How to lose weight and keep it off

Weight Loss
Table of contents:

How the body resists weight loss (and maintenance)

How to mitigate metabolic adaptation

The Psychology of Weight Sustainability

Summing up sustainable weight loss

Nearly 74% of Americans are overweight or obese. And it’s not because they can’t lose weight. Many people who go on diets achieve weight loss…but most of those people gain that hard-lost weight back.

In other words, we don’t have a weight loss problem - we have a problem keeping the weight off.

Maintaining weight loss is far from a trivial pursuit: when you diet, you experience a variety of physiological and psychological changes that predispose weight regain. Nonetheless, these changes don’t determine your weight fate; they simply demand a more sustainable weight loss approach.

Unfortunately, many dieters lose weight with the short-term in mind, prioritizing quick weight loss over lasting weight loss.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be one of them. This article will provide you with all the knowledge and strategies you need to ensure you lose weight and keep it off.

How the body resists weight loss (and maintenance)

When you’re in a calorie deficit and lose weight, your body reduces energy expenditure to prevent further weight loss, a mechanism called metabolic adaptation.

As a result, your maintenance calories decrease, such that you need to drop calories even lower to see further weight loss. Then, when you reach your ideal weight, you’ll have to consume fewer calories to maintain your weight than you did prior to weight loss. Such adaptation spans all components of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), causing reductions in…

Resting metabolic rate (RMR)

RMR refers to energy required simply to keep you alive when at rest and encompasses 70% of TDEE. A significant portion of RMR relies on body mass (organs, muscle, and fat) - so when you lose weight, your RMR predictably decreases. However, RMR actually decreases beyond what you’d expect based on body weight due to lower levels of hormones like leptin, insulin, thyroid hormone, estrogen, and testosterone(1, 2 , 3, 4).

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)

NEAT includes all unplanned physical activity, such as walking around, fidgeting, standing, and doing housework. When you’re in a calorie deficit, you unconsciously lower your NEAT(5, 6).

Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT)

Energy burned during planned exercise additionally decreases with weight loss, as you naturally need less energy to move when you weigh less. Both dieting and repeated practice also tend to reduce EAT(7, 8); and the body further compensates for increased exercise during a deficit by lowering NEAT(9).

What’s more, metabolic adaptations even affect your appetite: lower levels of leptin (a satiety hormone) and higher levels of ghrelin (a hunger hormone) result in stronger hunger signals, making it harder to stick to your diet(10).  

The most effective ways to lose weight

Although some degree of metabolic adaptation is unavoidable during weight loss, it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable hurdle. By taking the proper measures, you can lessen the extent of metabolic adaptation experienced during weight loss.

In particular,  if you want to maintain a healthy metabolism to support sustainable weight loss, you should…

Eat a high-protein diet

Consuming sufficient protein supports satiety and helps preserve muscle(11), which can prevent a dramatic drop in RMR. Moreover, protein has the highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients - which means that your body uses more energy to break it down, modestly increasing your metabolism.

Lose weight slowly

The faster you lose weight, the more likely you are to lose muscle along with fat - and the more likely you’ll experience metabolic adaptation(12, 13). Lose weight more slowly (~1 lb per week at most) to best maintain your muscle and metabolism.

Avoid a prolonged calorie deficit

You shouldn’t be dieting forever. When you stay in a calorie deficit for too long, you’re bound to experience more pronounced metabolic adaptation. Aim to be as time-efficient as possible during your diet while maintaining a reasonable, not-too-aggressive rate of weight loss. And after completing a weight loss phase, you should return to maintenance for at least the same amount of time you spent in a deficit - or, alternatively, follow a reverse diet if your calorie intake dipped far too low to sustain.

Resistance train

Engaging in regular resistance training is vital to preserve muscle during a weight loss phase(14). In addition, resistance training has been found to increase RMR independently of muscle gain, thus giving your metabolism an additional boost(15). Consider resistance training at least 2-3 times per week, with a focus on compound movements (i.e. squat, deadlift, pressing, pulling) and gradually upping the weight over time.

Reduce stress

Chronic stress can hinder weight loss goals for a variety of reasons, such as…

  • Increasing the risk of muscle loss(16).
  • Impairing recovery from exercise(17).
  • Enhancing hunger and cravings for calorie-dense, highly palatable foods(18, 19).
  • Lowering energy expenditure by suppressing thyroid hormone, sex hormones, and leptin while increasing ghrelin(20, 21, 22, 23).
  • Reducing insulin sensitivity and increasing the risk of metabolic syndrome, which can impair fat loss (particularly in the abdominal region)(24).

Practice regular relaxation and self-care to help de-stress: meditation, breathwork, journaling, nature walks, or whatever personally works for you.

