. And there’s not only the diet itself to get through—keeping the weight off can be just as challenging, or more so, than losing it. As many as 85% of people gain the lost weight back within two years, and fully 95% will have regained it within three years of their diet.
And people aren’t just gaining weight back. As many as a third of dieters actually end up gaining back more weight than they lost. And the more often you lose weight and then add it back, the more likely you are to gain more weight over time. This is due to changes in metabolism that occur over time as your body is put through aggressive diets and then rebounds.
Why Diets Fail
There are two ways a diet can fail: either the person can fail to meet their weight-loss goal for the diet, or they can meet their goal but then gain the weight back after the diet is “finished.”
For the most part, people are more than capable of losing weight. Unless there’s a medical condition complicating matters, as long as a diet is reasonable, people lose weight just fine. When someone fails to lose weight, the diet was probably overly aggressive, making it too difficult to stick with. Jumping into too great of a lifestyle change or caloric deficit too quickly can be a recipe for disaster, making the diet impossible to adhere to. These failures can also hurt morale, making you feel like a failure or that you just don’t have what it takes, when in reality the diet was doomed to fail from the start.
The reality, though, is that 85% of people that set out to lose weight will eventually reach their goal. That’s six out of seven dieters. The real problem comes in after the diet is “over.” People just can’t keep the weight off once they lose it! If only one in twenty dieters is successfully maintaining their new weight, there’s an issue, and most of the time the issue is in how a diet is perceived. A diet should not be a one-time event that you complete and move on from. A successful weight-loss strategy that sheds the pounds and keeps them off needs to be a long-term lifestyle change that persists long after the weight-loss period is over.
One of the biggest traps people fall into is thinking of a diet as an event with a starting and ending point. When viewing the diet in these terms, once the diet is “over,” people are often left wondering what they should do next. Do they go back to eating the way they were before the diet? Do they just do a less-extreme form of it forever? These are valid questions, but the lack of direction unfortunately leads many back to unhealthy eating habits and the weight comes back. The more this is repeated (yo-yo dieting), the harder it gets to keep the weight off.
Another major issue is going back to old habits after the weight is lost. Many people successfully complete a diet and reach their weight-loss goal, but then jump right back into their old ways, thinking the job is finished. The weight comes back, and due to the rebound effect this has on the metabolism, may even cause you to gain back more weight than you lost in the first place. A successful diet needs to be a total lifestyle overhaul that continues for the rest of your life, ensuring that the weight stays off and you remain in good shape.
How to Create Sustainable Weight Loss
So, we’ve established that, while most people are successful in losing weight, very few manage to keep it off. And we’ve learned that the primary reasons for this are overly aggressive diet plans and lack of long-term sustainability. So how do we beat the odds and shed those pounds for good?
Successful weight loss involves more than just the diet. It needs to be a long-term, sustainable, healthy lifestyle change. This includes healthy eating, eating at a caloric deficit to burn fat, and exercising regularly to help burn calories and stay in shape.
The most important part of the equation is sustainability. Whatever diet method you choose, whether it’s a specific diet plan like Weight Watchers or a simple macro-based approach, needs to be something you can sustain without putting too much stress on yourself.
Part of creating a sustainable weight-loss is having an idea of what you’re going to do after you reach your goal. To avoid throwing your metabolism into overdrive, it’s best to use what’s called reverse dieting. Slowly add calories back into your diet to bring yourself up to a maintenance point. Once you hit that maintenance point, stay there! Continue to be aware of what you eat and get regular exercise so that you don’t pack the pounds back on.
It’s also important to focus on long-term weight loss, rather than rapid crash diets and other lose-weight-quick schemes. Not only are these diets harder to stick to, the frequent yo-yo effect of rapid weight loss followed by rapid return to regular eating habits causes the metabolism to go haywire and leads to increased production of fat cells.
Instead, look at weight loss as a marathon, rather than a sprint. Rather than trying to rush towards your goal as quickly as possible and (and burning yourself out in the process), aim to pace yourself and reach your goal in a slower, more methodical way.
Tips for Weight Loss Success
Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: some actionable tips for building an effective, sustainable weight-loss plan.
First of all, have a meal plan. While some people can handle “intuitive eating,” for most of us this is a recipe for disaster. A meal plan can be as detailed as knowing exactly what you’ll eat for lunch next Tuesday, or it can be a broader idea of how many calories and what ratio of protein, fats, and carbs your meal will be. The level of detail you need is an individual thing that you’ll need to decide for yourself (or with a wellness coach).
Now that you have a meal plan, review it and make sure your meal plan is realistic. It should be something you would be comfortable sticking to the rest of your life. This helps ensure sustainability, and it also helps ensure you’ll actually stick to the diet in the first place. Super-restrictive diets that cut out all the foods we enjoy eating aren’t realistic for most of us, and are rarely meant to be adhered to for longer than a few months.
You’ll also want to have a plan for the “diet after the diet.” Once you’ve achieved your weight-loss goal, to avoid throwing your body into a defensive mode where it wants to pack on weight, you need to ease out of your diet slowly. This is known as reverse dieting, and the basic idea is to slowly add calories back over the course of a few weeks until you get to your new baseline, rather than just diving back into normal eating.
Find a good nutritionist or wellness coach. Having an experienced professional help create your meal plans, calorie and macro targets, and reverse dieting plan makes the whole process easier. They can also help provide motivation and give advice if things get a little off track.
And, with all this talk of diet and nutrition, make sure you don’t forget the exercise. Exercise helps burn calories, which in turn allows you to take in more calories each day—with no exercise, you’d have to really restrict your eating to maintain a caloric deficit and continue to lose weight. Not to mention the benefits to overall health and mental well-being.
You can lose that weight, and you can keep it off. All it takes is the right frame of mind, a little patience, and a strong plan. Make it your goal to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle, and you can’t go wrong.