After The Fat

by Charles Platkin, PhD

After The Fat

“It is ironic that we focus on , when the real challenge is keeping weight off. Most popular diets work when it comes to losing weight, but few if any succeed when it comes to ,” says James Hill, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Sciences Center in Denver and one of the founders of the National Weight Control Registry (an ongoing study of more than 4,000 individuals who have lost significant weight and kept it off).

Why don’t we pay more attention to the most important aspect of weight control? “Weight maintenance is just not as sexy. No scale moves, no dramatic ‘before-and-after’ experiences; it’s a routine and, as a result, can be boring,” says Suzanne Phelan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I.

Hill describes successful losers as “individuals who have intentionally lost at least 10 percent of their body weight and kept it off at least one year.” Why 10 percent? Because that’s the amount most people need to lose to significantly reduce their risk factors for diabetes and heart disease.

“They’re different processes. There are many ways to lose weight but not many ways to keep it off,” says Hill. In fact, the truth is that almost anyone can lose weight in the short run using almost any method. “However, when it comes to weight maintenance, fewer strategies work,” says Phelan.

If you have doubts about your ability to keep off the weight you lost, things might be looking up. One of the most popular myths about losing weight is that everyone who loses will eventually gain it back. However, the concept that no more than 2 percent of dieters can actually maintain their weight loss is based on only one or two studies that are decades old. “The fact is that about 20 percent of people in the general population are successful at long-term weight-loss maintenance,” says Phelan.

So what do you do after the fat is gone? You need to learn the techniques that other successful weight-loss maintainers follow and develop strategies that will last a lifetime.

Does this sounds familiar? After losing those pounds you suddenly feel that, magically, your body has changed, making you a charter member of the exclusive “fast-metabolism-I-can-eat-whatever-I want” club. For the first few weeks in your new, fit body, you are confident that the weight is off for good. You indulge, and the you had been on is now ancient history because all along you knew you could never live on that diet for the rest of your life. Weight control is a forever process, so you need to create practices you can live with — forever.

The National Weight Loss Registry has determined that almost all successful weight-loss maintainers have some kind of “5-pound warning system” — a way of measuring and/or monitoring their weight before it gets out of control. It could be something as simple as keeping a “thin” pair of pants or a dress they try on periodically instead of getting on the scale, but they all have some way of knowing if they are slipping and a backup plan to put into action as soon as they receive their warning.

It seems that walking is an important key to long-term weight maintenance. The theory is that as you lose weight you need something to compensate for the lower metabolism — that’s right, you burn fewer calories as you lose weight. Walking or other physical activities keep your calorie-burning capacity high. Walking is easy to do and easy to maintain no matter where you are or what you’re doing. In fact, according to the National Weight Control Registry, 77 percent of successful losers use walking as their primary means of physical activity.

Look for parks, paths and trails in your area. Even your neighborhood sidewalks can be perfect, and on rainy or cold days, malls can be converted into indoor tracks. The level flooring (fewer injuries) and air conditioning are excellent motivators. Scope out scenic walking paths to keep motivated. Also make arrangements to walk with friends, family or co-workers — socializing helps get you there and keeps you busy with gossip, so you actually have fun. How long do weight maintainers engage in physical activity each day? At least an hour more than they did before they lost the weight.

Successful maintainers have figured out ways to make their behaviors and choices second nature. It’s based on the concept of automaticity — the subconscious ways we perform daily behaviors. Activities like setting your alarm clock at night, putting on your shoes before leaving the house and remembering how to drive to work do not require much thought. The idea is to apply the same principle to your diet. Arrange your personal environment to maximize your chances of losing and maintaining your weight loss and minimize your chances of slipping up. Avoid cues that tempt you. If you drive by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to work and can’t resist stopping for a box of doughnuts, change your route. Don’t leave foods in the house that are going to “set you off” — or at least put them out of reach.

According to research at Brown University Medical School, a major predictor of successful weight maintenance is dietary consistency. This means that those who maintain the same diet regimen across the week and year are more likely to maintain their weight loss over the following year than those who diet more strictly on weekdays and/or during non-holiday periods.

“It takes a couple hundred executions of a new behavior to make it automatic,” says Walter Schneider, Ph.D., a professor and researcher in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. For instance, if you want to start automatically ordering steamed vegetables with garlic instead of french fries as your dinner side dish, you would need to do it a few hundred times before it became unconscious.

Automated behavior is essential for permanent weight control, but the good news is that, according to a study conducted by the National Weight Control Registry and reported in “Obesity Research,” once you’ve lost weight and maintained it for more than a few years, weight maintenance gets easier.

Additional findings of the National Weight Control Registry indicate that successful losers typically eat a low-calorie, low-fat diet, not a low-carb diet. And lastly, the research shows that all successful dieters eat breakfast each morning, most likely preventing them from overeating during the rest of the day.

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