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Unlike what social media influencers would have you believe, the vast majority of people who lose weight don’t maintain it for longer than a year. For most people, the weight eventually comes back in a phenomenon known as “weight cycling.” And no, it has nothing to do with “falling off the wagon.”
Your weight doesn’t determine your health, so if you’re finding weight loss to be a frustrating and fruitless feat, you have our permission to give it up and focus on other aspects of your wellness instead. But if you’re committed to weight loss as a goal, there are some pitfalls that you can avoid to help improve your chances of success. Here’s what not to do.
A short-term attitude
Everything on this list is somewhat of a hard truth, but this is often the hardest to accept (and change). If you approach weight loss with a short-term attitude, you may not make it anywhere except on the yo-yo diet train.
Without a long-term approach to weight loss, you may lose 10 or more pounds in two weeks and then suffer a rebound when you discover that regimen wasn’t working for you. This is all too common when people embark on strict diets such as keto or paleo, or fad diets that promise rapid weight loss. In reality, for most people, a well-balanced diet that includes all food groups and even some treats works best in the long run.
Part of successful, sustainable weight loss — i.e. losing the weight and keeping it off for good — is understanding that fad diets, excessive exercise and “detoxes” don’t usually work. They only last as long as your willpower lasts, and I’m willing to bet that’s not more than two weeks to a couple of months.
There are no quick fixes, miracle cures or magic pills when it comes to weight loss, despite what the wellness industry might have you believe: Losing weight requires dedication to a plan that supports long-term healthy habits.
The general recommendation for weight loss is a rate of one to two pounds per week, although initial weight loss might surpass that for people who are very overweight, and then slow down to the suggested one to two pounds per week. Studies have shown this to be an effective way to lose weight without losing too much water or lean tissue — and to avoid a rebound.
An all-or-nothing mindset
Many people who struggle with a short-term attitude also struggle with an all-or-nothing mindset. I myself began my health and fitness journey with this mindset. I cut out all (literally all!) processed foods: no bread, no pasta, no milk, no cheese, definitely no individually wrapped snacks. I basically existed on chicken, vegetables and berries.
This was great until it wasn’t, and I ended up on a CVS run for all the chocolate and Goldfish I could hold in two hands. Then, because I’d “ruined” my diet, I would eat as much as I could physically handle, because, “Why not? I already ruined it.”
Then, of course, I’d feel bad about the snacks I ate and return to my overly restrictive regimen the next day. This is a destructive cycle to be in, but it’s something I see all the time with personal training clients. An all-or-nothing mindset can keep you in a perpetual cycle of lose-gain-lose, not to mention shame and guilt around food.
This all-or-nothing concept applies to fitness, too: If you’ve been The most effective workouts to get in shape in the least amount of time left and right but don’t feel fitter or stronger, you might be doing too much. Toning it down could — counterintuitively — be the answer to improving your fitness (and playing the long game).
A poor support system
Supportive friends, family members and significant others are critical to successful weight loss. If I was asked to cite the most common reason for not sticking to a healthy diet from my past personal training clients, I would say stigma.
That’s right. As silly as it sounds, people really do get made fun of for eating healthy, especially in regions where food is an integral part of the culture. Growing up in southern Louisiana near New Orleans, I experienced this very often when I decided I was making changes to my diet.
At family gatherings and social outings, I’d get comments like, “That’s all you’re eating?” or, “You’re really not going to eat any dessert?” or, laden with sarcasm, “Next time we’ll have a salad potluck.”
It’s not fun to be ridiculed or scoffed at, especially for things you care about (like your health!), so it can be very easy to fall into a trap of eating — and drinking — for the sake of your social life. This is why a solid support system is key to long-term weight loss. Without it, the journey can feel lonely and intimidating.
If you currently feel you lack a support system, try having open conversations with your friends, family and partner about it. You can make it clear that they don’t have to change their eating habits if they don’t want to, but that your health means a lot to you and you’d appreciate it if they didn’t mock or downplay your hard work.
If an IRL support system isn’t working out, turn to online communities that promote both health and body positivity. I really love Flex and Flow on Instagram, Health At Every Size and the Intuitive Eating Community. These communities emphasize health without emphasizing weight, which is helpful because when you focus on the health outcomes, you’ll reach your happy weight with ease. Reddit also has a great forum (/r/loseit) where you’ll find lots of real-life stories about weight loss.
Thinking exercise conquers all
If you’re at all attuned to the wellness industry, you’ll know this saying: “Abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.” Even if your goals don’t include a shredded stomach, the adage is still relevant. You just can’t out-exercise a poor diet.
Exercise should definitely be part of your overall approach to weight loss because it’s proven to aid weight loss (not to mention its long list of other health benefits), but it’s difficult to lose weight from exercise alone. Many people overestimate the number of calories they can burn from their workouts — it’s probably a lot less than you think.
For example, a 154-pound man will burn fewer than 450 calories during an intense, hour-long weight lifting workout. You can easily cancel that effort out if you don’t pay any attention to your diet. The exact number of calories you burn during exercise depends on many factors, including your current weight, the intensity of the activity, the length of the workout, your age and your body composition.
Plus, focusing on only exercise can lead to a destructive cycle of exercising extra to burn off calories you feel you shouldn’t have eaten. Or you may end up feeling like you need to “earn” your calories through exercise. Either way, taking this approach can lead to a strained relationship with food and exercise, as well as stalled weight loss.
There are exceptions to all rules. Some people, such as those who have spent years putting on muscle mass, can eat lots of calorie-dense food and not gain weight — but even if you can eat whatever you want and lose or maintain your weight, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for you.
A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins and some whole grains will serve you best in terms of sustainable weight loss and health. Combined with a consistent exercise routine, you’ll experience sustained weight loss and weight maintenance once you reach your goal weight.
Sleep, stress and work
Losing weight will be a helluva lot harder if you’re chronically stressed, sleep-deprived or overworked. This scenario may sound familiar to you:
- You wake up motivated and ready to seize the day. You have plans for a post-work interval run and your healthy, prepped dinner is waiting in the fridge for you.
- A few hours into the day, your lack of sleep catches up with you. You reach for the afternoon coffee.
- By the time work is over, you’re way too drained to go for that run. You decide to skip it.
- You’re tired and maybe a little stressed or moody, so you nix the healthy dinner and hit a drive-through instead — because comfort food.
This is OK if it happens occasionally (everyone deserves a lazy evening every once in a while), but weight loss will seem impossible if this happens all the time.
The truth is, nutrition and exercise are only two components of a healthy life that can lead to weight loss. While important, too strong of a focus on nutrition and exercise can cause you to overlook other factors that are just as important: sleep and stress management.
Depending on supplements
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that fat burner supplement in your medicine cabinet isn’t going to do the work for you. While certain supplements may help you reach your weight loss goals, you have to work to make your supplements work.
For example, incorporating a daily protein shake in the mornings can help you feel fuller throughout the day, which may help keep cravings at bay. Increased protein intake can also help you build muscle, which aids in body recomposition.
Certain weight-loss supplements do have some evidence backing them, but no supplements are proven like the method that no one wants to take: eat fewer calories than you burn.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.