For my book, How We Did It: Weight Loss Choices that Will Work for You,
I interviewed about three dozen people on how they lost weight. Everyone chose a different route to success—everything from Atkins
to the Zone,
as well as their own personal plans. Sticking to these plans, people lost anywhere from 20 to 220 pounds.*
Despite the different routes to success, I discovered some similar touch points in the experiences of those who had succeeded at weight loss. While every person’s story was different, ten distinct themes surfaced frequently. I’ll share those themes with you here, and trust that you will benefit from the wisdom of these remarkable people, just as I have.
1. Don't shrink from your moment of reckoning.
“Why did you do it?” I couldn’t wait to ask people this question, the question that fascinated me more than any other. Most people could point to a single moment in time that forced them to face their dilemma. This moment is so universal, it has a name—a triggering event.
For some, it was a health scare, as when one person imagined the term “morbid obesity” on her death certificate. For other people, an honest comment from another person pierced their very soul. For example, one speaker’s publicist told her that if she truly wanted more speaking engagements, she would have to lose weight.
Another woman’s moment included the number 303—the number representing her total cholesterol level. “If it had been 295, I might not have had the same experience,” she says. Adopting the Ornish
plan, she brought that number down to 177 and lost 20 pounds.
Some people expressed a strong sense of determination, even when no external forces pressed in. One teenager who lost 70 pounds with the help of a personal trainer said he just knew instinctively that it was time to act, that he would never again have a chance like the one that presented itself when he found himself living next door to a gym.
I felt horrible asking people about these experiences, these moments that humiliated them, or terrified them, or left them in despair. I know how these moments feel; I’ve had my own. Yet these defining moments, although painful, gave people the courage to make the move they’d long wanted to make and provided them with the motivation they needed to succeed. “It is a moment of revelation, a good moment,” says one man—a doctor—whose own moment of honesty occurred in front of a mirror.
2. Remove the word "diet" from your vocabulary.
“In this country, when we think of diet, we think it’s something we do for 16 days, and then we can go back to the way we were living,” says Dr. James O. Hill, co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry.
“We know it’s not right, but it’s almost hard-wired in us.”
Don’t we all know that! I recently gave a friend a card that read: “I’m on a 30-day diet... already I’ve lost 15 days.” We laughed because we’ve both been down that road. So have many others. “My mistake was to diet for a particular event—a prom or an upcoming wedding,” says one woman, who lost 140 pounds after weight loss surgery.
The fact is that permanent weight loss rarely results from a short-term fix. The word diet has become a misleading four-letter word. It’s not supposed to mean something you do to lose weight. It’s just a word for the way we eat day in and day out.
Although the people I interviewed adopted new habits as dictated by the weight loss plans they chose, they did not abandon them once they reached their goal weight. They continued to use what they’d learned to adapt their eating and exercise habits for a lifetime.
“Every single moment matters,” says a woman who lost 100 pounds on Thin Within.
“If I say this moment isn’t important, that is what years of poor choices are made of.”
3. Make weight control, not weight loss, your goal.
In our conversation, Dr. Hill went on to state a hard truth about weight loss.
“People go on the popular weight loss plans, and they do lose weight,” said Dr. Hill. “The problem is that many of the plans don’t help you keep off the weight and that’s the really hard part.”
Uh oh. Just when we all thought losing weight was the problem, up pops this new challenge. Once you’ve taken the emphasis off short-term fixes, it’s time to take the long view. Maintenance of a healthy weight should become your top priority for life.
“If what you’re doing to lose weight isn’t something you can continue long term, then you’re not likely to keep the weight off,” Dr. Hill says. One man, an opera singer who lost 70 pounds, realized this when he adapted the largely vegetarian Eat to Live
program to include more protein, a revision he felt could help him stay true to his eating habits over the long term.
Research into why it is so easy to regain the weight you manage to lose increasingly shows that the brain, your hormones, and your metabolism work hard to force you into reclaiming your former size. It isn’t just a matter of flagging willpower.
Not only that, but a recent study suggests that if you want to keep the pounds off, you may have to work harder than you did to lose the weight. The less you weigh, the fewer calories you burn as part of your day-to-day activities, says Raina Mekary, a Harvard professor of nutrition and author of the study. To maintain your loss, she suggests, you may have to become even more physically active than when you were losing weight.
Yet, while statistics about how hard it is to keep weight off are grim, those who succeed prove to us that it can be done. “There are exceptions to everything we say about success rates,” Dr. Hill says. “Success stories are motivating. People need to know they can do it.”
4. Resolve to look to the future.
Many people exhaust themselves losing and regaining weight on one plan after another. Almost everyone I talked with had tried at numerous times and through numerous ways to lose weight. You may have, too. But whatever you’ve tried in the past, and for whatever reason it has failed, put it out of your mind.
