First things first: Whether you do or don't want to lose weight is totally personal; if you want to, great, but if you don't, that is perfectly fine as well. If weight loss is one of your goals this year and you don't know where to start, you're not alone. Nearly a quarter of the Americans who resolve to change something about their lives this New Year’s will be hoping to shed some pounds—and preying on these doe-eyed resolvers will be all manner of “fast weight loss solutions.” They’ll guarantee instantaneous results or promise to make the pounds melt off without you having to change a thing. The reality is, losing weight in a safe, healthy, and effective way is a lot more complicated than that.
Weight loss requires lifestyle changes (no matter how much we might wish for quick answers). It requires work, adaptability, and a whole lot of patience. There's so much that goes into it. A holistic approach is necessary for success, which is measured in how you feel, not what a scale says. It includes setting thoughtful goals, looking at your physical activity levels, adopting healthy eating habits, getting enough sleep, managing stress, and being cognizant of confounding factors that may be outside your control, such as health issues or hormones. It's also really important to note that if you have a history of disordered eating, a weight-loss plan might not be a healthy choice for you. You should consult a doctor before making changes to your diet or exercise regimen. At the end of the day, the underlying goal is to feel better—physically, mentally, emotionally, however you define it. That's what you're working toward.
The first step for making the process easier is to treat your body in a loving way from day one—instead of withholding positivity until you reach a specific number on the scale. That means ditching the judgy voice in your head and acting like your own best friend.
The next step? Craft a plan that will make the process of losing weight sustainable over the long haul. If you're ready, willing, and able to move forward, the following eight tips will help you do just that.
Effective weight loss requires personal honesty. “Make sure any changes you will make are realistic for you and your lifestyle,” Maxine Yeung, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., NASM-CPT and founder of The Wellness Whisk, tells SELF. That means don’t plan on cooking a healthy meal every night if you hate spending time in front of the stove. Instead, you might commit to cooking two nights each week and ordering in from a restaurant with healthy options the rest of the time.
It’s also important be honest about your own food preferences. “If you really don’t like a so-called healthy food like quinoa, don’t force yourself to eat it,” says Yeung. Instead, craft a eating plan that emphasizes healthy foods you truly enjoy eating.
Getting clear about why you want to lose weight will provide you with the fuel to keep going when your resolve starts to weaken (as—let’s be honest—it inevitably will). “I’d encourage those who are thinking of getting healthier to take some time to reflect and journal about what matters most,” Shirley Mast, R.N., B.S.N., and Take Shape For Life Health Coach, tells SELF.
Mast recommends asking yourself the following questions: “Why do you want to be healthier? What would that look like for you? Why is that important to you? How would you feel if you reached those goals? How would that impact the people you love and those who love you? When you get clear on the answers to those questions and continue to remind yourself of why you are getting healthier, it’s much easier to stay on track with making healthy choices on a consistent basis.”
In spite of all the hype around various diets, there really is no “one best way” to eat for weight loss, says Yeung. The key is to choose a dietary approach that fits easily into your lifestyle.
The best diet is one that works for the individual while providing appropriate nourishment,” says Yeung. “Generally, I encourage eating healthier overall, focusing on choosing more whole foods, having balanced meals, and practicing moderation with less-than-healthy foods, rather than providing a strict meal plan.”
Still, some people might benefit from more structure when it comes to meal planning. “Sometimes a structured diet is easier for people to manage in their busy lives, because they don’t have to think about what foods they should eat,” says Tamara Melton, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., nutrition communications and wellness consultant, and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson. “They can also help to get someone used to a proper portion size of meals.” So newbies to healthy eating might consider starting on a structured weight-loss meal plan and then adapting it as they get more comfortable with new eating habits. But again, if you have or are in recovery from an eating disorder, this might not be the best choice for you—focusing so much on numbers can take a lot of people to a dark place that is definitely not healthy.
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“Rapid weight loss can happen, but it is rarely sustainable,” says Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Slow and steady weight loss is the way to go, as you’ll be much more likely to keep that weight off in the long run.”
A healthy rate of weight loss is typically anywhere from ½ to 2 pounds per week, she says. But try not to get too caught up in these weekly numbers. Instead, focus on consistency when it comes to eating well and working out. “The best thing to do is to slowly change your habits and build sustainable, healthy eating patterns over time,” says Rumsey.
“It can be easy for people to focus merely on what they are eating and on the weight loss progress,” says Mast. But sustainable weight loss relies on other factors as well. Mast emphasizes that finding a supportive community or one-on-one health coach is invaluable. Without a positive support system or the knowledge to develop a healthy eating plan, your weight loss is likely to stall. Speaking of which…
Go easy on your body if your weight loss slows down at some point in the process. “Plateaus are very normal,” says Melton. “It is … stressful on the body to lose weight. Plateaus help your body to take a break [and to] make sure that all of the body systems are still in healthy working order before losing any more weight.”
Changing up your diet might help you move past a plateau. But, says Yeung, “It really varies person to person. Sometimes the diet needs to be reevaluated and sometimes other factors, like stress levels, sleep, and levels of physical activity may be playing a part and need to be addressed.”
In other words? Don’t assume a plateau means it’s time to eat fewer calories. Instead, consider the bigger picture to identify any and all contributing factors. And be open to the fact that your body might be happy right where it is—even if you were hoping to drop another five pounds.
Achieving the weight loss you were after can be simultaneously thrilling and a letdown. When you’re no longer moving toward something, it can feel like the wind’s been knocked out of your sails. To maintain your weight loss, you’ll need to keep feeding your resolve.
“Keep up with your healthy habits—eating healthfully, maintaining consistent physical activity, managing stressors, and sleeping well,” says Yeung. “It’s important not to just forego your new lifestyle because you reached a weight goal.”
It can also be helpful to set new health goals for yourself—such as running a 5K or getting eight hours of sleep every night—in order to maintain your forward momentum, says Mast. And remember to keep focusing on the motivator(s) you identified when you first started toward your goal.
As you endeavor to lose weight, remember to be your own cheerleader. Practice self-care and reward yourself for building healthy habits. Above all, says Melton, “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else—even if that someone else is you (20 years ago, before you had kids and a career, etc.). Focus on looking forward and give yourself pep talks to stay motivated.”