Losing weight isn’t easy, but keeping it off can seem even more daunting.
Thankfully, it turns out that the idea that most people who lose weight gain it all back (and sometimes more) might be a misconception, and there’s research to back that up: An ongoing observational study found that with sustained behavioral changes, the majority of people were able to keep weight off for 5+ years.
To help bolster your resolve, shed these nine unhealthy habits and ways of thinking to help make weight loss part of who you are, rather than a fleeting phase.
Ditch: Thinking long-term weight loss is impossible
Feeling like you have to suffer for the rest of your life to maintain your weight loss is understandably scary.
That’s why it’s crucial to have a realistic maintenance plan for eating and exercising that meshes with your life. Just as important, however, is how you react when you go off-plan.
“Slip-ups will happen. It’s helpful to not view them as a failure but as something you can learn from,” says psychologist Holly Parker, Ph.D., author of “When Reality Bites: How Denial Helps and What to Do When It Hurts.”
Try to think of those ups and downs as a natural part of the process, she says, rather than getting hung up on the fact that the slip-up happened. And use the information you gleaned to help guard against a similar lapse in the future.
Getting back on the horse right away also can make you feel more in control, Parker says. Feeling passive, on the other hand, can make you feel helpless and overwhelmed, which can be part of a vicious cycle that leads to poor diet decisions.
“Many of us overeat or eat things that aren’t so healthy as a way to cope with difficult feelings,” adds Aline P. Zoldbrod, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Lexington, Massachusetts, and a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. “So the best way to not get into feelings of hopelessness is to set small goals and to have a lot of compassion for yourself when you are struggling.”
In addition, practicing mindfulness or meditation can help you become more self-aware, “so you don’t use food as a crutch when the going gets tough,” she says.
Ditch: Thinking you have to eat foods you don’t like
When social media starts exploding with testimonials about the latest magical diet food, it can be difficult to not get caught up in the hype and start thinking you can’t possibly be healthy without it. But if beet smoothies, salmon jerky, or kale just aren’t your jam, don’t worry about it, nutritionists say.
“No one food is the ultimate food,” says Paige Benté, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.. “Every food has a different macro- and micronutrient profile, and bodies need a variety of all of those things.”
In other words, it’s the whole puzzle, not individual pieces, that’s important. While one food doesn’t have the power to ruin your diet, the health food of the moment won’t make it healthy on its own either, says Tammy Lakatos Shames, R.D., a dietitian in New York City and co-author of “The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure,” with sister Lyssie Lakatos, R.D.
“Just like you wouldn’t eat cake at every meal — it’s OK every once in a while — it’s the same with really good foods,” says Lakatos Shames. “If your diet is poor overall, throwing in some kale or red quinoa once in a while won’t make up for it.”
In addition, no matter how impressive a food’s nutrition profile is, it won’t make much difference to your health if you resent eating it, Benté says.
“Is kale healthier than romaine lettuce? Yeah, sure,” she says. “But if you hate kale, you’re not going to eat it. I’d rather you eat a salad with romaine that you’ll enjoy and keep eating rather than forcing yourself to eat kale once in a while.”
Ditch: Uncomfortable workout clothes
You don’t have to buy expensive exercise clothes to get a good workout, but there’s evidence to suggest that clothes might actually play a role in keeping you motivated.
So, if you’re wearing clothes that are uncomfortable (like baggy cotton shirts that get heavy with sweat or leggings that feel a little too low-cut), that might be what stands between you and a good workout.
According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, when subjects wore lab coats, they performed better at tasks requiring attention, leading the authors to conclude that clothes might have symbolic meaning and associations for some people.
And clothes might also have the ability to affect psychological processing. That might help explain why sometimes just putting on cute workout clothes can feel inspiring and energy-boosting, and why tying your sneakers can be the thing that finally spurs you to head out the door and go for a run.
“Obviously, being comfortable makes working out more pleasant,” Parker says. “When I wear clothing that I feel uncomfortable in, my mental energy is distracted. So I imagine that wearing clothes that make you feel good can be motivating.”
Ditch: Reacting to slight weight gain with quick-fix diets
Life often gets in the way of good intentions: You go on vacation or to a wedding, and indulge a little too much. When that happens, it’s tempting to overcorrect with a quick-fix diet plan.
Any responsible dietitian will tell you should steer clear of unhealthy diets that severely restrict calorie intake or the variety of foods you can eat. From a pragmatic standpoint, you shouldn’t do them because they won’t help your reach your weight goals beyond the very short term.
More importantly, your body may try to hold onto fat stores if you go below a certain calorie level in preparation for what it considers “starvation.”
“Ultra-low calorie diets can backfire in terms of your metabolism function,” Lakatos says. “Although initially, there might be weight loss, part of what you’re losing is muscle tissue,” which can affect the speed of your metabolism.
That means that when you start eating normal food again, it might be more of a struggle to keep weight off. “Not only is it unsustainable, it leaves you back where you started, and that can be pretty depressing,” she says.
This yo-yo dieting process is one of the biggest obstacles for people trying to keep weight off, says Benté, who has maintained a significant weight loss for several years herself.
