Have you ever gone on a diet, lost the weight you wanted to, only for it all to come back with a vengeance; leaving you wondering why you could not stick to it? Well it’s not all your fault. A common piece of advice regarding weight loss is that if you want change you have to get out of your comfort zone. And while this might bring short term success, it tends to be fleeting and not last. The real secret to long term, meaningful success is not getting out of your comfort zone, but changing your comfort zone! And in this blog I will show you how to use habit change to do.
The standard approach taken by the health and fitness industry is to put you on a diet that changes everything about your lifestyle overnight; going all out for a “6 week challenge” or something like that, in the style of TV shows like the Biggest Loser. You have to go from zero to hero all in one go; and sure you lose the weight in record time, but when the challenge is over chances are that you will go back to your “zero” ways and regain all the weight or more within a year. In fact a study published in 2000 found that only 5% of women and 7% of men had been able to maintain a weight loss of over 5% body weight for 9 years . That’s a pretty dismal long term success rate, so why does the fitness industry as a whole keep pushing this approach? Well first off it sells well, everyone wants to be thin yesterday, so the quicker the better. It is also highly profitable; you pay them for the program and you lose the weight so you leave, you regain the weight, blame yourself and think “I better go back to them, they helped me before”, and the cycle starts over. But today I am taking a stand against the quick fixes and the snake oil, and will show you the best way to keep your weight off.
Everyone is looking for that magic diet, pill or drink that will solve all their weight issues in one go. But if you read my last blog you will know that there is no perfect diet, none of these silver bullets will ever exist. Rather than focusing on what changes you are making, what is more important is how you do it. And this is the how: instead of changing everything at once you will break it down and implement only one change at a time, allowing each to entrench as a habit before moving onto the next. It takes a lot longer to fully implement all the changes you desire, but it is a lot easier to stick to long term, which in the end is what truly matters. I would not even consider this to be a “diet”, it definitely does not feel like one, rather it is a change implementation strategy.
There are a few advantages to this approach over the more traditional zero to hero approach. First off it is much easier to stick to a small change as you can focus all of your willpower onto it without feeling overwhelmed. It is also much more likely to become a habit, which will then no longer require much willpower to maintain. It is also a more scientific way to test your new diet; it is almost like a well conducted experiment. By changing each variable one at a time you will be able to know the impact of each sacrifice you are making, and if you find it worthwhile. Let’s say you cut out one of your favorite foods and only lose one or two pounds, well it is not really worth the deprivation; but if you lose 20 pounds, then it will seem a lot more worthwhile. It is much easier to avoid temptations when you know what the consequences are. It also allows you to stop making new changes when you have reached a level of health you are happy with, without having to make further sacrifices.
You also have to realize that sticking to your new diet and avoiding temptations is actually a skill you have to develop; it is only the long and protracted timeline that disguises this fact. You would not expect a gymnast to be able to read over a new routine of unfamiliar moves and be able to go out onto the mat and ace it on the first try; even though this is exactly what you are expecting of yourself with the zero to hero approach. You would not even expect them to do well if they just kept repeating the whole routine over and over again as practice, once again what we expect of ourselves with our diets. Instead the gymnast’s coach would chunk the routine; having the gymnast practice and perfect each move individually first, perhaps even breaking down more complex moves into their component parts and practicing those. This would allow them to develop each skill a lot faster, and be able to focus on whichever areas gave them the most trouble, allowing for much greater success. And this chunking is exactly what you are doing when take a habit based approach to adopting a healthy lifestyle.
In my opinion the biggest advantage of this approach is that your comfort zone will change over time. Because the changes you make are only ever within or on the edge of your comfort zone, as your habits evolve you actually change what you find comfortable. When I started developing this approach one of the first changes my wife and I made was to start eating at least one portion of vegetable with each meal. Since we were already eating vegetables with at least one meal a day it was only towards the edge of our comfort zone, and not past it; it was therefore pretty easy to stick to. Fast forward to today and our comfort zone has changed so much that were probably eat 10 times as much vegetable as we did before, and we don’t feel satisfied with our meal until we eat some vegetable. Not only can new changes become comfortable but things that you were once comfortable doing can become uncomfortable. Another early change we made was to cut back our soda consumption. We were drinking soda every day, so we cut back to at most every other day. Now we only ever drink soft drinks one or two times a month. Drinking that much soda is no longer within our comfort zones.
This change of comfort zone is most beneficial when a crisis happens or even if life just get’s in the way and your focus is forced to shift away from your health. Instead of reverting back to zero, you are more likely to only go back one or two changes, into the middle of your new comfort zone. It acts almost like a save button, preserving most of your progress until you are able to put more effort in again. This also happened to me; by the middle of 2017 I had lost about 40 pounds, but then life happened and I lost focus, I very slowly regained about 3-4 pounds and then it stopped going up. Once I was able to refocus I only had a few pounds to lose to get back to where I had been, not the whole 40lbs. It also helps that when you do eventually fail, and you will because failing is inevitable, that each change is considered to be separate in your mind: you only failed at limiting candy, or bread, or getting enough vegetables, etc… You are therefore much less likely to throw all the changes you have made away as you did not fail at all of them.
Ok, so as great as I am making habit change sound it is not flawless. While you can shift your comfort zone in a positive direction, it can also shift back; and with less resistance. This is because the brain circuitry that underlay your previous bad habits does not simply die or turn off, instead it is still active but being overridden by new circuitry you have created. This is not actually as bad as it sounds because it is still a slow process; it does not happen overnight, as it often does with more drastic approaches. This means you can be somewhat relaxed, but you will still have to stay vigilant and monitor your weight and habits forever. If you find that you are gaining fat, you simply have to assess each of the changes you have previously made to find out which one you are lapsing on, and then focus on reinstating it. You will also find that certain habits will be much more fragile than others, so you will find that you have to take extra care to nurture and maintain those ones.
You may have noticed one thing missing from a blog about weight loss: I gave no specific examples of dietary changes you should make. As I said before there is no perfect diet, recent studies found no difference in weight loss results for different diet composition . All that really matters is to find a diet that you enjoy and can stick to for the long term; and the trick to being able to do this is choosing the right implementation strategy. And it is my belief that the strategy of habit evolution outlined above is one of the best ways to do it.
1. Sarlio-Lähteenkorva, A. Rissanen, and J. Kaprio, “A descriptive study of weight loss maintenance: 6 and 15 year follow-up of initially overweight adults,” International Journal of Obesity, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 116–125, 2000. https://www.nature.com/articles/0801094
2. Frank M. Sacks, M.D., George A. Bray, M.D., Vincent J. Carey, Ph.D., Steven R. Smith, M.D., Donna H. Ryan, M.D., Stephen D. Anton, Ph.D., Katherine McManus, M.S., R.D., Catherine M. Champagne, Ph.D., Louise M. Bishop, M.S., R.D., Nancy Laranjo, B.A., Meryl S. Leboff, M.D., Jennifer C. Rood, Ph.D., et al. “Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates”
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