It’s not about the diet

Last week I wrote about some characteristics of a good weight loss diet and what to avoid if your goal is to lose weight and keep it off. At about that time, the Best Diets rankings were published in U.S. News and World Report.

Despite this focus on diets and what to eat to lose weight, the key to long-term weight management isn’t food—it’s your ability to make good decisions and change your behaviors to support your weight loss goal. Sure, what you eat is important, and you should find a diet that is low in calories and teach you how to eat a healthy diet in the long run. But to make that diet work you need to alter your eating and activity habits. This is the difficult part, especially after the diet or weight loss program “ends”. (As people who have lost weight and kept it off will tell you, the effort never really ends)

To illustrate the importance of behavior change in achieving lasting weight loss, here are two examples of real people (with fake names) and how they overcame a major obstacle by changing their habits:

Andrea was a single mom who worked full-time and took classes toward her college degree. As you can imagine, her days were full and, even though she knew exactly what she should eat, she ate most of her meals on the go, often when driving. This meant that she ate a lot of take-out and fast food, typically as several snacks throughout the day as opposed to normal meals. Andrea struggled to lose weight and was getting frustrated that even though she knew what she should be eating, her lifestyle made this all but impossible. Then she decided to start packing food for herself. She actually carried two bags—one with her books and the other neatly packed with healthy snacks. This way she could have appropriate food with her everywhere she went. A yogurt in the morning at work rather than donuts from the kitchen or fruit and cheese instead of fast food while driving to pick up her kids at school. Preparing a day’s worth of food took time, but making this change made all the difference for Andrea.

Ed travelled a lot for work, which meant he spent long days on the road and ate out for most meals. Sitting all day in meetings and eating at restaurants with business associates made it almost impossible for him to stick with his diet or exercise program. He did his best to order salads, skip desert, and look for the healthiest options on the menu. No surprise, he ended up eating far more calories than he should and didn’t lose much weight. But skipping these meals wasn’t an option. Ed decided that since he couldn’t control his diet as much as he would like, he would focus his efforts on exercise. He started staying at hotels with fitness centers and woke up early to exercise before work. If he finished early in the afternoon he would use that time to go for a walk or go to the gym again before dinner. This wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. The exercise helped with weight loss directly by burning calories and indirectly by giving Ed a sense of control over his weight loss which motivated him to be even more careful ordering meals.

What Andrea and  Ed have in common is that, even though they were following the same diet (a low-calorie diet with daily exercise), their success came more from how they changed their behavior to fit their lifestyle than from the details of the diet. And that is something that most diet books or programs don’t tell you. It is also why it takes most people several tries before they successfully lose weight and keep it off. Anyone can follow a diet for a few months, making short-term changes to accommodate a new eating and activity pattern. But it takes someone with real dedication to make the type of long-term behavior modifications that are required to keep weight off in the long run.

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