Forget Dieting. Here’s What Really Works to Lose Weight

food on the brain - shutterstock 1690014832
(Credit: Teo Tarras/Shutterstock)

Science can explain why it’s so hard to lose weight and keep it off — and the results don’t support dieting. Try these strategies instead.

By Jeanne Erdmann

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Packing on pounds seems way too easy these days. Working from home has replaced those water-cooler chats — and we eat more when we’re lonely or bored. Plus, those round trips from the computer to the pantry and back probably don’t help much either.  

 “A lot of us pick and snack way more than we realize we do,” says Debbie Petitpain, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Those few bites here and there can quickly settle on our midlines. And as those of us who’ve tried to lose weight already know, gaining weight is easier than keeping unwanted pounds away for good.

Fortunately, diets are easy to find. We can try keto, dump carbs, go Paleo, or try fasting or grazing to boost weight loss. But picking the program is the easy part. Sticking to a diet is hard because our body reacts to fewer calories by slowing down our metabolisms. Once we’ve been on a diet for a while, our so-called “hunger hormones” start to change. Essentially, levels of hormones that help make us feel full will drop, while hormones that make us feel hungry get a boost.

We can also undercut our own efforts by focusing on a target weight that’s hard to reach and unrealistic for us to maintain. Constant dieting, “isn’t really ideal for living a pleasant life, which will make it harder to keep dieting,” says Traci Mann, a food psychologist at the University of Minnesota and author of Secrets from the Eating Lab.

The Problem With Dieting

We always seem to be looking for the next diet, the one that will melt off weight without making us obsess over food in the process. But we don’t need fad diets at all. The answer to weight loss is simple and unchanging. We need to add more fruits and vegetables to our diets, while cutting out (or at least cutting down on) processed convenience foods and sweets. If we only focus on numbers on the scale, we’ll lose sight of what matters most to our overall health: making healthy food choices and making exercise a life-long habit. But don’t be surprised if the weight does fall off when you adopt this mindset.

Even if we manage to lose weight, studies have found that most of us end up regaining the weight within a year. If you need convincing, Petitpain recommends that you stop by Barnes & Noble and take note of the shelf of diet books that extends the length of the building. Then turn around and look at your fellow Americans, most of whom will be overweight. “Somehow, there is a disconnect between the quick fixes offered by diet books, and our abilities to either try them or stick to them,” she says.

We’re hard on ourselves, too, and that doesn’t do us any favors. Once we’ve noticed those extra pounds, we often decide we must lose that weight really fast so we can be healthy again, says Petitpain. But because we have gained that weight over several years, it likely isn’t waving goodbye any time soon. Petitpain says a better approach is taking gradual steps toward healthy choices, such as cutting out processed food, being mindful of portion sizes, and adding physical activity to your routine. And at the end of the day, whether someone is healthy or not goes beyond being fat or thin.

“You can be overweight and physically fit, and disease risk goes down,” Petitpain says. “We know there are people in the normal weight range, but who don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and their disease risk goes up.”

Balancing calories in with calories out still matters for dropping pounds, but obsessing about weight can be self-sabotaging. A better approach, says Mann, would be to accept our bodies — but don’t binge eat. Fight weight stigma. Exercise because it’s good for us and eat more veggies.

Clear Your Countertops

If you tried to diet and succeeded for a while before going off course, know that it doesn’t mean you’re weak. “There’s this idea out there that dieters, or obese people, have worse self-control than everyone else, and that’s just not how it works,” Mann says. 

Depriving our bodies of calories wields a powerful force on our biology — and our bodies fight back with a variety of physiological processes designed to hold on to the weight. “Most people wouldn’t even have … the kind of willpower you would need to overcome all of it,” says Mann. “It’s just too much to fight against.”…


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