by Sheri Colberg, PhD
This time of year always brings the desire to lose a few pounds (or more) to the forefront of people’s minds. But how do you know how to go about doing it?
Diets are a dime a dozen these days, but the real problem is not losing weight — it’s keeping it off after you lose it. The following are some basic "sticky" ideas that will help you lose weight and keep it off for good.
- Keep it simple, stupid. Can you remember the last product you saw an ad for on TV or in a magazine? I usually can’t, except for the week after the Superbowl (think Doritos and Budweiser). In today’s world of abundant information, most business and media messages are ineffective. By way of contrast, one of the best remembered TV ad campaigns of all time featured an egg frying in a pan, along with a simple, dramatic statement that "this is your brain on drugs." Dietary messages must be delivered with the same level of simplicity, using unexpected, concrete, credible, and/or emotional examples or delivery.
- Lose the diets. Did you know that Jared Fogle, the Subway spokesperson, lost hundreds of pounds eating Subway sandwiches for a year? His idea was simple: eat an easy-to-follow diet with fewer calories to lose some weight and get healthier. While we are not extolling this as a diet, it does illustrate how ideas are "sticky" because of their simplicity. (Jared also walked daily to help lose weight, but that’s a separate topic.)
- This is your brain on sugar. Did you know that some researchers believe that sugar and carbohydrates may be as addictive as heroin? Eating sugar and fat triggers opioid receptors in the brain — a finding supported by studies from Princeton. Higher levels of insulin release caused by sugar intake also make weight loss virtually impossible. It is possible to get unaddicted, though, if you believe that you are. For example, you can increase dopamine levels in the brain (that go up with sugar or carbohydrate consumption) with physical activity and other healthier choices instead to alter brain responses to these substances.
- Small changes, big rewards. Did you realize that overeating by as little as 50 calories a day — found in 5 peanut M&M’s or a small apple – can cause you to gain 5 pounds of body fat in a year? Dramatic lifestyle changes are virtually impossible for most to sustain over a lifetime (hence the huge failure rate of dieting), but even small changes in eating patterns, food choices, and physical activities can greatly impact long-term weight loss.
- Eat this, not that. Did you know that Subway’s 6-inch tuna sub has 230 more calories (540 versus 310) than its oven-roasted chicken breast selection? The difference is all the hidden calories in the full-fat mayonnaise used in the tuna. This is just one example of how a simple food substitution can make a huge difference in body weight over time. Using concrete and unexpected examples with sticking power, shopping for food or making selections at a restaurant has never been easier (or healthier).
- Move a little, lose a lot. Did you know that you’re likely to lose more weight simply standing longer every day than going to the gym for a workout three days a week? Studies have shown that focusing on energy expenditure through increased activities of daily living expends more calories than a daily trip to the gym and can make the difference between subtle weight gain and loss.
- A walk a day keeps the fat away. A cover article in Time magazine in August 2009 claimed that exercise makes you eat more and sabotages attempts at losing weight, but I don’t believe that. Any type of regular physical activity can help prevent weight gain and regain, and a recent study even showed that five weeks of moderate intensity aerobic training results in elevated levels of plasma BDNF, a brain-derived compound that causes you to eat less when its levels rise in the brain. Regular activity will at least keep you from gaining additional weight, even if it doesn’t cause significant weight loss.
- Exercise makes you smarter. Really! Despite its good intentions, the "No Child Left Behind" legislation for the Bush era did not improve test scores even though our kids were spending more time on academics, likely because it left more of them on their behinds. Apparently, our ancestors gained more neural connections that improved memory and reasoning ability when they were on the move — chasing after their own dinner or running away from bigger carnivores. There is now irrefutable evidence that engaging in regular physical movement improves your ability to learn and your psychological status, including lowering anxiety and depression and enhancing impulse control.
- Stress can make you fat. Did you know that stress alone — without eating more — can cause you to gain weight? Psychological stress apparently reduces the size of the part of the brain involved in regulating energy use — thereby diminishing the capacity for the brain to keep metabolic rate high and leading to weight gain, even in young adults. Most effective dieters have learned to manage their stress levels to prevent weight gain.
- Get your beauty sleep. Did you know that sleeping less than 6 hours a night likely causes weight gain and increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses? Sleeping too much is not good either, but 7−8 hours of quality sleep a night will actually reduce your body weight without much effort on your part. So, getting enough sleep is as important to weight management as other lifestyle improvements.
- The best cure is prevention. Did you realize that most weight gain is subtle, creeping on over the course of years? Despite how it may appear, you didn’t go to bed thin one day and wake up overweight the next. Individuals included the National Weight Control Registry must have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off at least a year to qualify, and there are over 10,000 of them with an average weight loss of 66 pounds maintained for over 5 years. One trick is that most of them continue to weigh themselves on a scale on a regular basis after reaching their goal weight and take preventative steps whenever they start to regain any pounds.
- It takes a village to stay on a diet. Have you ever been on a diet only to have it ruined by a family member who brought home your favorite kind of cookies? Studies have shown that changing individual behaviors, such as food choices or exercise patterns, is more likely to be successful when supported by family or community members. The importance of the "village" in successful weight loss should not be underestimated.
Dr. Colberg is the co-author of The Diabetes Breakthrough: A Scientifically-Proven Program to Lose Weight, Cut Medications, and Reverse Diabetes in 12 Weeks, which is scheduled to be released in November 2013. Her co-author is Dr. Osama Hamdy, the medical director of the Joslin Diabetes Center’s obesity clinical program and faculty at Harvard Medical School, who created their Why WAIT program, the world’s first clinical practice program designed to help patients with diabetes lose weight through a novel multidisciplinary approach.