If I told a client she wasn’t supposed to lose any weight for the first two months of a weight-loss program, she’d probably go find another nutritionist. But that may be the secret to not only dropping a dress size but also keeping those pounds off for life.
In a new study by Stanford scientists, more than 260 overweight to obese women were split into two groups: One immediately began a 20-week weight-loss plan that involved eating more fruits and veggies, being more active, keeping daily food journals, and attending weekly support meetings. Once this part of the program was completed, they spent eight more weeks focusing on weight maintenance tactics.
The other group was asked to refrain from losing any weight the first eight weeks while they learned those maintenance lessons. Only after those two months did these women began the identical 20-week weight-loss program.
In the end, both groups lost about the same amount of weight—an average 17 pounds, roughly 9 percent of their starting weights. But there was a big difference a year later: Those who lost weight first regained seven pounds, more than twice as much as the women who started by mastering the maintenance tricks.
RELATED: You don't need to do anything huge to start slimming down. Try these 15 small diet changes for weight loss.
I’m fascinated by this research because weight management is one of the primary reasons clients come to see me, and the study's results echo what I’ve seen in my practice. When a client is overly fixated on weight loss (Did the number on the scale go down today and if so how much?), she can easily lose sight of, or even give up on, the skills that ultimately lead to success.
That's why I sometimes I ask my clients to commit to not weighing themselves at all and instead pay attention to things like hunger and fullness patterns, emotional or social triggers, and learning how to navigate situations in which they tend to fall off track. I also often ask clients to make a list of the reasons they want to change their eating habits that have nothing to do with losing weight, such as having more energy, not feeling bloated, better sleep, glowing skin, better workouts, more even-keeled moods, and just plain feeling good about being healthy.
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking the pressure off of losing weight has allowed many of my clients to really focus on the foundational skills and mindset changes that set them up for long-term success. That doesn’t mean not paying attention to weight at all, but instead realizing that weight loss and maintenance are desired “side effects” of a healthier relationship with food.
In this study the researchers used some lingo I really like: They call it paying "relaxed attention" to weight. In my experience, this shift in focus is what can finally break the yo-yo on-off diet cycle and foster sustainable habits that can allow you to get to and stay at your weight goal—for good.
What’s your take on this topic? Has overly focusing on your weight backfired for you? Has letting go a bit on the numbers helped you be more successful? Please share your thoughts @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.