One of the most remarkable failures of modern medicine is its inability to combat obesity and its associated ills. Obesity is not a new human condition, nor will it ever completely disappear. But since the 1970s, something has changed in the environment and culture to make the condition epidemic, despite sophisticated medical research, a multi-billion dollar diet industry, and constant media attention. The most effective solution remains not gaining excess weight in the first place, but that is no longer an option for over 60% of the population, many of whom are veteran dieters.
The body wants to keep the fat
Diets depend on adherence to a long-term plan for eating that fails to meet the body’s need for energy. In response to this semi-starvation, the body mounts a defense. Hair and fingernails grow more slowly. Heat generation declines and the dieter feels cold and is less inclined to move around. Cells throughout the body ramp down their energy needs. Within a few days, even sleeping burns fewer calories. Caloric requirements remain suppressed long after the target weight is achieved. Upward weight creep begins as soon as vigilance about food intake and exercise declines, and happens at a lower calorie intake than in the pre-diet days. So begins the yo-yo dieting cycle, unless the dieter just gives up.
Stop the upward creep first
Giving up the attempt to starve away the pounds will eventually bring the metabolic rate back up, but only as the pounds re-accumulate. At this point a tactic other than a repeat diet attempt may be in order. The most reliable way to achieve weight loss that lasts is by burning slightly more energy than is consumed on a daily basis over a long period of time – a sneak attack rather than a frontal assault. Such long term daily commitment requires habit formation, and habit formation requires patient repetition of actions over long periods of time. Holding weight stable- just simply trying not to gain any more for at least 6-12 months- is the first preparation for mounting a sneak attack.
Going on defense
In contrast to the coordinated offense of a diet plan, not gaining any more weight requires defensive tactics. Mindfulness – thinking before eating – is the primary tool. Each day presents dozens of choices that might contribute to weight gain – or not. The only concern is reacting to choices presented. Reacting correctly to just a few of them every day adds up over time. At the end of 6-12 months of no weight gain, you are better off than at the end of another diet cycle that winds up on the upside of the starting weight. You’ll have the habits of a person who maintains stable weight, and you will be ready to lose weight slowly and permanently by undershooting energy requirements just a little each day – but not enough to put your body into energy conservation mode.
Learn from the people who succeed
People who maintain stable weight often have some sensible guidelines for themselves. A common behavior is refusal to buy larger clothing sizes. Another is the choice of clothes with zippers and buttons and belts. If clothing becomes uncomfortable, they cut the sweets and alcohol back and pay more attention to activity level. A weekly weight check keeps others on track. These people know better than to obsess about daily weight fluctuations, but 3-5pound gain in a week gets their attention. While a common mindfulness tactic is procrastination of eating to sort out true hunger from urges of emotional origin, people who maintain stable weight also do not go long periods without eating. The body begins to downshift into a lower energy gear if no food appears to break a fast of more than 6 hours.
Choices, choice, choices
Easily digestible carbohydrates in the modern diet, especially those combined with fats, make good targets for people seeking stable weight. Carbohydrates trigger surges in insulin. Insulin blocks fat usage for energy needs, and hunger recurs much sooner after a high carbohydrate snack or meal than after one containing more protein and fat. Choose to keep insulin levels down: eggs instead of cereal; one slice of bread on a sandwich instead of two; one M&M instead of a handful; nuts instead of M&Ms; half the normal spaghetti serving – or eat just the meat sauce; drink water instead of juices or soft drinks, even diet ones. (The taste of artificial sweeteners also triggers a burst of insulin, even though they have no caloric value.) Put off eating something that you really don’t need – distract yourself with an activity or task. Practice self-control in other areas of life. Self-control is a “transferable skill” and any practice helps build it.
Activity choices abound. Park far away from your destination. Walk if the trip is less than a mile (get a pull cart for groceries if you are lucky enough to live near the store). Skip the elevators. Make dates for walking instead of eating. Keep your hands busy and mind busy (mental activity takes energy too). Sit on an exercise ball instead of a desk chair. If you have a wireless printer, put it far away from the computer – on another floor if possible. Mow your own lawn. Shovel your own snow. Buy a pedometer and watch the steps add up. Engage in some strengthening activities to build high-energy demanding muscle tissue.
Stay in the present
Dieting to lose weight is always focused on the future. Weight maintenance is a present-moment task. There will never be a better time than now to go on the defense and begin to stop gaining weight. Now is the only time you have in which to take action – all the rest of time is either a memory or an imaginary future.