Stay active

To combat lower energy expenditure arising from less NEAT and EAT, monitor your activity levels and increase them as needed. Additionally, staying physically active helps regulate appetite and is a common behavior among individuals who successfully maintain weight loss(25, 26). Specifically, you should track your daily steps to ensure they don’t drop along with your calorie intake. You can easily sneak in some more steps by…

  • Taking a short walk after every meal
  • Walking during phone calls
  • Taking the stairs over the elevator
  • Parking farther away from the store
  • Finding more active hobbies (i.e. gardening, recreational sports)

Get quality sleep

Poor sleep not only makes you more likely to overeat, but also affects the composition of weight loss. That is, sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of muscle loss, thus reducing overall fat loss and exacerbating the effects of metabolic adaptation(27, 28). Try to get 7-9 hours of quality sleep nightly.

The Psychology of Weight Sustainability

While metabolic adaptation certainly plays a role in weight regain, most people fall off track for more psychological reasons: they aren’t able to turn their temporary diet into a lasting lifestyle.

In a world full of quick fixes and fad diets, it’s no wonder weight loss rarely sticks around. Long-term dietary adherence is key to long-term weight loss. And long-term dietary adherence derives from  mastering your mindset and behavior - a claim supported by research, which identifies behavioral change as the strongest factor influencing long-term weight loss maintenance(29, 30).

Though behavioral change isn’t necessarily easy, it’s relatively simple, with a foundation in a few core principles.

Form healthy habits

Many people mistakenly rely on willpower and motivation for weight loss - both of which eventually wane. In truth, most of your day-to-day behavior consists of habits, which require little thought and are generally “automatic.” Accordingly, to successfully lose weight, you need to form healthy habits. And the best way to create a healthy habit is by implementing a small behavioral change that you repeat consistently over time.

By losing weight slowly, you allow yourself time to cement these healthy habits - so the weight you lose stays lost.

Examples of minor behavioral tweaks that can become healthy habits include…

  • Working out every Monday and Wednesday morning.
  • Taking a walk each day after dinner.
  • Eating your protein and veggies first in your meals.
  • Including one more serving of veggies daily.

The slow, incremental nature of habit formation requires patience, but the small changes add up and compound with time, yielding results that ultimately outshine and outlast any crash diet(31).

Follow a diet that feels least restrictive to you

In order to lose weight and keep it off, you need to restrict your calories to some extent - but that doesn’t necessitate a restrictive mindset. If your diet feels like a punishment, you’re likely to fall off the wagon and rebel at some point. In fact, restrictive dieting can foster an unhealthy relationship with food and disordered eating(32, 33), increasing the likelihood of binging and yo-yo dieting. Instead, adopt a flexible mindset, in which no foods are off-limits, “bad” or “good.”

The form of restriction that feels least restrictive to you is highly individualized - perhaps you enjoy counting calories, low carb, low fat, or intermittent fasting. Choose the diet that keeps your calories in check without creating undue stress.

Practice self-monitoring

A common behavior among individuals who sustain weight loss is self-monitoring, such as frequently weighing themselves and tracking their food intake(34). By keeping tabs on your weight and food, it’s easy to notice when you start to stray from your plan so you can nudge yourself back on track. Moreover, people are prone to underestimating calorie intake(35), so logging your food counteracts this predisposition to overeat.

That said, frequent weighing and tracking may cause anxiety in some individuals, particularly those with pre-existing tendencies to obsess over body weight and food. In which case, self-monitoring may simply mean practicing mindfulness during meals and exercising awareness over your daily decisions.

Consider your personal preferences

There isn’t one best diet for everyone. Indeed, research has found that all diets are equally successful when calories are equated, assuming dietary adherence(36). Consequently, the best diet is the one you’ll stick to - and often that means the one you enjoy most.

Form a new identity

Your identity guides your implicit beliefs and behaviors - so identifying as a “healthy” individual naturally makes healthy decisions easier(37). If you consider yourself a healthy person, you’re more likely to behave in a way that’s consistent with that identity; whereas if you don’t identify as healthy, sticking to your diet and exercise program feels unnatural and forced.

For example, a healthy person views working out and eating nutritious foods as part of their lifestyle - as something they just do, that is part of who they are.

Accordingly, many individuals who successfully maintain weight loss report forming a “new identity.”(38) Transforming your self-perception along with your body helps ensure your physical transformation lasts.

Adjust your mindset

Adopting a growth mindset has also been shown to promote long-term weight loss success(39, 40, 41). A growth mindset refers to a set of beliefs in which you view skills and traits as malleable - for instance, believing that you can change your physique and body weight. In contrast to a fixed mindset (i.e. believing that you can’t change yourself and grow), believing that you can change your weight encourages stronger self-regulation and healthier behaviors.

Moreover, when you view mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, you’re less likely to let one poor decision derail your entire diet: you become more resilient and persevere despite temporary challenges and slip-ups.

Summing up sustainable weight loss

Losing weight and keeping it off doesn’t have to be a struggle. With the right strategies, you can avoid severely slashing calories and succumbing to an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting. By mitigating metabolic adaptation, adjusting your attitude, and cementing healthful behaviors, you can create successful, sustainable, lifelong weight loss.

Most fundamentally, lasting weight loss depends on long-term behavioral change.

And in this sense, psychology leads physiology: your mindset matters more than you’d think. So dial in your behavior, mind, and body to lose the weight - and lose it permanently. Why settle for temporary weight loss when you can have fat loss forever?

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