Ready for a frustrating statistic? Research suggests 80 percent of diets don’t result in weight loss that lasts longer than one year.
From supermarket tabloids and social media to a lack of widespread education about nutrition and climbing food prices, there are all sorts of forces out there perpetuating unsustainable diet culture. The good news: It is possible to make weight loss last for the long haul—but it’ll take dropping a quick-fix mentality.
Even better news: When your approach to losing weight is truly healthy and sustainable, you’ll feel better and better every step of the way, reaping benefits from higher energy levels to more self-confidence.
Wondering if you’re truly on track? Look for these five hallmarks of a sustainable weight-loss plan.
1. You don’t constantly feel deprived
For most people, a decrease in calories is necessary for weight loss to occur. So it’s normal if, on a weight-loss plan, you sometimes have to choose lower-calorie or more nutritious foods over those high in empty calories or dense in processed fats or sugars.
A feeling of constant deprivation, though, is another matter. In fact, it’s a major red flag that your diet will only last a short while. “Think of restrictive dieting like a see-saw,” says dietitian Kelsey Lorencz, R.D.N, of Graciously Nourished. “You deprive yourself until you can’t possibly maintain that level of restriction, then you shoot straight into the opposite end of bingeing and throwing all concern for healthy foods or honoring your body out the window. The cycle repeats and your weight cycles along with it.”
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Besides forcing you to white-knuckle through hunger and draining willpower, feeling deprived is just plain counterproductive for the biological process of weight loss. “Restricting and depriving yourself of calories, variety, flavors, and essential nutrients by dieting often causes a preoccupation with food and a decrease in your metabolism,” says Lorencz. “Your body can’t tell if [the deprivation] is from a famine or a diet and will start obsessing over food and slowing down your metabolism to reserve the energy stores it has left.”
Instead of opting for a diet that banishes all the foods you love, seek out an eating plan that allows you to include favorites (at least occasionally) in portion-controlled amounts. And always discuss with your doctor or dietitian whether a diet is restricting your calories to the point of harming your health.
2. You can enjoy food in a social setting
Human beings are social creatures—especially when it comes to food. (Ever notice how every holiday and family gathering revolves around a meal?) Anyone who’s sat in a corner at a party with a plate of sad little baby carrots knows that a restrictive diet can turn celebrations into a real bummer.
An inability to eat at restaurants, parties, or other social settings isn’t a recipe for long-term diet adherence. So when choosing a plan for weight loss, consider: Does it allow you to eat real, everyday foods? Or will you have trouble navigating social settings?
A sustainable weight-loss plan allows some leeway for special occasions—like not sampling everything in the Super Bowl party spread. “The truth of the matter is that you are going to have holiday parties, dinners with family, and work events without food options that make you feel your best, but living your best life is about giving yourself grace,” says clinical psychologist Christine Celio, Ph.D., of Calibrate, whose weight-loss programs focus on sustainability.
3. It doesn’t Rely On expensive foods
From special-order shakes and meals to calorie trackers, there’s a whole world of dietary accouterments out there—and many of them cost a pretty penny! Before signing on for a diet that requires a slew of extras, ask yourself if all the buy-in is really necessary—and how long you’re willing to keep paying. “If a diet program requires you to purchase pre-packaged foods in order to ‘succeed’, it’s not going to be sustainable in the long run,” says Lorencz.
4. It allows for flexibility and variety
Remember the grapefruit diet? It’s no wonder people lose weight on programs that allow them to eat only a handful of prescribed foods. Before long, though, boredom sets in, leading dieters to quit (because no one wants to eat grapefruit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner).
The more sustainable approach: Ensure that your eating plan provides flexibility and variety. Choosing a diet with built-in adaptability both prevents boredom and helps you roll with whatever life brings your way. “Having a varied and flexible diet is helpful because life is unpredictable,” says Celio. “Doing the best you can with what you have, selecting food with intention, and giving yourself flexibility when it isn’t ‘perfect’ is more helpful than a black-and-white, right-or-wrong approach to food.”
5. It creates slow and steady weight loss
Sure, we’d all like overnight results, but most experts don’t recommend slimming down in a flash. For sustainable weight control, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic advise moving the needle on the scale just one to two pounds per week.
In fact, rapid weight loss can actually come with serious downsides. “Losing weight too quickly can lead to electrolyte imbalances, muscle loss, dehydration, low energy, constipation, and more unsavory side effects from various nutrient deficiencies,” says Lorencz. “And that’s only the physical side effects. Emotionally, losing weight too quickly can send someone into a tailspin of weight obsession, depression, anxiety, and isolation, and can increase the risk for an eating disorder.”
Need more evidence that slow and steady is the way to go? A 2017 study found that people who lost weight little by little had better body composition (muscle compared to fat) than those who dropped pounds quickly. Similarly, a study from 2020 concluded that gradual weight loss led to greater reductions in fat mass. Taking it slow also preserved resting metabolic rate, a.k.a. the number of calories the body burns at rest.
The take-home message: Choose a diet that doesn’t overpromise on its timeline. A slower process may not be the most exciting, but it’ll keep the weight off for good in the long run.