by Anne Marie O’Connor
Year after year, “going on a diet” and “losing weight” top the lists of the most popular New Year’s resolutions. And just as inevitably, most people have ditched the green-smoothie cleanses and carb-free meals like chicken breast and broccoli way before Super Bowl Sunday. While they may drop a few pounds, many of them will have regained the weight—and a few bonus pounds to boot—by the end of the year.
A 2016 study in Obesity that followed 14 Biggest Loser contestants identified the probable cause: Not only had 13 of them regained the weight six years after being on the show, but their metabolisms had slowed significantly, so they were burning fewer calories than before they went on the show.
The study confirmed the findings of previous research, including a 2012 study in the International Journal of Obesity that followed more than 4,000 sets of identical twins; those who had gone on a diet were more likely to be heavier than their twin who had never tried to lose weight. Researchers also discovered that women who had dieted more than twice were five times as likely to end up overweight as their twin.
Why Diets Make You Gain Weight
“The problem with diets in the long term is that our bodies are really good at protecting us from starving to death,” explains Traci Mann, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and the author of Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again (Harper Wave, 2015). “So if not enough calories are coming in, or we’ve lost a bunch of weight, our bodies switch into starvation mode, and all these changes happen that are designed to keep us alive.”
One of the most significant changes: your metabolism slows way down, which means you must eat fewer calories than you did before losing weight just to keep from gaining, Mann points out. “In addition, your levels of various hormones change. For example, food that used to make you feel full won’t make you feel full anymore, so you feel even hungrier than you felt on the diet. There are also neurological changes that make you much more likely to notice ‘signs’ of food. So if there’s food around you, you’re more likely to become preoccupied with it.” While this was helpful when humans were living in caves and needed to find dinner grazing nearby, it’s not so great if there’s always birthday cake or leftover pizza in the office kitchen. “If you’re constantly thinking about food, it makes it that much harder to resist,” Mann notes.
Giving Up the Dieting Habit
“It’s human nature to want to have a start date to something and an end goal,” says Wesley Delbridge, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But if I do a detox or cleanse and don’t eat anything for four days and lose 10 pounds, that will not result in long-term weight loss. It’s actually worse for your body and worse for your metabolism.”
“Anytime you restrict your food intake, it boomerangs,” points out Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa in Miami. You’re likely to regain the weight—and then some.
Make Smarter Resolutions
Sadly, the answer isn’t cheeseburgers and chips and ice cream at every meal. And it definitely doesn’t mean starving yourself.
More and more, experts are realizing that the better resolution to make is to “become an intuitive eater” versus “go on a diet.” Also known as mindful eating, intuitive eating is a long-term—in fact, lifelong—solution. It means learning to listen to your body’s signals, eating only when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re comfortably full and focusing mainly on nutritious foods that fuel and energize you. (But no foods are off limits, either, so you’re never craving something you’re not “allowed” to have, like sugar or chocolate.) “Intuitive eating is the only way to have long-term weight loss, because it’s a slow and steady process that changes your body’s homeostasis” (aka its equilibrium), says Delbridge.
Eat what you want, without obsessing about calories, carbs, forbidden foods? Many chronic dieters may start to panic, imagining their weight ballooning as a result.
But you can still drop pounds when you stop dieting, Mann insists. Eating intuitively will allow you to end up at a healthy size, by which she means you’ll be at the low end of what she calls your “set weight range.”
Your set range is the weight range “that your body is meant to be in,” she explains. “When you lose weight and you’re below that range, that’s when all those (metabolic, hormonal and neurological) changes happen.” Like being ravenous all the time and having to exercise up to two hours a day just to stay at your current weight. “I encourage people to try and live within their set range, but at the low end.”
While there’s no scientific way to determine your set weight range, “I think people have a sense of it in their own bodies,” she continues. “It’s where you keep seeming to end up after gaining or losing weight.”
