By now you’ve heard this weight-loss mantra many times: Eat less, exercise more. This concept - underscored by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in their 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans - is simple. But many find it difficult to put into practice. Every day, you find yourself in all kinds of situations in which it’s difficult to eat less.
If you’re like many people, you’ve thought about how you can make it all work. You really do want to lose that extra weight, but you still have to find a way that works in your own situation. Otherwise, you’ll just slip back and find more excuses. And any weight you may have lost will jump right back on the minute you give up.
You also probably know that virtually hundreds of different fad diets, weight-loss programs and outright scams promise quick and easy weight loss. But the foundation of every successful weight-loss program still remains a healthy diet combined with exercise.
You must make permanent changes in your lifestyle and health habits to lose significant weight and then keep it off.
Here are six effective strategies to help you meet and maintain your weight-loss goals.
1. Make a commitment
Achieving and maintaining your healthy weight requires a lifelong commitment. It requires concentration, time and effort. Make sure that you’re ready to make the necessary permanent changes and that you do so for the right reasons.
No one else can make you lose weight. In fact, external pressure - often from people closest to you - may actually make matters worse. You must want to make diet and exercise changes to please yourself.
As you’re planning to launch new weight-related lifestyle changes, try to resolve any other problems that may be in your life. It takes considerable mental and physical energy to change your habits. So make sure you aren’t distracted by other major issues in your life, such as marital or financial problems. Timing is key to success. You need to be at a point in your life when you’re ready to take on the challenges of serious weight loss.
Keep in mind that no matter how prepared you may be, you’ll occasionally overeat or eat foods that you should avoid. Rather than let a setback derail your efforts, accept that it happened and get back on track. Don’t expect to be perfect - and never give up.
Motivate yourself by focusing on all of the benefits of losing weight, such as having more energy and improving your health. Then look at the negatives, such as finding the time to exercise, and come up with creative solutions.
2. Draw on support from others
Ultimately, only you can help yourself lose weight, so you have to take responsibility for your own behavior. But that doesn’t mean that you have to do everything alone. Seek support from your spouse, family and friends.
Pick people who you know want only the best for you and who will encourage you. Your support person or persons should be available to listen to your thoughts and feelings and encourage you, perhaps spend time exercising with you, and share the priority you’ve placed on developing a healthier lifestyle. An ideal support person might be someone who also is participating in a weight-loss program.
Some people fare better with professional support, such as from a dietitian or personal trainer. Others benefit from the group support they receive from organizations such as Weight Watchers or Overeaters Anonymous.
If you do join a group, keep in mind that what you get out of it will be in proportion to what you put into it. If you sit in a corner and just listen, you may hear some good suggestions. But if you actively participate, you’re more likely to reap the potential rewards of the group, such as support, encouragement, feeling that you’re not alone and helpful suggestions specific to your concerns.
3. Set a realistic goal
When you’re thinking about what you expect from your new eating and exercise plan, be realistic. Healthy weight loss occurs slowly and steadily. Aim to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week. To do this, you need to burn 500 to 1,000 calories a day through a low-calorie diet and regular exercise. Losing weight more rapidly means losing water weight or muscle tissue, rather than fat.
Set weekly or monthly goals and track your progress. Remember that you’re in this for the long haul. Anything you undertake too intensely or too vigorously quickly becomes too onerous, so you’re more likely to give up.
In addition, make your goals “process goals,” such as eating judiciously and exercising regularly, rather than “outcome goals,” such as losing 50 pounds. Changing your process - your habits - is the key to weight loss. Make sure that your process goals are realistic, specific and measurable - you’ll walk for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
Work out a strategy that gradually changes the habits and attitudes that may have undermined your past efforts to lose weight. Choose a definite start date. Consider where, how often and how long you’ll exercise. Determine a realistic eating plan that factors in plenty of water, fruits and vegetables. Write everything down. Find the potential roadblocks, and make plans to deal with them.
Ask your doctor how much weight you can safely lose. Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian or someone else who specializes in weight loss.
