The million-dollar question in weight loss – even more than how you lose the weight in the first place – is how you keep it off.
Approaching her 40th birthday, Maya had undertaken to lose a stone. As a seasoned dieter, she anticipated it being hard work but this didn’t phase her – after all,she had lost well over a stone several times before. But she feared that history would repeat itself – every previous success was quickly followed by re-gaining the weight, and then some.
Take-aways, crisps and biscuits piled on the pounds
Working as a writer and speaker, Maya is energetic, creative and enjoying her success. She has a happy home life with her partner and daughter, and both were keen to support her in losing weight.
When I asked Maya what might be keeping her weight higher than she felt happy with, she said it was all to do with the amount of junk food she was eating. Large takeaways twice a week, several packs of crisps a night in front of the TV and the biscuits she had with her nightly cup of tea.
It made total sense to Maya that to lose weight permanently she would need to be able to change her eating habits permanently. When I told her we’d focus on changing things without her having to ditch her favourite foods, she was really happy though perhaps a tad sceptical!
The pull of bad habits
In a recent paper, Dr Ben Gardner and his colleagues reviewed 130 published interventions for weight loss and found that on the whole people’s focus tends to be on getting rid of old eating habits, either by avoiding tricky situations or by deliberately resisting the old habit. The problem here is that if you find yourself back in that tricky situation, or if your motivation or willpower is at a low ebb, you may easily revert to the old habit. This is what had happened to Maya time and again, and she was ready for a change.
Ben Gardner makes the point that it’s not enough to merely stop doing the old thing – the key is to replace your old habit with a new one. He emphasises that it’s important to establish the new habit in the situation the old one was triggered, and to make sure the new habit is at least as good as the old one at doing whatever the old one was helpfully doing.
Understand that bad habits develop for good reasons
It helps people to understand that whatever habits they have developed around food, those habits came about for sound reasons. Whether that’s because snacking on chocolate gives you an energy boost mid-afternoon or because sharing a meal in the evening gives you a rush of feel-good hormones. The new habit will stick if it does the job at least as well as the old one did.
How Maya lost a stone in a 8 weeks – and kept it off
The guidance I gave Maya to start with was to first discover what dishes she most enjoyed in her takeaway. I suggested that she order the two she liked best and eat them mindfully.
I told her to notice when she felt just full and to stop there. That way she could still enjoy her favourite takeaways with her family as she ate less.
Second, we investigated what was going on with the crisps in the evening so we could work out how she could cut down.
Third, I asked her to notice how much she was enjoying the biscuits with her tea so we could think about what might work instead.
Usually, I advise clients to make one change at a time, but Maya had an 8-week deadline and she quickly got to work on the takeaways, crisps and biscuits. In our regular phone calls, she reported her successes and we grappled with obstacles.
Maya’s Appetite Retraining changes
- She and her partner decided to stick to one takeaway a week, order less and Maya would eat mindfully, noticing when she felt full. The money they saved meant that they could afford to buy really nice food to cook themselves at home. Maya found the cooking fun, and as her daughter loved what she was cooking, the rush of feel-good hormones was bigger than the takeaway nights. So that was major win Number One. To avoid triggers, Maya deleted the takeaway apps from her phone and then stopped ordering takeaway food altogether, apart from special occasions. Saving £45 a week super-charged her motivation!
- Maya quickly realised that her evening crisp habit had a lot to do with feeling restless but tired. She got an adult colouring book, and if the colouring book didn’t do it for her on a particular evening she would put some dry roasted nuts in a little ramekin dish and enjoy them. This change saved her a nightly £7 trip to the corner shop.
- Knowing that drinking regular tea with no biscuits wouldn’t cut it for her, Maya switched to green tea sweetened with stevia, which didn’t trigger a desire for biscuits and soon she replaced that with water which she found she liked.
“I’m loving my life!’
Maya found it really motivating to have lost 3 pounds in the first week “without trying”. It was a huge positive that she’d stopped spending £45 a week on takeaways and nearly £50 on evening snacks.
Most important was how Maya felt about the changes she had made – it was so uplifting to hear what she was saying as the weeks went on
- “I’m loving my life. I haven’t put my life on hold”
- “We haven’t had a takeaway for weeks!”
- “I get more pleasure from food now than before”
- “I feel in control of my eating – my eating is not in control of me”
She was thrilled with what she was seeing on the scales. Here’s my hand-written graph of Maya’s weight changing…
And what about the million-dollar question of keeping the weight off?
I wasn’t sure what to expect this week when I dialled Maya’s number, some four months after our final session.
When she answered her phone, Maya told me that she’d been too busy with other things to have been able to give any thought to her weight but that she’d been enjoying her work. She was feeling great and life was good, but she hadn’t got on the scales since our last session.
“Hold on, I’ll just see now”. She stepped on the scales and Whatsapped me the number that appeared. She was utterly astonished that her weight was exactly the same as it had been four months before, despite giving no thought to limiting what she ate. She had expected to be sliding back to Square One after so many weeks and so little effort.
Me: “Have you gone back to twice-weekly takeaways?”
Maya: “No – we’re now having one a month”
Me: “How about crisps?”
Maya: “Nope, no crisps”
Me: “And the biscuits?”
Maya: “I really like drinking water now – if I have tea it’s at breakfast and I never fancy biscuits then”.
Me: “Perhaps your weight has stayed the same because your eating habits have stayed the same”
Maya: “Yeah, it’s a lifestyle change and it’s worked! I might think about another step when work isn’t so busy”.
Helping your clients keep the weight off
What transformed my own ability to help clients change how they eat was reading the latest research on the psychology of eating and appetite. If you want to learn what I’ve learned (and continue to learn every week!) then you’re welcome to join me on one of my courses for professionals. Whatever your professional background, if you’re involved in helping people change how they eat, here are my upcoming events:
- Gardner, Richards, Lally, Rebar, Thwaite & Beeken (2021) Breaking habits or breaking habitual behaviours? Old habits as a neglected factor in weight maintenance. Appetite v 162
- My book, “How to Retrain Your Appetite: Lose weight eating all your favourite foods” talks you through the stepwise process of changing your eating habits for good, and keeping the weight off.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon for Unsplash