“There’s a certain weight your body likes to be at,” agrees Delbridge. Unlike Mann, he believes it is possible to shift that—if you allow plenty of time. “You have to get your body used to it.”
That means avoiding crash dieting and instead, making small, sustainable changes over a long period. “Say you’re a woman who weighs 150 pounds and you want to weigh 120, but you’ve been 150 for the past 10 years. Your body is going to want to stay at 150. But if you make slow changes, then you’ll be 145 for a little bit, then maybe you’ll get down to 140 and stay there a while and eventually to 120.”
Intuitive eating takes time to learn, Gomer points out. “Mindfulness takes practice and discipline.” Here, she and other experts share the 10 key points to make it happen.
1. Tweak, Don’t Transform
Instead of vowing to only drink green juice for 10 days or run on a treadmill for 90 minutes every morning at 5 a.m., opt to make small changes, one at a time. “Maybe the first week, you fit in walking a mile, three to five times a week,” says Delbridge. “And then maybe the next week, you sit down on Sunday and plan your meals. Then the following week, you may say, ‘I’m going to try to walk two miles.’ These may seem like small changes, but 30 days from now, 60 days from now, 90 days from now, you’re going to be so glad you made them, because they really all add up.”
2. Don’t Rely on Willpower.
Willpower is a wimp when it comes to the tough job of saying no to cookies, doughnuts and French fries. “The trouble with depending on willpower is that we’re surrounded by food too often,” says Mann. Saying no to something “is not about resisting it just one time. If you’re sitting in a room with a box of doughnuts, that’s not one act of resistance; every minute you have to resist all over again. Because you have to constantly resist, willpower ends up failing for just about everybody—you have to be practically perfect to succeed that many times over.” A better strategy: not having temptation around you at all (see #3).
3. Put Obstacles Between Yourself and Unhealthy Food.
“If you have a bowl of M&Ms right next to where you’re sitting, you’ll eat a lot of them,” Mann says. “If you move it across the room, you’ll eat about half as many. That’s an obstacle, because you have to get up to eat them. That’s why I recommend putting obstacles between yourself and unhealthy food.”
Besides not keeping candy at your desk, that can mean not going past the food court at the mall or not driving past your favorite bakery or take-out burger place on the way home from work.
Many people find it easier to not have any junk food—whether it’s chips, ice cream or candy—in the house, in their cars or at their workplace. Out of sight, out of mind, out of mouth!
4. Remove Obstacles Between You and Healthy Food.
Besides maintaining a “clean” kitchen, without junk around, you also want to create an environment that encourages eating more healthy foods—fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and lean protein.
“Practically everybody needs to be eating more vegetables,” Mann says. One of her favorite strategies is what she calls “get alone with a vegetable.” That means eating vegetables first. “Before you put any other food on the table, and before you put any other food on your plate, you eat your vegetable. When you have a vegetable on your plate with the other food, there’s an obstacle between yourself and eating that vegetable—that is, most people prefer the other food.” But if you start with just a vegetable, you’re more likely to eat it, and eat more of it, because you’re hungry. “In my lab, we found that not only did people eat more servings of vegetables when they had them first, but they also ate fewer calories overall, because the vegetable starts to fill you up.”
5. Eat at Three, Stop at Six.
Gomer teaches her clients to eat using the Hunger Scale. “A one on the Hunger Scale is you’re so hungry you could eat your own arm. A 10 is Thanksgiving-dinner full.” But you want to avoid those extremes, and instead start eating when you’re at a three, she says. “That means you’re very hungry and ready to eat. And you want to stop when you get to six, when you feel satisfied and light.” Recognizing when you’re at each stage “is a skill you have to learn,” she says. Which is why the next step is key.
6. Give Yourself 20 Minutes.
It takes 20 minutes for your body to feel full, Delbridge says. That’s why it’s important to eat slowly, then wait 20 minutes to see if you feel full before having more. “Maybe there was a delay in your stomach telling your brain that you feel full, which there is for most people,” he says.