Written by Carla Wolper, EdD, RD, CDN.
Carla Wolper, EdD, RD, CDN, was recently interviewed about diet fads. Dr. Wolper develops and delivers nutrition education and behavior modification plans for overweight individuals. Below she expands on the previously published interview, focusing on how to be successful in weight loss and the prevention of weight regain.
Maintaining a healthy weight is no easy feat; the ways in which it is a challenge are unique for each overweight individual. Clinical weight loss studies report that the 6th to 7th month of a diet is prime time for the tapering off of weight loss and the onset of weight regain. There is a lot of conjecture about the reasons for this phenomenon, including boredom with food choice, reduced exercise time, and imperceptible increases in portion sizes. But fear not! There are practical techniques that can help you deal effectively with this frustrating problem of weight creep.
Whether you are overweight and need to lose weight or your goal is weight maintenance, it’s most effective to create/find a meal plan that allows all food groups in moderation, including fats and carbohydrates. It’s easy to become bored with a diet lacking variety. Normally, you probably allow yourself a wide selection of foods. If you are overweight, your choices might narrow considerably on the path to a healthy weight, especially if your food plan is very restrictive and involves excising entire categories of nutrients. But rigorous fat restriction, for example, eating salads with no oil in the dressing, vegetables with no oil to sauté onions, or forgoing cheese and red meat forever is uninviting at best and tedious. It is not just hard, it is unreasonable, to give up bread, potatoes and pasta for a lifetime. This expectation alone can lead to guilt if you wind up tempted by “forbidden” foods.
Eating all food groups and nutrient categories is infinitely healthier. Why? Because fat is an imperative in reproduction, in membranes protecting every cell, to support and protect internal organs, and as a vital component of the brain and nervous system. Similarly, we require adequate carbohydrate to supply glucose, the primary energy source of the brain and a major source of fuel for muscles, the liver, kidneys and retina.
The easiest way to avoid the cycle of harsh dietary restrictions, inevitable rule-breaking, and weight creep is to maintain your current diet while reducing portion sizes modestly to reach a healthy weight. Be forewarned: if you cut portions back too severely, you’ll be hungry and more likely to overeat or feel out of control when you eat, again leading back to the weight creep. Moderate, gradual reductions in portion size allow you to eat the majority of your usual intake.
Once you have achieved your goal weight, your job is maintenance. You will have to eat less than you did at your old weight, but more than you ate while losing weight. You can slowly add back some food to assess the amount of food that will allow you to maintain your new weight. You may put back some water weight when this process begins. Don’t be alarmed; you are still in control of what and how much you are consuming.
After you have determined the appropriate size of your meals and snacks for weight maintenance, make sure your portions are not magically increasing. This requires mindfulness, as oversights happen when you are not paying attention. Remember, when initiating any kind of behavior change, most of us are enthusiastic and follow the rules. With a meal plan, this translates to closely monitoring amounts of food and asking questions in restaurants. Alas, over time, it is easy to convince yourself that a little more doesn’t count. You may misjudge, but your body does not. Stick to your guns, with the caveat that if you think you’ll be hungry, it is important to add food. Vegetables or fruit are good options to add volume to your plate. Protein also provides satiety by keeping food in the stomach longer.
To maintain a healthy weight, most health professionals also recommend regular exercise. Aerobic exercise, specifically, raises your heart and respiratory rate and causes perspiration. It strengthens the heart muscle and immune system, improves circulation and muscle tone while burning calories, thereby improving your rate of weight loss. It also has the benefit of getting you into the habit of exercising regularly, which can reduce anxiety and stress and improve mood.
Most of us are not perfect when it comes to regular exercise. The good news is that you don’t need to be perfect, just good enough! When it’s time to maintain your new weight, regular exercise helps counterbalance small “miscalculations” in your diet, helping you to avoid the weight creep. If you have a glass of wine or extra salad dressing or dessert but are exercising aerobically 3 times a week for 30-40 minutes, your body weight will likely remain regulated.
Success in almost every endeavor depends on planning. Impulsive choices are the enemy of weight control. As you begin your new routine, plan ahead so that you know what and how much you’ll be eating at each meal, and the food source (e.g., home, deli, restaurant). Advance planning can provide a feeling of security and help you enjoy your meals without overindulging.
Last but not least, identify your supports and use them. Family, friends, exercise partners, likeminded colleagues and health care professionals may be able to help you in various ways to implement these strategies and keep clear of the weight creep.