For years, I thought it was just me. Why did staying slim feel so painful? How unfair. I would slim down with some diet, and then surrender to the Danish pastries thinking I could resume my restrictive diet on Monday. Ten Mondays would pass and, instead of dieting, I'd continue eating the universe!
This is why anti-diet campaigners tell you to ditch all the diets and, instead, focus on healthy eating and good ol' habits. But losing weight this way can be slow, and if you don't see early results, why stick to a new habit? On the other hand, after every single diet I've followed, I've gained the weight back.
Does that make these campaigners right? I'm not so sure. There's a large number of women who do manage to maintain after a significant weight reduction.
So, instead of focusing on those that fail, let's have a look at the lucky few who actually succeeded.
1. They stop dieting
Restrictive dieting is discipline-based and not habit-based. The human brain is not hardwired to withstand indefinite periods of restriction and deprivation. Even less so when it comes to food. You can probably manage to do this for a short while with the right system in place. But the more you restrict and deprive yourself of the things that you naturally crave, the harder it gets to stay in control.
2. They don't eat less to maintain
What have you learned from your last dietary restriction that resulted in weight loss? You've learned the association between eating less and changes in your body weight. So, logically, now that you know how it works, you allow yourself to eat anything and everything today, delegating the responsibility of impeccable behavior to your future self. Here's where everything goes wrong. Let me tell you, knowing how to lose weight can be a disadvantage... You know why? It creates the what-the-hell effect. That's when you experience an obvious resistance against discipline and effort around food. What you need to understand is that impeccable self-control isn't particularly reliable to maintain weight. This is one of the main reasons why most dieters regain it all back -- for them, it's all or nothing.
3. They repeat new behaviors... times 1,000,000!!
Long-term maintainers may continue with some behaviors that helped them lose weight, but not all. Maintaining needs to feel easy and not as hard as losing. In order to achieve this, you need to focus on something called "habit forming." Through repetition, when we repeat the same action in the same situation, we're teaching ourselves a pattern and that pattern becomes unconscious over time. After a while, we'll perform that response automatically. In order to create a new good habit, you need to repeat the same action in the same situation to create that unconscious link between situation and action. Once established, habits take place spontaneously with zero willpower and no mental effort. Scientists estimate that up to 95 percent of our daily decisions happen as a result of habits. The exciting news is that you can train yourself to adopt new (good) automatic behaviors around food, so they too become part of this 95 percent!
4. They choose things they actually enjoy
For a habit to stick, it needs to impart a meaningful reward in our brains. The reward for any new habit that you wish to implement needs to be immediate and tangible. This means that, in order to achieve long-term weight maintenance, you need to, for example, find healthy foods you actually love eating, physical activities you like doing, little rituals that you enjoy experiencing, and spend your time making these as convenient and accessible as possible.
5. They add more with less effort
Since our brains get easily overwhelmed, don't try to develop too many habits at once. It's best to work on just two or three habits at a time, and build from there. Start with the easiest ones on week one, add another one on week two, and work your way up. As you focus on adding more to your life (more good nutrition, more hydration, more fun, more movement, more sleep), your weight takes care of itself. This is because your decisions are based on values and enjoyment, instead of restriction.
You can learn more about your psychology on weight loss by taking this FREE QUIZ: Are you a Doer, a Thinker, a Planner or a Feeler? (It takes about two minutes to complete).
Alejandra Ruani is the creator of Health Divas, a weekly blog that breaks down the psychology of weight control into simple, actionable steps, showing you exactly what works so you can start doing it yourself.