How to Maintain Weight After You Lose It
If losing weight is hard, figuring out how to maintain weight after that loss can sometimes feel even harder.
According to a UCLA research review, about two-thirds of people who successfully lose weight gain it all back — and often more — within five years of ending their programs. The operative word there? “Ending.”
“Many people think that when they lose all of the weight that they are ‘done,'” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It. “But, in fact, they are entering a new stage of self-care that requires staying consistent with healthy habits.”
Two weeks of inactivity is all it takes to notice significant declines in strength and cardiovascular fitness, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine. Indeed, the body is incredibly efficient at adapting to whatever demands (or lack thereof) are placed on it.
The good news: When you’re consistent — with your nutrition, exercise, and overall lifestyle — you end up establishing a new, healthier “normal” for yourself, suggests a comprehensive review of weight-maintenance research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It shows that once people have successfully maintained their weight loss for two to five years, their chances of keeping the weight off for the rest of their lives greatly increases.
So now that you’ve crossed the finish line, how can you keep from backpedaling and losing what you’ve built? Just follow these simple steps.
1. Eat Breakfast Every Day
According to the National Weight Control Registry, which follows more than 10,000 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept them off, at least 78 percent of successful maintainers eat breakfast every day. Meanwhile, according to Cornell’s Global Healthy Weight Registry, 96 percent of people who have always maintained a healthy weight are daily breakfast eaters. It appears that, whatever your starting weight, breakfast can help you maintain a healthy one going forward.
Why is it so important to eat soon after you rise? Breakfast — especially one high in protein and/or fiber — is a veritable craving crusher. For instance, in a Journal of the American College of Nutrition study, people who ate fiber-packed oatmeal reported feeling significantly more satisfied and less hungry hours later compared to people who started their days with ready-to-eat cereal.
2. Cut Back Your Workouts Gradually
Smart training plans can allow you to work out 5 or 6 days a week with no ill effects (read: overtraining). But once you reach your strength and endurance goals, you can reduce your workout frequency without losing your hard earned gains, according to a study at the University of Alabama.
The researchers found that adults aged 20 to 35 who worked out just one day a week not only saw no loss of muscle, but actually continued to gain it (albeit at a greatly reduced rate). Our recommendation: Start by reducing your workout frequency by a third, then a half, and so on until you find the minimal effective dose that’s right for you.
3. Think Quality, Not Calories
“Counting calories is great to do for a short period so that you gain awareness of what you’re putting into your body,” McHale says. “But once you get a feel for things, you shouldn’t worry about counting calories, and should instead focus on making the food choices you know are going to support your goals.”
That’s in line with Cornell research, which shows that people who have successfully learned how to maintain weight most often focus on food quality — such as whether a food is whole or processed — rather than calories. After all, if that pint of ice cream says it’s low in fat, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
4. Keep You New Workouts Intense
Even a single set of a strength-training exercise can produce hypertrophy (i.e., muscle growth), according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. So if your goal is to hold on to what you have, one or two sets per move per workout should do the trick. The key is to keep them challenging; you should always feel like you stopped two reps short of failure.
Take a similar approach with cardio. In a recent study in the journal Physiological Reports, a team of British researchers found that a single, intense, 20-minute interval workout every five days allowed participants to maintain levels of cardiovascular fitness built through much higher frequency training programs.
5. Ask for a Hand
You know how critical support — whether it’s through Facebook and other online groups or in person with a workout buddy or accountability partner — is when trying to lose weight. But regularly getting that support is equally important when you’re trying to keep it off, according to 2014 research in Public Health Nutrition and Epidemiology, that found that women who receive social support during their maintenance phase are significantly more likely to be successful compared to those who try to do it on their own.
Consider checking into a healthy-living Facebook group each week, posting your maintenance progress to Instagram daily, or signing up for a group workout class that will help keep you accountable and feeling supported.
6. Keep Tabs on Your Weight
“Losing weight has identifiable perks. You see it in the mirror, you feel it in your energy levels. Weight maintenance is much more difficult because you’re not actually getting a noticeable return on all your work,” Gavin says. “Your success is in not seeing anything change. This makes it much harder to wrap our heads around.”
That’s why it can be so helpful to track your maintenance, either by weighing yourself, regularly trying on one choice pair of jeans, or measuring your body fat percentage. In fact, according to the National Weight Control Registry, 75 percent of people who are able to maintain weight loss over the long term weigh themselves at least once a week. “Some days you might lose a little weight and on others, your weight might rise,” Taub-Dix says. “But the change never strays too far from that sweet spot — the weight at which you look and feel your best. That’s a weight you should want to hold on to.”
7. Be Honest About What’s Doable Right Now
“You have to be ruthlessly consistent with your habits, so make sure they can fit into your lifestyle. If you try to fit a square peg into a round hole, you’re bound to fall off the wagon when life hits you in the face — and it will,” McHale says. For example, if you’re a nine-to-fiver who’s exhausted at the end of the workday, maybe after-work workouts aren’t the most practical for you. But early morning or lunch-hour exercise can be.
Realize, though, that your lifestyle won’t always be the same and, as your lifestyle changes, it’s OK to adjust how you implement your healthy habits.