“Don’t let the past dictate your future,” says Eric McLaughlin, a personal trainer at Jim White Fitness
in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “And don’t be tempted by the gimmicks you see on television.”
Ah, the gimmicks. These products—pills, herbal supplements, patches, exercise equipment—promise easy success. We have our doubts, but in our desperation, our hearts overrule our minds and we can’t whip out our wallets fast enough.
a dietitian and nutritionist who has worked with such high-profile clients such as Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic, gives five warning signals of a bad diet:
• It promises speedy results, more than 1.5 to 2 pounds a week.
• It encourages infrequent eating.
• It consists of too few calories. (She suggests no fewer than 1,500 calories a day for women; 1,800 for men.)
• It forbids entire classes of food or nutrients.
• It doesn’t include exercise.
Guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission
add that no scientific evidence exists for products that claim to block the body’s absorption of fat or calories, and those that claim weight loss can be achieved by products you wear or rub into the skin. In addition, products said to eliminate weight from specific parts of the body are without merit.
Although the guidelines for weight loss can seem simple enough, that’s not to say that success will come without effort. “If anybody tells you it’s going to be easy, run the other way!” warns Dr. Hill.
5. Gear up to take on society, not just yourself.
Every single person I interviewed stressed that to succeed they had to take responsibility for their own health. Yet it’s too simplistic to lay the blame for overweight solely on the individual. Our entire society is set up to encourage a life of sloth and overindulgence.
“In this country, our communities are constructed such that we have to drive everywhere. If we decide we want to walk, there are no sidewalks. Even if we want to make healthy food choices, everywhere we go, there are unhealthy choices,” says Dr. Hill. “To lose weight, we’re asking people to resist these forces. You literally have to fight against the environment.”
Registered dietitian Nancy Clark,
a Boston-area sports nutrition specialist, agrees. Americans, she says, have some pretty destructive thought patterns to overcome, patterns that the American food industry is quite willing to cater to.
“The messages we get in America are that food is fattening, and we often don’t have time to eat anyway, so we think we might as well skip a meal or two to try to lose weight,” says Ms. Clark. “By listening to those messages, we get too hungry and by that time we don’t care what we eat, and there are numerous options—Starbucks, Cinnabon, you name it—when we get to that crumbling point.”
Not only do you have to tune out those kinds of negative messages, adds Dr. Howard Eisenson of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center,
but you have to stop looking to society to provide positive messages that will help you sustain your weight loss.
“While there are great long term rewards for achieving and maintaining a healthier weight, some of the most motivating rewards for losing weight are short term. People don’t comment forever on how great you look, and you can’t keep buying new clothes,” he notes. “The pull to return to the natural state of overeating and expending no more exertion than you need to is strong. You have to change not only your habits but your attitudes.”
6. Listen to your body and the voices in your head.
Listening to voices in your head is generally frowned upon in polite society. But actually your inner voices have some very valid things to say.
For example, Nancy Clark advises people to consider one simple question before they pick up something to eat. “Ask yourself, Does my body need this fuel to sustain itself?” she suggests.
In fact, Ms. Clark’s top tip for weight control is to eat healthy foods at regular intervals throughout the day, as your body signals that you are hungry, and then stop eating in the early evening and “diet” overnight. “It’s a good sign if you wake up in the morning hungry,” she says.
But, as I discovered, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Hunger might be a motivating sensation for some, a debilitating condition for others.
“For me, hunger creates a personality problem,” says one man who lost 180 pounds on the Atkins
plan. “Hunger makes me irritable. That’s why I never succeeded on low-fat diets.”
In the experiments he recounts in his book Mindless Eating:Why We Eat More than We Think
, author Brian Wansink shows that how much we eat is often dictated by external signals—we eat because someone else is eating, or because it’s noon, or because there’s still popcorn left in the bowl or because our TV show hasn’t ended yet—when really we should be heeding the body’s own internal signals of hunger and fullness.
In fact, most people I talked with reported being far more in tune with their bodies than they had ever been. Many of them told me, for example, that they had learned to stop eating before they felt the sensation of fullness, to allow the brain time to signal the stomach that they’d had enough. For some, it’s a tough lesson to learn.
“I don’t feel the sensation of fullness until almost an hour after I eat,” says one woman who lost 30 pounds through calorie counting. “I had to learn to stop eating way before I thought I needed to, or I’d overeat.”
7. Banish your dread of exercise.
Some people are lucky. They like—even love—to exercise, sometimes to the point of obsession.
“I am motivated by a challenge,” says one pastor who lost 65 pounds on his own "Lose the Snickers" plan and went on to run the New York City marathon.
“And there’s something about running. It’s a sort of ‘runners high’ that you get from the release of endorphins.”
In fact, of the 7,000 people who have logged their weight loss onto the National Weight Control Registry, the overwhelming majority report adopting a lifelong habit of exercise. Only 9 percent of people said they had lost weight and maintained their loss without exercise, says co-founder Dr. Hill. “You might be able to do it, but the odds are against you,” he cautions.
