If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to be discouraged by the experts. Doctors and dietitians routinely cite pessimistic figures like the notorious “95% failure rate.” According to this statistic, 95% of all dieters gain their weight back and then some.
The truth about weight loss may not be nearly so dire. A survey by Consumer Reports found that one in four readers who used commercial diet programs had kept off at least two-thirds of the weight they had lost.
Twenty-five percent is still a lower success rate than most of us would like. But instead of focusing on dieting failures, I decided to look at what’s different about people who don’t gain weight back.
I consulted the experts who really matter 160 people, each of whom had lost at least 20 pounds (average weight loss for this group turned out to be 63 pounds) and who had kept the weight off for at least three years. It turned out that there were 10 common threads among these “successful losers”…
1. They believed they could do it
Most of the people I surveyed had lost and regained their weight at least five times before successfully keeping it off. But they didn’t give up.
The turning point for many of them came when they realized they were sick and tired of the weight-loss battle. Instead of using this feeling as an excuse to stop trying to lose weight, however, the successful dieters somehow felt empowered by it. The feeling made them resolve to take control.
2. They lost weight for themselves not someone else
All her life, one young woman I interviewed had been told by her mother (and everyone else), “You have such a pretty face if only you’d lose some weight!”
She lost and gained weight repeatedly. Inside, she was angry that people didn’t accept her the way she was. By the time she entered college, she weighed more than 200 pounds. But it was there that she met a man who loved her that way.
Ironically, because she finally felt accepted, she was able to lose weight once and for all for her own sake.
3. They found out what worked for them
About half the people I talked to lost weight on their own. Others used a commercial diet center or a self-help group or consulted privately with a dietitian.
In addition, successful people learned to accept a target weight that was realistic for them. This goal might be slightly above their ideal weight, but they knew they could go no lower without starving themselves.
4. They were willing to learn a new way of eating for life
Many dieters go back to their old eating habits once they lose weight. That’s why most dieters regain weight.
The weight-control masters accepted low-fat eating as a way of life. They learned to enjoy fruits, vegetables and grains. They found ways to add low-calorie flavor by using spices, lemon or lime juice and low-fat products. Gradually, they noticed that they didn’t feel good when they ate high-fat foods.
5. They deal with slipups immediately
While they aren’t obsessed with the scale, most weigh themselves once a week to once every few days. They have a narrow window of acceptable weight regain (typically five to 10 pounds). When their weight exceeds this “buffer zone,” they do what’s necessary to lose it.
Some people exercise more. Others cut back on sweets, pay closer attention to portion sizes or keep a food diary to increase their awareness of what they eat. But each person I talked to have a plan of action and used it before the weight gain could get out of hand.
6. They say nice things to themselves
Negative self-talk can be self-fulfilling. An example is the “now-I’ve-blown-it” phenomenon that’s familiar to many of us: late one cookie. I’m a pig. I might as well eat the whole bag.
The weight-loss masters give themselves positive and encouraging messages even when they make mistakes: I resolved not to eat two helpings, but I slipped. I’ll be more careful the rest of the day.
7. They exercise
Nine out of 10 of the successful people I interviewed exercise regularly. They aren’t fanatics, and few of them work out every day. But they’ve managed to find simple activities like walking that they can work into their daily routine.
8. They face their feelings
Back when they were overweight, many of the people I spoke to automatically turned to food whenever they felt upset, bored, lonely or anxious.
What they learned to do instead was get to the source of the negative emotion by noticing the feeling, identifying the cause and figuring out a way to solve the problem.
Many of their solutions are quite simple. When bored, they leave the house and does something fun. When lonely, they call a friend. When angry, they confront the person who’s mistreating them.
9. They enjoy life
A number of the now successful people used to spend so much energy taking care of others that they neglected their own needs. Eating was their only reward.
Some people who kept weight off have developed what I call a “healthy selfishness.” They’re still considerate of others, but they take care of themselves, too.
As one woman put it, I found that when my own needs were met, I was better at meeting the needs of others. They’ve also found ways to reward themselves without food from pursuing a hobby to seeking more satisfying relationships.
10. They get support
They ask their families not to leave junk food laying around call a buddy when they’re tempted to overeat and request encouragement and pep talks from friends and family.