Medically Reviewed by Blair Persyn, MS, RDN, LDN, CNSC
Is long-term sustainable weight loss possible? It's not as simple as you may think.
People have been looking for weight loss tips and tricks since (what seems like) the beginning of time. Look online and you’ll find shakes, supplements, medications, diet plans, meal services, programs, and pretty much everything imaginable to help people lose weight.
The problem? Long term weight loss can be difficult to maintain, particularly when following many of the bad tips and diets on the market.
Why Long-Term Sustainable Weight Loss Is Difficult
Think about how our ancestors lived hundreds of years ago. (If you think I’m about to go on a spiel about a Paleo diet, don’t worry--the way our ancestors ate is debatable.) BUT, we all know that modern-day technology has considerably changed our lives. Many of us now live in obesogenic environments.
We don’t have to farm our own foods or hunt our own meat. The food industry and factory farms to do all of that for us. We have cars, we sit all day at a desk in fluorescent lighting, and we have quick high-calorie foods available everywhere we turn. If our neighborhood isn't walkable with sidewalks or if we don’t have access to fresh foods and grocery stores, that’s even more difficult.
The point is: the world we live in makes it very easy to be sedentary and to overeat high-calorie ultra-processed foods.
Chances are, you’ve probably heard people say they can’t lose weight because of genetics.
Genetic studies done on families, twins, and foster children over the past few decades have identified obesity-related genes. However, we also know that our lifestyle can cause epigenetic changes that can turn genes on or off. In other words, a healthy lifestyle can help combat our genetic predispositions.
For example, someone with a family history of high cholesterol is undoubtably at higher risk of developing it themselves, but with specific lifestyle changes, they can reduce their chances. The same is true for obesity and weight management.
While there are many hormones involved in appetite regulation, Ghrelin and Leptin are two major players that can contribute to weight gain.
Ghrelin is a hormone produced mostly in the stomach that increases appetite. (Think of Ghrelin as that grumbling in your stomach when you're hungry.) Levels of ghrelin increase when we lose weight, making us more hungry.
Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells that contributes to fullness. The more fat mass we have, the more Leptin we produce. Alternatively, when when we fast or lose fat, our leptin levels decrease, making us want to eat more.
Leptin and Ghrelin have a higher drive to defend against weight loss than to prevent weight gain — likely a built-in survival mechanism to protect us from famine.
Stress is extremely prevalent in our society and culture today. We feel the need to be constantly productive and are less and less connected to the people around us.
Stress can contribute to weight gain. When we are stressed, we are more likely to overeat, sleep worse, workout less, and reach for foods that are high in calories, sugar, and fat.
Stress can also disrupt proper hormone function and lead to physiological changes in the brain and gut.
As you can see, “calories in, calories out” just doesn’t provide the full picture for weight loss. So does this mean you’re doomed if you want to lose weight? Not necessarily.
Make Sure Your Weight Loss Goals Are Realistic
For starters, we need realistic expectations. If you genetically have the body type of Beyonce, you are not going to look like Twiggy with diet and exercise. It’s just not going to happen—no matter what you try to put yourself through to achieve it.
This isn't a bad thing! It just means you need to adjust your expectations a bit. Healthy and fit bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. You can still achieve a leaner physique with more muscle mass and less fat mass, but this will look unique for different body types.
If you are overweight or obese, it's realistic to lose some weight to get down to a healthy weight range. However, if you are already in a healthy weight range, it is unrealistic to expect substantial weight loss. Again, we can still change our body composition of fat vs muscle, but there likely will not be much of a change on the scale itself.
So remember to ask yourself — are my weight loss goals realistic?
Long-Term Sustainable Weight Loss Must Feel Easy
How many times have you decided to start a new cleanse or fad diet, purchase hundreds of dollars in foods or shakes, and embark on your new weight loss journey for 3 days before giving up and eating your weight in Oreos? You are not the only one. This system of weight loss just doesn’t work. And no matter how many times you try it, it never will.
The only way for a diet and lifestyle change to be continued long-term is for it to feel easy. There needs to be little to no element of willpower whatsoever. How do we do this? We change habits slowly over time.
Changing everything drastically at once sets you up to fail, leading to negative feelings about yourself, binging on everything in sight, and ultimately, more weight gain.
We need to go about weight loss differently by looking at health from a lens of self-care. There’s a reason people say, “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle.”
As much as you may want to change everything as quickly as you can, you must pace yourself. Slow and steady really does win the race when it comes to health and weight management.
Self-Care Must Come First
If we aren't at a healthy place mentally, it's virtually impossible to be at a healthy place physically. Weight loss won't change how you feel about yourself if you hate what you see in the mirror. Self-hate is not because of what your body looks like. If you don't address your negative self-talk directly, that feeling will still be there even after weight loss. We have to address our mental health first in order to see healthy lasting changes in our body.
In fact, it may help to stop looking in the mirror completely while you are getting in tune with your body’s needs. If we're too focused on the scale and outward appearances, we forget to listen to our bodies and experience what it feels like to live in them. Meditation, mindfulness, and yoga can do wonders to reconnect your body and mind.
Physical activity and exercise comes into play here too. When we feel badly about ourselves, we're less likely to want to get out and be active. Exercise is a form of self-care. When we adopt the mentality of self-care instead of punishment and restriction, the excess weight often naturally and slowly comes off because our bodies are moving towards health and vitality.
Get More In-Tune With Your Body
Interoceptive awareness is “the ability to identify, access, understand, and respond appropriately to the patterns of internal signals." In other words, it’s our ability to recognize our internal cues.
An interesting exercise to try is to count your heartbeats in 30 seconds—without physically touching your pulse. Then count again while feeling your pulse and compare the numbers. Were you able to count your heartbeats by just paying attention to the feeling?
When people have interoceptive awareness, they're more in-tune with their hunger and fullness cues. They trust their body enough to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full. We have research to show that obesity may be related to altered interoceptive awareness and that intuitive eaters tend to have strong interoceptive awareness and sensitivity.
Choosing Foods For Long-Term Sustainable Weight Loss
The foods we eat regularly matters. If we're mostly consuming ultra-processed foods, refined grains, desserts, sugary beverages, fast food, and fried foods, it's going to have an effect on our bodies and minds. When consumed in excess, these foods don’t make us feel good. Plain and simple.
So when we focus on how foods make us feel, we can see the difference when we opt for nutrient-dense choices like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. For more on the science of eating whole plant foods, check out my post on the benefits of a plant-based diet.
Food restriction and intentional dieting tends to result in binging and weight gain, so instead of focusing on calories and portion sizes, the focus should be on eating whole foods.
As long as we continue to pay attention to our body’s signals, choose foods that are nutrient-dense, and eat balanced meals and snacks, we can eat until we are full and satisfied without worrying about a growing waistband. And as an added bonus, we'll actually have the energy to enjoy our daily lives more actively.
Yes, long-term sustainable weight loss is possible. But it must be done gradually with a focus on self-care and nutrient-dense food.