Whatever your excuse for not exercising is, it really doesn’t matter—in the end, it’s just an excuse. One woman from upstate New York who chose the Ornish
plan maintains her 30-pound loss by biking and exercising every day, despite her innate lack of interest in exercising.
8. But don’t count on exercise alone to lose weight.
It sounds contradictory, I know. But don’t throw up your barbells yet.
“Exercise alone will not cause you to lose weight,” confirms dietitian Nancy Clark. “You have to create a calorie deficit.”
Simply put, you create a calorie deficit when you expend more calories than you take in. While many of Ms. Clark’s high-profile clients, including members of the Boston Red Sox and Celtics and high-level college and Olympic athletes, expend a lot more calories than the average mortal, most who seek her help are humble beings who simply want to lose weight.
How does she advise people to create that calorie deficit? Not primarily by exercise.
“You have to get away from the kind of thinking that says, I’m going to walk three miles so I can eat a 350-calorie brownie,” she says.
Of course, exercise can play a role in creating the deficit, but in Ms. Clark’s experience it’s a tricky balance. For men, she says, exercise tends to dampen hunger. But for women, exercise tends to make food more appealing, which makes them eat more. “Too much exercise can be counterproductive,” she says.
I heard several times from women that in their quest to lose weight, they fell prey to “exercise bulimia”—that is, an obsessive reliance on exercise to burn off calories, often to the exclusion of family and other interests. One woman admitted to missing out on huge chunks of her children’s lives because of her obsession with running.
The problem with relying solely on exercise to lose weight is that when injury strikes or interest wanes, the weight tends to come right back on.
What’s an appropriate level of exercise? One that can be maintained for life, says Nancy Clark. That means choosing activities that you like and can commit to regularly.
9. Realize that eventually new habits take hold.
After talking with Dr. Hill, I thought about how perfectly aligned his thoughts were with studies showing that sticking with a weight loss plan—any plan—is a better predictor of weight loss than the particular method used to achieve it.
The people who shared their stories with me are living proof of that. Long after they’d read the book, adopted the plan and lost the weight, they stuck with their new patterns. How long it took for these new habits to become second nature varied.
“It was shocking to me, how easy it was. I felt great right away, in the first week,” says a Pennsylvania woman who lost 220 pounds with Recovery from Food Addiction.
“I was totally clean, and I lost all my cravings.”
For most people, the process of transitioning to new habits is a little rockier. After much urging, the husband of a friend of mine finally agreed to eat vegetables, if he could start by having them on a pizza. So far, so good. But when the pizza arrived, he generously slathered the top with butter—“Because we are talking vegetables here!”
A former NFL football player who lost 100 pounds on Jenny Craig
remembers fondly times of yore, when he could sit down at a restaurant and polish off a 72-ounce steak dinner—that’s 4 ½ pounds of meat—with all the trimmings. “Well, I can’t do that anymore,” he notes, a little wistfully.
The problem with most diets, says dietitian Pam Smith, is that people try to break old habits without building new ones. “Most people don’t plan to fail,” she says. “They fail to plan.” More than anything else, having a plan is the key to establishing your new habits, she says.
“Most people have vague goals like I’m going to lose weight, or I’m going to eat better, but they don’t focus on the routines,” she says. “You need to think instead, I’m going to eat breakfast every day, or I’m going to eat brightly colored fruits and vegetables at every meal.”
As habits do become established, many people find that eventually, even when the will wavers, the brain balks.
“On the Zone
diet, you’re allowed to pig out once a month,” says one woman who lost 165 pounds. “But pretty soon, you realize that if you do, the next day you’ll feel like a Mack truck ran over you. So you learn to treat yourself in small ways and savor the choice you made.”
10. Help yourself by helping someone else along.
Part of the allure of a twelve-step program is to get to the point of helping someone in the same way you’ve been helped. “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs,” the twelfth step reads. And many successful weight loss seekers live that truth.
“When I went to my first Overeaters Anonymous
meeting, people greeted me and everyone said, ‘Please come back,’” remembers an Atlanta woman who lost 60 pounds. “And I thought, Oh, I’ll be back. I just knew.” Today, she is both sponsored and a sponsor to others.
It may be most difficult, though, to live the message at home. We parents like to reward our children with food, love them with food, pacify them with food, busy them with food, give in to them with food. “We’re just not going to do that anymore in our family,” says a New York pastor who lost 96 pounds using NutriSystem.
When people begin to dramatically change their lives, it is often those around them who cannot adjust. “Although our weight is not their fault, there will always be those dear women who bring Heavenly Rice and Ambrosia to church dinners and urge you to eat,” says an author and speaker who lost 120 pounds after gastric bypass surgery. Many people told me they were grateful to spouses, family members and friends who encouraged them, rather than discouraged them, along the way.