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How learning weight-maintenance skills first can help you achieve New Year's weight-loss goals

Year after year, many of us adopt New Year's resolutions to slim down, and by the end of January we're often back at square one. Perhaps it's time to reconsider a different weight-loss plan: Instead of trying to immediately lose weight, vow to maintain your weight for a period of two months before shedding any pounds.

While this recommendation may sound a bit odd, a past study from Stanford researchers showed that a maintenance-first approach helped individuals shrink their waistlines and keep from regaining the weight. In the following Q&A, lead author Michaela Kiernan, PhD, senior research scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, discusses the method and tips for implementing it to achieve your 2013 weight-loss goals.

In a 1:2:1 podcast, you discuss how an “all or nothing” mentality can negatively impact goals to keep those pounds off. How does the “maintenance-first approach” address this and other psychological challenges associated with shedding pounds?

Often people adopt New Year’s resolutions in an attempt to change their behavior in an intensive focused effort. This approach may work in the short term but it can be hard to sustain that type of focus in the long term. As a result, people give up and revert to their old ways - the "all or nothing" approach. In contrast, maintaining behavior changes over time may need a more subtle "fine-tuning" approach, in which the day-to-day experience is more positive and doesn’t require such intensive effort.

In our trial, we asked one group to learn a set of maintenance skills before losing weight, so that they had a chance to experiment and experience what it was like to "fine-tune" their lifestyle habits. The other group lost weight in the more traditional manner by losing weight first and then trying to maintain it.

How do the skills used to maintaining weight differ from those used in losing weight?

Losing a significant amount of weight can require considerable attention. For instance, keeping daily food records has been found to be a useful strategy for losing weight. However, most people can’t diligently record what they ate or drank multiple times a day for long periods of time, so they quit and regain the weight. Therefore, for weight maintenance, we focused on identifying a set of skills that would make the day-to-day experience positive while not requiring overwhelming amounts of effort. For instance, we encouraged people to learn to maintain their weight without keeping food records and instead to use their bathroom scale to inform them when to fine-tune their eating and physical activity habits with small, quick and easy adjustments they can make on the fly.

For those interested in mastering the skills of maintaining weight before they begin losing weight in the New Year, can you provide an outline of the approach used in the clinical trial?

Here are a few key areas. First, actively search out yummy, healthy foods that you enjoy eating as much as the high-calorie foods you’re replacing. If you don’t, you’ll feel deprived and continue to dwell on the unhealthy high-calorie foods you’re missing - and eventually you’ll go back to eating them. Finding tasty replacements will take proactive efforts to try a lot of new foods. At the same time, be sure to incorporate eating a few of your favorite high-calorie foods into your routine - and then eat them mindfully to savor and enjoy them.

Second, start to "make peace with the scale." Try weighing yourself daily without the pressure of trying to lose weight. Watch how your body weight fluctuates for a few weeks at your current weight. Many people are pretty surprised that their weight fluctuates from day to day as much as it does. Then, a few weeks in, set a personalized range of about five pounds that accounts for your own body’s fluctuations and a little "give" for vacations and holidays.

Third, use the range to tell you when to make "fine-tuning" changes to your eating and activity habits. For instance, if your weight is fluctuating within a few pounds near the top of your five-lb range, you may want to eat 20 percent less during meals for a few days and get out for extra walks at lunch. Alternatively, if your weight is fluctuating at the bottom of the range, you may want to enjoy another glass of wine or share a favorite dessert with a friend. Develop a"‘quiver" of fine-tuning strategies that work for you.

Finally, navigate those pesky but always occurring disruptions in life that affect weight. For instance, strategically lose a few pounds with your fine-tuning strategies and get to the bottom of your range before going on vacation so you can mindfully indulge in your mother-in-law’s amazing sugar cookies during vacation.

Previously: Learning weight-maintenance skills first helps prevent diet backsliding, Stanford study shows, Can a food-tracking app help promote healthy eating habits?Examining how friends and family can influence our weight loss and Research shows remote weight loss interventions equally effective as face-to-face coaching programs
Photo by Lisa Creech Bledsoe

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