“Diets aren’t things you start and go off of and then go back to your old habits,” she adds. “A quick fix is not healthy, nor is it weight loss that’s going to last.”
What works is finding a balance that works for you, recommends Benté. Start slow and keep making small goals for yourself, such as adding an extra serving of vegetables to your diet each week so you adjust to eating more of them.
“When you slowly incorporate changes into your life, eventually they won’t seem as daunting,” she says.
Ditch: Thinking of exercise as a chore
No matter what your weight is, exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and regular exercise tends to be a contributing factor in your ability to keep weight off over time.
The key is finding an activity (several) that you enjoy and will do regularly. While some people thrive on competition and enjoy group sports, others may prefer at-home workouts by themselves.
“It’s amazing how, when people develop a habit, it eventually can become a part of their identity,” Parker says. For example, instead of thinking, “I’m running,” you start thinking, “I’m a runner.”
“When they use that language, something has been folded into their identity, so they’re more likely to stick with it because it has become part of who they are,” she says.
Ditch: Thinking you can never drink alcohol again
Sure, alcohol contains empty calories that don’t do your body a lick of good, but if you’re smart about it, you don’t have to ditch alcohol to maintain weight loss.
Like a glass of juice or a scoop of ice cream, alcohol can fit into a healthy weight-maintenance plan, Benté says. But it is a treat, she points out, and should be treated accordingly.
“If you really know your limits and can have just a drink once or twice a week, we say it’s perfectly fine,” Lakatos Shames says.
Problems can arise, however, if people jump on and off the abstinence wagon without having a realistic plan to keep alcohol consumption in check.
“When clients tell us they’re going to completely abstain for two weeks, we’ll say, ‘that’s great,’ but if they felt deprived doing that, they might go wild after it’s over,” Lakatos Shames says.
They also advise setting a drink limit in advance: “With a number set in your head, it’s easier to stick to,” Lakatos Shames says.
Ditch: Chowing down to fit in
Sometimes we shift into “party mode” way too easily. A birthday party is a no-brainer danger zone, but if you’re not careful, having friends over for dinner can trigger party mode, then regular Friday happy hours with co-workers.
How much you share about your indulgence plan for an occasion is up to you, but sometimes asking loved ones for help and understanding about your goals can be helpful, Benté says.
“If you tell people, ‘this is something I’m doing for myself, and I need your help,’ it makes you more accountable because they know you’re working on these things,” she explains.
There are also sneaky strategies to help you avoid nosy questions about what you might be eating or drinking: Having a little healthy food on the plate in front of you won’t stand out like an empty plate would, Lakatos Shames says. A red plastic cup filled with soda water helped Benté blend in unnoticed at college-era parties, she says.
Reminding yourself that you have a choice is another trick to maintain healthy behaviors, Parker says. A 2015 study found that when people at a mall were confronted with signs asking whether they wanted to take the stairs or the escalator, more people chose the stairs than people who hadn’t read the sign.
It might have a similar effect on eating behavior, Parker says, to remind yourself that you have the option to eat a cookie or eat an apple — and it’s up to you.
Ditch: Shaming yourself on the regular
A steady stream of negative talk about your body doesn’t just make you feel bad — it makes healthy choices more difficult.
“There’s this idea that if people are hard on themselves, they’ll be motivated to do better, but evidence shows that the opposite is true,” Parker says, pointing out that research suggests that “fat shaming” may actually cause people to eat more, not less.
Being cruel to yourself with negative self-talk can set you up for a vicious cycle, Zoldbrod says: “You say terrible things to yourself, feel worse than you did before, use food to self-medicate your upset feelings, and then you feel disgusted by yourself, so you want to eat more to feel better. It just goes around and around.”
When you catch yourself thinking bad things about your body or your weight, flip the body-shaming script by focusing on the bigger picture: You’re losing weight to be healthy and strong.
If you start beating yourself up for eating a cupcake or skipping a workout, think about healthy goals you’re working on now.
“Focusing on what you can achieve rather than what you can avoid has a more positive impact,” Parker says.
Ditch: Not managing your stress levels
You’re probably familiar with many of the reasons why stress is bad for your health, but here’s another: Cortisol.
This is the body’s stress hormone and it affects how your body stores fat, contributing to belly fat stores, and it can also increase appetite-stimulating hormones. So having — you guessed it — a plan to combat stress can help maintain your weight, Benté says.
When you’re trying to lose weight, you might get stressed out that you can’t have your favorite foods, she says. The trick is to map out your eating plan for the week and adding healthier versions of your favorite not-so-healthful foods, or squeezing in a small treat here and there without being too restrictive.
Don’t forget to keep moving, too: Exercise naturally boosts endorphin and serotonin levels, which helps lower stress, Lakatos Shames says.
The Bottom Line
Try to remember that long-term weight loss isn’t as much of a unicorn as previously thought. Experts agree that having a plan, setting small goals and challenges to keep yourself motivated, and not freaking out when life happens all go a long way in maintaining your weight. Ditch these bad habits, and you’ll be a step ahead in the weight-maintenance game!