Do Successful Dieters Have a Secret?

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
June 07, 2016

Not really. The key is to do what works for you and keep it up. 

There are many ways to lose those pounds. 

Alasdair Wilkins, for example, slimmed down after he gave up dieting.

He wasn’t planning on losing weight. But he wanted to feel better about himself, so he started going to a gym every day. For an hour, he’d walk briskly uphill on the treadmill for an hour, while watching a movie on his tablet. After 10 months, he was 100 pounds lighter. 


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A third of all adults in the United States are obese, and another third are overweight, in the latest data. For many people in our society, it’s much easier to pick up and consume a burger, fries, and milkshake than go for a walk. Unhealthy food is everywhere, and we lack time or money to exercise, cook, and cultivate non-food pleasures. 

Despite the fact that being overweight is more common than the other way around, many of us illogically think we’re fat because we’re special in some way — we’re especially lazy or undisciplined and we need a fix. “Ours is a culture that simultaneously incentivizes people to gain weight and stigmatizes them when they do, and then offers the bullshit promise of instant weight loss through some miracle diet or incredible exercise secret,” Wilkins writes. His message: stop feeling bad about yourself, but change your behavior or environment in some important way that could help keep you thinner. Try to make it easy and fun. Wilkins enjoyed that hour of treadmill movie-watching time. 

Wilkins story isn’t typical: Generally exercising alone isn’t enough to lose weight because people tend to eat more on days they work out, research shows. Exercise is, however, a powerful way to avoid weight gain and has many other health benefits. 

Dave Douglas stopped exercising in order to lose weight. His breaking point came when he and his wife were expecting their first child, and he realized that he didn’t want to be an obese parent. He lost 175 pounds by becoming conscious of what he ate and cutting out carbs. Then he put on 25 pounds, so he tried exercise; over two years he worked out with a personal trainer. But his weight continued to climb. 

When his doctor told him he needed gastric bypass surgery, he opted for Weight Watchers online instead. This time he stopped exercising since he realized it had become a trigger to eat more. He began measuring and recording all his food choices. “My favorite foods now are fresh fruits like apples, oranges and bananas, and carrots,” he says

At his all-time lowest weight of 165 pounds, he gave himself the gift of exercise again and fell in love with running. He’s now completed five marathons. 

As Douglas discovered, forcing yourself to notice what you eat over time may be the big advantage of a formal diet. Before you start trying to lose, you might keep a diary of what you’ve been eating so you get a grip on the habits you want to break.

There’s no magic diet: Weight researchers have found that people who follow one of the most common diets like Atkins or Weight Watchers typically lose under 10 pounds in a year and eventually regain some of them. The best diet for you is the one you can stick to. Although scientists hope the future will bring specific advice for individuals, we’re not there yet.

That said, it’s a safe bet you’ll be healthier if you eat more vegetables and fewer servings of refined grains and sweets. One approach is to make sure half of your lunch and dinner plate is composed of vegetables or fruit, the other half protein and carbs. 


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Some people blame their waistlines on a slow metabolism. It turns out that obese people tend to spend fewer hours a day being active, but don’t necessarily have slower metabolisms. You can ignore supplements that claim to "boost your metabolism" for weight loss, since there’s no evidence that your metabolism is a problem or that the supplements work. 

Persistence is key. Don’t plan on losing weight quickly and beat yourself up for small failures. Instead change key elements and think about the big picture. Arrange your world to reduce temptation. In “Slim by Design,” eating behavior expert Brian Wansink outlines his discoveries: your family will eat less on small plates and if you serve them from the stove or counter rather than place a serving bowl on the table. We eat more of the first food we see than the last, so don’t let the family start with bread or fried calamari. Keep sweets out of sight. 

The National Weight Control Registry enrolls people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year. These successful dieters fill out yearly questionnaires, allowing researchers to glean their secrets: it turns out that they weigh themselves at least weekly, exercise regularly (walking counts), restrict their calorie intake, watch portions, and stay away from high-fat foods. They also tend to eat breakfast

Most importantly, do what works for you and keep it up.


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