When it comes to weight loss, the concern of most people is trying to select the most effective diet. No doubt some diets are more recommendable than others, but in the long term the results depend more on habits than on specific diets.
If you see change as something temporary, you will surely fail. When you go back to your usual habits, the usual kilos will come back, plus some extra.
You must of course choose a good eating plan, but then focus on the new habits to develop. In this article you will learn about the habits that are usually associated with long-term success, and concrete ideas for incorporating them.
- Allow some flexibility (Flexible Control).
Very restrictive diets are difficult to maintain over time. Eliminating foods you enjoy forever reduces adherence by requiring too much willpower. In addition, we want more of what we can’t have, and this rigid control raises the risk of cravings (study) and possibly binge eating.
On the other hand, excessive flexibility is also negative. To achieve certain goals you must make certain sacrifices, and that means setting limits for yourself.
That ideal balance point is what some studies call “flexible control,” which will vary from person to person.
Maintaining flexible control involves paying attention to food and following certain guidelines, but understanding that your progress doesn’t stop because you have your favorite pizza for dinner one day. It’s about prioritizing real food and being mindful of portions, without selfpunishing or blaming yourself if one day you overeat or eat something undesirable.
While this flexible control facilitates the maintenance of lost weight (study), rigid control is associated with worse long-term results (study).
In addition, rigid control can lead to a dangerous obsession with achieving a supposed dietary purity. When you fail in this impossible mission, you break down, worsening your results.
Avoid the all-or-nothing mentality. Seek progress, not perfection.
- Reduce snacks
The belief that we should eat five or six meals a day is a recent one. In the 1970s most people ate three large meals a day, but this number increased over time.
On the one hand, nutritional recommendations leaned toward smaller meals, thinking that this would better control hunger and keep metabolism high (both ideas are wrong). On the other hand, the food industry increased its promotion of mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. They knew that if we increase the number of daily intakes we will tend to eat more, and big stomachs are more profitable than small ones. Thus, the average number of meals increased from the typical three meals a day just a few decades ago to the current five or six (detail).
The number of daily snacks has risen since the 1970s. Source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20237134/
Calories from snacks have increased in all age ranges, contributing to the current caloric excess (study).
Snacks are adding more and more calories. Source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19955403/
- Cook more and eat out less
Cooking is one of the best skills you can develop. It’s not about elaborating sophisticated dishes, but about defending yourself with the basics. In the time Master Chef lasts, you can prepare food for several days. You will also avoid exposing yourself to their misleading propaganda.
Cooking more at home and eating less in restaurants are habits that are associated with less weight gain .
When cooking you have much more control over your meals, both their size and their ingredients. You will certainly use better oils and lower calorie sauces.
If you eat out often, try to follow some rules:
Tell them not to put bread or snacks on the table. If you order salad, have them serve the sauce on the side, or simply add oil and vinegar. Ask them to swap undesirable side dishes (such as chips) for some salad. You don’t have to eat everything on your plate. Eating more than you need is also wasting food, and you will carry the excess with you in the form of fat. Besides, in most restaurants you can take the leftovers with you. Skip dessert, or just order a piece of fruit.
- Reconnect with your body’s signals
If you have followed a strict diet, for example a ketogenic or PSMF approach, you have probably had to count calories and macronutrients. This has benefits and I recommend doing it for a while, but if you do it consistently you raise the risk of disconnecting from your body (study).
Once you are at your ideal weight, you must learn to reconnect with your body’s internal signals, stopping eating when you are satisfied, without becoming full. This is precisely what is recommended by the millenary Japanese technique of Hara hachi bu, or 80% belly.
The goal is for your body, not your phone, to tell you when to stop eating. To achieve this, you must be more conscious when eating, and this is precisely the following recommendation.
- Be more conscious when eating
We make more than 200 food decisions a day, most of them unconscious (detail). If you don’t think about what you eat and don’t control your portions, you will be at the mercy of your impulses and easily manipulated by commercial interests.
In fact, this process of awareness should begin long before you sit down at the table. When you go shopping, take a list with you. Don’t buy anything that is not on the list if you don’t need it, even if it is on sale. Refuse free samples.
At mealtime, chew calmly and pay attention ,avoiding eating in front of the TV or in the presence of any other distraction (like checking Instagram). Eat the allotted portion and do not repeat, unless you are really hungry.
Don’t eat directly from the fridge or packaging. Take out the portion, serve it on a plate and save the rest.
In short, it’s about becoming more aware of the choices you make around food, and that increased awareness will improve your behavior (meta-analysis).
Remind yourself often why you do this. Aligning your behavior with your values improves your ability to self-regulate, tolerate uncomfortable feelings, and become more aware of your decisions.
- Weigh yourself frequently
I know this recommendation is not very popular, but the evidence is clear. People who weigh themselves frequently lose more weight and regain less weight (study, study, study, study,).
People who weigh themselves more frequently lose more weight https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21732212/
Some believe that weighing can generate anxiety, but the evidence does not seem to support this idea. And if this were to happen, it would not be the fault of the scale, but of our relationship with weight.
To begin with, you must understand that weight fluctuations are normal, and that your progress is measured by many other variables (measurements, muscle, performance, energy level…). Furthermore, if you gain two kilos of muscle and lose two kilos of fat, your body will look much better, even though your weight has not undergone any variation.
But all this does not imply that you should ignore weight, but understand it and put it in context. And above all, you should avoid linking your personal worth to the value indicated by the scale. If you allow your weight to define you, stopping weighing yourself does not solve the problem.
Another benefit of weighing yourself frequently is that you see the trend more clearly, avoiding that punctual fluctuations make you make wrong decisions. Don’t obsess about your weight, but don’t ignore it either.
- Include physical activity
Increasing physical activity, especially strength training, will not only enhance the results of the diet, but is one of the habits most strongly associated with long-term weight maintenance (meta-analysis).
Exercise benefits us by multiple mechanisms:
It helps regulate appetite. It improves insulin sensitivity. It raises metabolism, especially strength training. Increases energy expenditure. It improves our mood.
Summary and conclusions
“All happy families resemble each other, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina).
The so-called Anna Karenina principle indicates that success requires the presence of many specific factors, while failure can be explained by the lack of any one of them. Success is therefore a much more fragile state, since in the absence of certain conditions it will result in chaos