How to lose weight with small habit changes
Diets don’t work long term. While most of us can drop some kilos to fit into a new bikini or pair of board shorts, we’re unlikely to fit into those same skimpy swimmers next summer.
When researchers followed 14 contestants from reality show The Biggest Loser, they found that all but one of them had regained all the weight within six years of the show, and other studies repeatedly show that we’ll regain most of any weight lost within two to five years.
The unfortunate truth is that our body doesn’t much like to be deprived. Once we’ve lost weight on a diet, our hunger hormones go into overdrive with inner voices screaming at us to eat the damn cake.
But Bond University research fellow Dr Gina Cleo says that there are ways of losing weight and keeping it off, without suffering in the process. Her research, published in the journal Nature, suggests that it’s about making really small habit changes so that healthy choices become automatic.
“Habit is doing small, manageable and achievable steps – there’s no such thing as ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Make sure you do that’,” she says.
“It’s finding something that’s so small that you can consistently do it and eventually it will equate to long-term change. You change the small things and the big things will happen.”
Dr Cleo’s research found that overweight people who followed a habit-changing plan lost 3.1kg. After 12 months with no coaching, they lost an additional 2.1kg thanks to their new automatic healthy habits.
“Just a 5 percent weight loss can have a huge and significant reduction in the chances of type 2 diabetes and heart disease,” says Dr Cleo, who is also academic director at Sum Sanos.
“The fantastic thing [about habits] is that [small weight loss] is going to happen again the following year and the following year.”
Habits are about adding, not subtracting
The difference between habit change and diets is that habits involve adding things to your existing life, whereas diets invariably are about taking things out.
So rather than trying to count calories or exercise vigorously, habit change would see you do something small like add a glass of water with every breakfast or serve a side salad with every lunch.
“If you’re eating more fruit and vegetables and healthy snacks, you’re automatically eating less of the unhealthy things – it becomes a replacement,” Dr Cleo points out.
“And with the consistency of eating that way and feeling good for it, you actually stop craving the other things and the less healthy food loses its appeal.”
Habits are added to your existing routine
When considering new habits to add, Dr Cleo says you need to think about what you’re already doing and what you could seamlessly add to it.
“Habits are always associated with a cue or a trigger, which is generally a time or a place,” Dr Cleo explains.
“So instead of saying ‘I need to drink more water each day’, you would say, ‘When I have a meal, I will have a glass of water with it’ so you are not depending on your memory.”
Be patient with new habits
You might have read it takes 21 days to form a habit, but Dr Cleo says this is formed from quite outdated research.
“How long it takes to become a habit depends on how complex the habit you are trying to develop is and how habitual you are as a person,” she explains.
“The range is actually between 18 and 254 days, so when people want an average, I give them 66 days.”
And while we’re on the subject of habits, it’s a good idea to take some time to review your current habits that are getting in the way of your health and consider ways you could short-circuit them.
“If coming home means eating a cookie, then you might come home through a different door or walk into the bedroom before the kitchen or take a shower,” Dr Cleo suggests.
“You would restructure your routine so you don’t have the same trigger – it’s like the opposite of forming a habit.”
Try these 10 habits
If you need some starting habit change suggestions, try one of these that Dr Cleo shared in a recent article on The Conversation:
1. Keep to a meal routine: Eat at roughly the same times each day. People who succeed at long term weight loss tend to have a regular meal rhythm (avoidance of snacking and nibbling). A consistent diet regimen across the week and year also predicts subsequent long-term weight loss maintenance.
2. Go for healthy fats: Choose to eat healthy fats from nuts, avocado and oily fish instead of fast food. Trans-fats are linked to an increased risk of heart-disease.
3. Walk off the weight: Aim for 10,000 steps a day. Take the stairs and get off one tram stop earlier to ensure you’re getting your heart rate up every day.
4. Pack healthy snacks when you go out: Swap crisps and biscuits for fresh fruit.
5. Always look at the labels: Check the fat, sugar and salt content on food labels.
6. Caution with your portions: Use smaller plates and drink a glass of water and wait five minutes then check in with your hunger before going back for seconds.
7. Break up sitting time: Decreasing sedentary time and increasing activity is linked to substantial health benefits. Time spent sedentary is related to excess weight and obesity, independent of physical activity level.
8. Think about your drinks: Choose water and limit fruit juice to one small glass per day.
9. Focus on your food: Slow down and eat while sitting at the table, not on the go. Internal cues regulating food intake (hunger/fullness signals) may not be as effective while distracted.
10. Always aim for five serves of vegetables a day, whether fresh, frozen or tinned: Fruit and vegetables have high nutritional quality and low energy density. Eating the recommended amount produces health benefits, including reduction in the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease.
READ NEXT: The biological reason you can’t lose weight — and how to beat it