We’ve all heard it a million times. The way to lose weight is to take in fewer calories than you burn. And reams of advice have been offered to seekers of slimdom by medical researchers, nutritionists, doctors, health resort gurus, friends, mediapersons and neighbourhood hair stylists on the best way to get to that Shangri-La.
The dieting landscape is dominated by two beliefs. One is that almost nobody succeeds at weight loss. The other is that, for the few people who do, success requires such an extreme sacrifice that they basically do nothing but count calories and exercise all day.
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The fact is, neither of these beliefs is true. We now have enough surveys indicating that weight loss can happen, but that certain factors predict whether there will be a success story or not. While healthy eating and exercise remain core elements of a weight-loss regimen, the factors that result in not just losing the kilos but keeping them off long-term are “all in the mind”. And here they are:
Do it for yourself. Most overweight people are goaded into losing weight by a snide comment from a spouse or colleague, an upcoming wedding, or some other external event. The problem with that, research finds, is that such events keep a person motivated for only about six weeks. After that, you have to constantly build in rewards to keep yourself going.
When yo-yo dieters were asked what finally enabled them to keep off the weight, it was found that they’d undergone a change in attitude. Some described it as a “click” inside their brain, or a “light bulb going on.” A few cited an actual turning point in their lives, such as learning they had a weight-related medical condition like high blood pressure or heart disease. This time, they decided – for themselves – that trimming down was worth the changes they would have to make. They accepted that it was going to be work, and that nobody could do it for them.
Get real. Another reason that many people find it difficult to maintain weight loss is that they set their hearts on losing, say, 25 kg. at one go. And when they find that it requires too great a sacrifice, they give up, blaming themselves or their genes.
It is true that heredity plays an important part in shaping our shapes. Genes, for example, can make the body inefficient at burning fat or make metabolism sluggish. Still, biology isn’t destiny. Even among identical twins, weights can be far apart if, say, one twin leads a more physically active life than the other. So, although genes set the lower and upper limits of your weight, it’s lifestyle that moves you up or down within that range.
Keeping those facts in mind, when trying to set a realistic weight goal ask yourself these questions: what is the least you’ve weighed as an adult for at least a year? What is the largest size clothing you’d be happy with? What weight were you able to maintain during previous attempts at weight loss without feeling constantly hungry? Many dieters surveyed had found that their original weight goal was too low to maintain comfortably; those who succeeded were willing to settle for a more realistic target.
Losing just 5 to 10 per cent of your current weight, surveys show, can bring major physical and psychological benefits. You might not become the skinny person of your dreams, but even a small loss can make you feel better about yourself.
Don’t deprive yourself. Potato-skin diets, no-sweets diets, sprouts-only diet... the inevitable outcomes are frustration, deprivation, failure. Surveys find that the more extreme the original diet, the harder the transition to a maintenance diet. Those who succeeded had one approach in common: no matter how weird or wacky their diet started out, they eventually adopted a sensible eating plan that they were content to stay on for the rest of their lives.
How did they do it? For one thing, they made sure not to deny themselves their favourite foods. Instead, they compromised on portions. So, for instance, one woman who joined a weight-loss programme that was too restrictive, found that the only way she could stay on the programme was by “cheating” and eating a chocolate square after lunch and another one after dinner. The tiny extravagance paid off. She lost around 30 kilos over 6 months, and kept them off for decades.
So, among the key do’s and don’ts of successful weight loss: not labelling any foods as forbidden, not being too rigid about what you should and shouldn’t eat, not feeling deprived, and allowing yourself restricted amounts of your favourite foods so that you can indulge without guilt. Dieters with an all-or-nothing mindset inevitably give up when they stray even a little.
Track your progress. New habits can take years to become second nature. No wonder then that successful dieters find it helpful to keep track of their intake of calories as well as to maintain an exercise diary. It is all too easy to fool yourself into believing that you are taking in only, say, around 1000 calories a day when, in fact, you are consuming closer to 2000: this, too, has been established in surveys.
Successful dieters, these surveys have found, track themselves not only while losing weight but for some time afterward -- as long as six years after they had reached their goal. Typically, they set a weight “buffer zone” for themselves. If they gained more than, say, 2 to 3 kilos, they got it off right away. Dieters who weigh themselves daily are often derided as being just slaves to the scale, but in fact, for them, this is more of a routine morning activity, like brushing their teeth.
Get organized. The biggest obstacle to weight loss may not be lack of willpower but lack of time. Someone whose lifestyle has made him or her habituated to fast food is going to have to shop, plan and cook if they want to lose weight.
Studies have found that people who are good at organization and problem-solving have an easier time keeping weight off. They’re able to find time to exercise and they know how to cope with stress without resorting to bingeing on comfort food like chocolate cake. They also know how to identify and manage risky situations like cocktail parties.
Even those people not naturally inclined to tackle problems head-on can learn problem-solving skills. And that could provide the decisive impetus for driving their weight in a downward direction.
Plan for the long haul. Dieters go through predictable stages of emotion. The first stage is filled with optimism, but that generally fades within a few months to a year. Next comes the frustration stage when dieters realize that they have to work harder to lose weight and keep it off than people of normal weight. There’s annoyance and anger and a “Why me?” feeling that can last for many months or even years. During this period of frustration, dieters can be further derailed by any kind of crisis – a death in the family, a job loss, even minor surgery.
Only in the third stage – called tentative acceptance – do dieters come to terms with how the deck is stacked for them, and achieve a peaceful sense of resolve. They stop thinking, “It’s not fair that I have to eat less than my wife, who weighs half what I do”, or “It’s not fair that I have to exercise every day while the average person doesn’t exercise even two times a week.” They no longer consider their effort a sacrifice. It feels more natural, more healthy. Once you go from understanding what it takes to actually living it, there’s no turning back.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)