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5 Small Changes That Help Keep the Weight Off for Good

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You worked hard to lose weight, and you aced it. Now comes the next challenge: keeping it off. Most likely you heard about the Biggest Loser study earlier this year that found 13 of 14 contestants had regained substantial amounts of weight within six years. (Here: the Truth About Weight Loss After the Biggest Loser.) Suddenly, headlines were blaring that rebound weight gain was inevitable. Here's the thing, though: It's simply not true. The Biggest Loser contestants are unusual because they lost extreme amounts of weight, which is hard to maintain over the long term. Among people who lose more modest amounts of weight (i.e., the majority of us), 60 percent keep most of it off, according to the latest research. All it takes is some strategic diet and exercise tweaks, says Caroline Apovian, M.D., an obesity specialist at Boston University School of Medicine.

First, understand how weight loss changes your body. (Aside from all the health benefits, that is.) When you lose a significant number of pounds, your body goes into "starvation mode." Your system slows its production of leptin, a hormone that suppresses your appetite, while at the same time pumping up your levels of ghrelin, a hormone that makes you hungry, says Louis J. Aronne, M.D., the director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian and the author of The Change Your Biology Diet.

The good news: You can often lose up to 10 percent of your body weight without triggering that hormone change, Dr. Aronne says. So a 150-pound woman can shed about 15 pounds and keep them off with little to no resistance. But even if you've lost more than that, maintaining your new weight is doable with these science-proven techniques.

Revise Your Calorie Count

Once you're in maintenance mode, you can eat more each day than when you were dieting. But you can't have too much more, because your total energy expenditure—the number of calories you burn doing things over the course of the day—has dipped disproportionately, so that a 10 percent weight loss lowers your metabolic rate by 20 to 25 percent.

Fortunately, there's a way to figure out how much you can eat and still stay slim: by using the National Institutes of Health body-weight planner. Plug in your "before" stats and then, when it asks for your goal weight, give your current number. It will calculate how many calories you can consume based on that information. From there, you may need to do a little customizing. See how you do at that new calorie count: Subtract a little if you find yourself gaining back weight, or add a bit if you're ravenous, says Amy E. Rothberg, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the weight-management clinic at the University of Michigan. Experiment until you find what works best for you.

Eat More Plant Protein

Boosting your protein intake helps you maintain muscle mass, which keeps your metabolism humming. But the kind of protein you eat makes all the difference. Fill your diet with more beans, chickpeas, peas, and lentils along with animal protein. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 3/4 cup of these foods daily helped people maintain weight loss by making them feel satiated. "Beans and lentils help keep your insulin levels steady, which prevents the hunger spikes that can cause overeating," says David Ludwig, M.D., a weight-loss specialist at Harvard Medical School and the author of Always Hungry? (Check out these vegetarian recipes for more meatless inspiration.)

Exercise Smarter, Not Harder

Daily workouts are crucial—you need to be more active to stay at your new weight than you did to lose pounds because your metabolism is a little slower now, Dr. Aronne says. But that doesn't mean you have to go hard every day. An hour of moderate activity like brisk walking or recreational exercise such as riding your bike will keep the pounds off, says Holly Wyatt, M.D., the associate director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado. (You can do 70 minutes a day for six days a week instead, she says.) An hour may feel like a lot, but that amount is necessary to maintain because it gives you something researchers call "metabolic flexibility." This is your body's ability to adapt and burn extra calories if, say, you decide to indulge in birthday cake at a party or overdo it at a barbecue.

If you can't do an hour, Dr. Rothberg recommends splitting it up. Try a 20-minute workout in the morning, a 20-minute walk during lunch, and 20 minutes of weight lifting in the evening. (Try finding a walking group; they bring serious benefits.) And be sure to incorporate strength training into your daily workouts at least twice a week. Women who do resistance training increase their muscle mass, which boosts metabolism, more than those who do only cardio, according to Gary R. Hunter, Ph.D., the director of the Physical Activity Core for the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Schedule More Time for R&R

Chronic stress can lower your levels of appetite-suppressing leptin, making you hungrier, according to a study in Psychoneuroendocrinology. At the same time, stress raises your levels of the hormones insulin and cortisol, which boost your appetite and slow your metabolism, Dr. Ludwig says. Add yoga to your workout mix to increase feelings of calm and build muscle. (Or try this meditation routine that relieves insomnia.) And make sleep a top priority, Dr. Rothberg says, since research links sleep to weight maintenance.

Weigh Yourself Every Day

People who stepped on the scale daily were more likely to keep weight off over a two-year period than those who didn't, according to research from Cornell University. While you shouldn't freak out if you gain a pound or two, tracking the number will help prevent it from slowly but steadily creeping up, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., a Shape advisory board member and the author of The Flexitarian Diet. If you gain five pounds, take an honest look at your daily routine to see where you can shave some calories and build in more activity, she says. (But don't let weighing yourself bum you out!)

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