Successfully managing your weight comes down to a simple equation: If you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. And if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight. Sounds easy, right? Then why is losing weight so hard?
Well for one, weight loss isn’t a linear event over time. When you cut calories, you may drop a pound or so each week for the first few weeks, for example, and then something changes. You eat the same number of calories but you lose less weight. And then the next week you don’t lose anything at all. That’s because when you lose weight you’re losing water and lean tissue as well as fat, your metabolism slows, and your body changes in other ways. So, in order to continue dropping weight each week, you’ll need to continue cutting calories.
Secondly, while in essence a calorie is a calorie, your body reacts differently to different types of food. So eating 100 calories of high fructose corn syrup, for example, will have a different effect on your body than eating 100 calories of broccoli. The trick for sustained weight loss is to ditch the foods that are packed with calories but don’t make you feel full (like candy) and replace them with foods that fill you up without being loaded with calories (like vegetables).
Thirdly, losing weight in a healthy, sustainable way often takes time. It requires patience and commitment. Extreme diets may promise rapid results but they’re more likely to leave you feeling cranky and starving and losing more cash than weight. Finally, there are emotional aspects of eating that can trip you up. Many of us don’t always eat simply to satisfy hunger. We also turn to food for comfort or to relieve stress—which can derail any weight loss efforts before they begin.
The good news is that by making smarter choices every day, adopting healthy lifestyle changes, and developing new eating habits, you’ll not only lose weight and be able to keep it off, you’ll also improve your outlook and mood and have more energy.
Training your brain to crave healthier food
We aren’t born with an innate craving for French fries and donuts or an aversion to broccoli and whole grains. This conditioning happens over time as we’re exposed to more and more unhealthy food choices. A recent pilot study at Tufts University, however, suggests that it’s possible to reprogram your brain’s food cravings so that you hanker for healthier foods instead of high-calorie ‘diet busters.’ In the study, a small group of subjects enrolled in a behavioral weight management program that emphasizes portion-control and education to change eating habits. After six months, brain scans revealed increased reward and enjoyment of healthy, low-calorie foods, and a decrease in enjoyment of unhealthy, higher-calorie foods.
While more research is needed to be conclusive, this is encouraging news for anyone whose weight loss efforts have been sabotaged by unhealthy food cravings. You can learn to enjoy healthy food!
Getting started with healthy weight loss
While there is no “one size fits all” solution to permanent healthy weight loss, the following guidelines are a great place to start:
- Think lifestyle change, not short-term diet. Permanent weight loss is not something that a “quick-fix” diet can achieve. Instead, think about weight loss as a permanent lifestyle change—a commitment to replace high-calorie foods with healthier, lower-calorie alternatives, reduce your portion sizes, and become more active. Various popular diets can help jumpstart your weight loss, but permanent changes in your lifestyle and food choices are what will work in the long run.
- Find a cheering section. Social support means a lot. Programs like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers use group support to impact weight loss and lifelong healthy eating. Seek out support—whether in the form of family, friends, or a support group—to get the encouragement you need.
- Slow and steady wins the race. Aim to lose one to two pounds a week to ensure healthy weight loss. Losing weight too fast can take a toll on your mind and body, making you feel sluggish, drained, and sick. When you drop a lot of weight quickly, you’re actually losing mostly water and muscle, rather than fat.
- Set goals to keep you motivated. Short-term goals, like wanting to fit into a bikini for the summer, usually don’t work as well as wanting to feel more confident, boost your mood, or become healthier for your children’s sakes. When frustration and temptation strike, concentrate on the many benefits you will reap from being healthier and leaner.
- Use tools that help you track your progress. Keep a food journal and weigh yourself regularly, keeping track of each pound and inch you lose. By keeping track of your weight loss efforts, you’ll see the results in black and white, which will help you stay motivated.
Where you carry your fat matters
The health risks are greater if you tend to carry your weight around your abdomen, as opposed to your hips and thighs. A lot of belly fat is stored deep below the skin surrounding the abdominal organs and liver, and is closely linked to insulin resistance and diabetes. Calories obtained from fructose (found in sugary beverages such as soda and processed foods like doughnuts, muffins, and candy) are more likely to add to this dangerous fat around your belly. Cutting back on sugary foods can mean a slimmer waistline and lower risk of disease.