4. Learn to enjoy healthier foods
Liquid meals, diet pills and unusual combinations of foods aren’t the key to long-term weight control and better health. Instead, learn how to eat a variety of healthy foods.
Adopting a new eating style that promotes a healthy weight for you must include lowering your total calorie intake. But decreasing calories need not mean decreasing taste, satisfaction or even ease of meal preparation. One way you can lower your calorie intake is by eating more plant-based foods - fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Strive for variety to help you achieve your goals without compromising taste or nutrition. Cutting back on calories is easier if you focus on limiting fat.
To lose weight, talk to your doctor about setting these daily calorie goals:
|Your weight in pounds||Daily calorie goal|
|250 or less||1,200||1,400|
|251 to 300||1,400||1,600|
|301 or more||1,600||1,800|
Over time, your calorie needs may change based on your health risks, the rate of weight loss desired or needed, and your personal goals and preferences. You can adjust your calories if you’re too hungry or if you have reached your target weight and want to stop losing.
Very-low-calorie diets aren’t a healthy long-term strategy. Fewer than 1,200 calories a day for women and 1,400 calories for men aren’t generally recommended. If your calories are too low, you run the risk of not getting all of the nutrients you need for good health.
It’s usually best to talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian before starting any weight-loss plan. A weight-loss specialist can help guide you in making the healthiest, most effective and safest food choices based on your individual needs.
5. Get active, stay active
Dieting alone can help you lose weight. Cutting 250 calories from your daily diet can help you lose about half a pound a week: 3,500 calories equals 1 pound of fat. But add a 30-minute brisk walk four days a week, and you can double your rate of weight loss.
The goal of exercise for weight loss is to burn more calories, although exercise offers many other benefits as well. How many calories you burn depends on the frequency, duration and intensity of your activities. For many people it’s easier to keep a routine of longer-duration, lower-intensity aerobic exercises. One of the best ways to lose body fat is through steady aerobic exercise - such as walking - for more than 30 minutes most days of the week.
Strength-training exercises, such as weight training, also are important since they help counteract muscle loss associated with aging. And since muscle tissue burns more calories, muscle mass is a key factor in helping maintain a healthy weight. The more lean muscle mass you preserve, the bigger “engine” in which to burn more calories.
Exercise sensibly by starting out slowly and gradually increasing both its duration and intensity. Walking is an ideal choice as are swimming, bicycling, jogging and dancing. Decide, too, if you prefer to exercise alone or with others. Often, having a buddy helps you stick to your schedule.
Even though regularly scheduled aerobic exercise is best for losing fat, any extra movement helps burn calories. Lifestyle activities may be easier to incorporate into your day. Think about ways you could increase your physical activity throughout the day. For example, make several trips up and down stairs instead of using the elevator, or park at the far end of the lot. Stair climbing, walking, gardening, lawn mowing and even housework all help burn calories.
6. Change your lifestyle
It’s not enough to eat healthy foods and exercise for only a few weeks or even several months. You have to incorporate these behaviors into your life. To do that, you have to change the behaviors that helped make you weight loss in the first place. Lifestyle changes start with taking an honest look at your eating habits and daily routine.
To assess your eating behaviors, ask yourself if you tend to eat when you’re bored, angry, tired, anxious, depressed or socially pressured. Look at your eating style and shopping and cooking techniques. Were you taught to clean your plate? Do you eat too fast? Do you eat while watching TV? See if any patterns emerge to identify possible triggers for overeating.
After assessing your personal challenges to weight loss, try working out a strategy to gradually change habits and attitudes that have sabotaged your past efforts. Simply admitting your own challenges won’t get you past them entirely. But it helps in planning how you’ll deal with them and whether you’re going to succeed in losing weight once and for all.
You likely will have an occasional setback. But instead of giving up entirely, simply start fresh the next day. Remember that you’re planning to change your life. It won’t happen all at once, but stick to your healthy lifestyle and the results will be worth it.
Revision date: July 6, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD