What does science say about lasting weight loss?
Recently, some researchers attempted to find out.
The results of this ‘systematic review’ (analysis of multiple studies) was super helpful – it collected insights from a multitude of people and found what key points helped them most.
Unsurprisingly there were some common themes that I’ll discuss below.
The research was conducted by Spreckley M. and colleagues, with the goal ‘to better understand people’s experiences, and create an overview of sustainable weight loss.’
Here are some quick key stats:
- 15 studies were included in the final analysis
- This included 294 adults (male and female) of varying ethnicity
- 5 studies included people who had lost weight but regained it
Most people in the study were ‘successful weight loss maintainers’ – people who had lost weight and kept it off for a significant amount of time.
Including some people who had regained weight enabled the researchers to ask the question:
What separates people who lose weight and keep it off from those who don’t?
The researchers listed a lot of valuable insights, so I’m going to sum up some of the key findings here.
I’ll also add my own thoughts and experiences from coaching hundreds of women as a personal trainer and online weight loss coach.
For ease of reading and typing, the rest of this post will refer to the ‘Weight Loss Maintainers’ as ‘WLMs’.
So without further ado, lets get into the findings.
What helps people successfully lose weight and keep it off?
A goal and a motivator
Success comes from a clear target and strong motivators.
You know where you want to get to, and you know WHY that’s so important to you.
WLMs had clear goals that gave them a target to base their habits and lifestyles around.
They also had strong internal reasons why they wanted to work for that goal.
Examples could be:
- Going into any clothes shop and know you’ll find something you love that fits
- Being a great role model to your children
- Feeling confident and proud
- Knowing you’ve given yourself the best chance of a long and healthy life
- Being that strong and fit mum on the climbing frame with the kids
- Being able to fully embrace fun experiences and do everything you want in life
To do your best in working towards a goal, you need a motivator that you feel emotionally connected to.
Something that makes you think ‘YES! I want that – that means something to me’.
When that motivator is clear and powerful, it gives you a kick up the bum to stay consistent, even when challenges arise.
And, as we all know, consistency (not perfection) leads to results.
Habit goals help you get specific on what you need to do to achieve your goal.
These are some examples:
- go to the gym 3 x per week
- hit 10,000 steps per day
- stick to a set calorie goal this week
- write a meal plan each weekend
WLMs planned and prioritised their habit goals.
They knew when, where and how they were going to do them, and they made sure it was on their schedule.
Life is so busy these days that we often need to plan for when we’re going to make a plan.
But when you’re in the habit of doing this, it’s incredibly powerful. And the more specific you can be with your planning, the easier it is to follow through.
Whenever my clients plan and complete their habit goals, I encourage them to deliberately feel proud of what they’ve done.
Don’t see it as something you ‘should be doing‘ or ‘have to do to lose weight‘.
See it as something that takes you closer to your goal, that you put the effort in to doing. And then mentally celebrate that.
The more you can feel happy and proud about the action steps you take, the more your brain is going to want to keep taking them.
A personalised plan
People who successfully lose weight and keep it off have a plan that works for them.
Diets don’t work for a lot of people because they just offer a set of rules to follow.
But what if those rules don’t suit your preferences and lifestyle?
What if it means you have to eat differently to people around you, and avoid foods you love?
Ultimately, it’s highly unlikely to lead to long term success.
A personalised plan means you can eat in a way that suits you.
We need to remember that weight loss boils down to shifting energy balance, so that we take in less calories than we burn.
Those calories can still come from any foods you enjoy, and be eaten at whatever times of day suit you.
Planning food ahead of time
WLMs had built the habit of planning, and often preparing, their food ahead of time.
I cannot tell you how much difference this makes.
We are all busy, and when you are already having to think and make decisions all day long, it seriously drains your brain.
Have you ever got to the end of the day and thought ‘I’m exhausted. I can’t think or do anything else today. Let’s order pizza’?
Yep, been there my friend.
If you don’t have a plan, you have to keep making food choices on top of everything else.
And it’s no wonder so many people get to the end of the day with no willpower left for the evenings.
But with a plan, some easy minimal faff choices, and maybe a spot of meal prepping to help with super busy days… staying on track becomes infinitely easier.
Keeping track of stats
To know if you’re making progress, you need to be tracking some data.
Weight, measurements, photos, and any fitness stats you’re interested in (for example, how fast you can run 5k), all show you where you’re progressing. Sometimes these won’t change for a while, and that’s ok.
What many people do at this point is become disheartened and stop trying.
But if you’re tracking what you’re doing, there is usually a simple fix.
These are some habits you can track:
- Food intake (this could be a food diary, taking photos of meals and snacks, or using a calorie tracking app)
- Daily steps (or time spent walking if you don’t have a step tracker)
- Workouts (including weight, sets and reps, and progress you’ve made over time)
- Sleep (amount of hours, time you went to bed)
If you’re not seeing the changes you want, you can create more progress adjusting one or more of those habits.
Usually food intake has the biggest impact, and is the one that we humans are least likely to track accurately.
Spend a week keeping a close record of what you’re eating (including portion sizes, drinks, snacks and nibbles), looking for where extra calories could be creeping in. Chances are you’ll find some tweaks you can make to get things moving again.
Ways to get back on track
No one is perfect, and no one does weight loss perfectly. We all slip up.
Everyone has days or weeks where things are not going to plan (or where there is no plan).
WLMs were ultimately successful because they had ways to get back on track.
These are a few examples of methods my clients have found helpful:
Coping strategies for stressful situations
Writing a list of calming activities that are non food related, that can be done when feeling at risk of emotional eating.
Examples of this could be journaling, 5 deep breaths, a 5 minute meditation each day, colouring, knitting (some of my clients have found they love creative or arty activities like colouring or knitting, and it gives their hands something to do), going for a walk, calling a friend.
Making a doable plan
If you feel off track or you haven’t been planning, make a doable plan for the next day that’s as easy as possible to stick to.
That could mean planning in chocolate for a snack, a sandwich for lunch, and a ready meal for dinner.
The first goal is just to stick to any sort of plan and rebuild self trust, so making it doable is more important than making it perfect. Once you’re sticking to a plan again, you can gradually make it healthier.
A protocol after holiday
Doing a food shop as soon as you return, loading up on colourful nutritious foods and all the healthy choices you enjoy.
Getting straight back into planning and your normal routine, without restricting or feeling guilty for any holiday indulgences.
Knowing weight will be up (at least partly due to retaining more water after holiday food and travel), and being totally unfussed because you had an awesome time.
Having a back up plan when life is busy
This could be a list of a few really easy meal choices, that are minimal faff, and that you can keep in stock.
Here are some examples for breakfast and lunch:
- Yogurt and granola with fresh or frozen berries
- Overnight oats (chuck it all together the night before and it’s ready to be eaten in the morning)
- Protein shake and a piece of fruit
- Sandwich or wrap with protein filling
- Batch cooked food (chilli, soup, stew, curry or casserole can all work well, or leftover fajita chicken made into a wrap)
And these are ideas for dinner:
- Frozen ready meal (Cook do some good ones, but most supermarkets have decent choices now. Look for around 400-500 calories per serving and 25-45g protein)
- Lightly dusted fish (less calories than breaded fish), McCain 5% fat chips and frozen veg, all kept in stock in the freezer
- Fajitas (frozen onion and peppers, wraps, keep a jar of salsa in stock, Greek yogurt makes a good low fat / high protein sour cream alternative, and use chicken, tofu or black beans as the main part of the meal)
- Jacket potato with tuna or beans, and frozen veg (microwaved, roasted or stir fried) on the side
- Stir fry (frozen veg, and chicken, tofu or black beans for protein)
Support group / worked with a professional
Weight loss is HARD on your own.
WLMs found value in either a support group, working with a professional (such as a coach, nutritionist, dietician or personal trainer), or both.
Knowing there are other people on the same journey, who you can reach out to for advice, encouragement, and moral support, can make an incredible difference. This could be a friend or group of friends, or a community online.
There are plenty of free groups on Facebook (and you’re more than welcome to come join mine – Health, Fitness and Weight Loss for Women).
I have a private facebook group for my 1:1 coaching clients, and it is brilliant to see the support and inspiration (and tasty food ideas!) that are shared by the lovely ladies in there.
There is also an incredible amount of value that can be gained from hiring a professional, even for just a short period of time.
If you’re wanting to make the most of your time in a gym – a few sessions with a personal trainer can provide you with knowledge, confidence, and a highly effective program to follow.
If you’re unsure about your nutrition, working with a nutritionist or dietician can save you years of uncertainty, frustration and confusion.
And if you need help with your mindset, hiring a coach can empower you with tools and insights that can literally change your life.
I just so happen to offer a combination of all of the above, but there are so many amazing professionals out there.
It can seem like a big investment, but it pays off. And you – your health, happiness and quality of life in years to come – are worth it.
What made people unsuccessful?
These are some common traits and experiences among people who lost weight but ended up regaining it:
- Didn’t plan or monitor progress. This meant they couldn’t assess how to make changes. They were left guessing, which easily leads to frustration, confusion, and giving up.
- Didn’t dedicate enough time to their food or exercise. In my experience, these are the people who always put others above themselves (to the detriment of their own health and happiness) and say ‘yes’ too much.
- Resorted to overly restrictive diets. They wanted to get the weight off as fast as possible, so fell into the trap of an unsustainable approach. Restricting, before eventually ‘falling off the wagon’ and ending up back at square one.
- Didn’t prioritise their goals. Without clarity, a strong reason why, or the conviction that you are worth the effort it takes, it’s easy to fall of track. Social pressure from friends and family can be hard to deal with (and harder still without support). People who struggled to keep the weight off didn’t plan or prioritise how to achieve their goal, even in the face of perceived pressure from those around them.
One final key point for creating lasting weight loss
What was one of the biggest things successful people did, when it came to achieving lasting weight loss?
They saw it as a lifelong commitment – not a quick fix diet.
If it’s about taking care of yourself, finding balance, and creating a lifestyle you love… you can’t mess that up.
So many people struggle to lose weight and keep it off because they are only focused on the weight loss.
They want the fastest route to the goal, but are left with nothing to help them maintain the results.
With such a big focus on the outcome – the number on the scales – it’s easy to get frustrated when it doesn’t happen as quick as you want it to.
You feel like you’re trying so hard and it’s not working, so why bother?
But when you view weight loss as part of a lifelong commitment to your health, fitness and happiness, you can see the bigger picture.
You can feel proud of the actions you’re taking.
You can see progress in all areas – your habits, mindset and relationship with food.
And you keep going.
You become consistent.
Which ultimately leads to amazing results, and getting to keep them for good.
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