Last week I wrote about what to consider when choosing a diet to help you lose weight. Unfortunately, there is no best diet for everyone, but there are some characteristics that you should look for in a diet. For example, a weight loss diet should be low (but not too low) in calories, restrict portion sizes as a way to reduce calories, include healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains and promote healthy eating habits.
Real weight loss success depends on more than selecting the right diet. In fact, as long as your diet is low in calories, you will lose weight. However, this weight loss may be temporary, and you, like many others, will gain it back later. There are factors beyond the specific diet you follow that are critical for losing weight and keeping it off. Since successful weight loss requires regular exercise, these same factors apply to exercise behaviors, too.
Eating is a behavior, one that is influenced by personal, emotional, social and even genetic factors. You can’t change your genes, which can influence food taste preferences, so the emphasis should be on the other factors that affect food choices and eating habits.
One factor is that we use food as more than a source of nutrition and nourishment. Food is either the focus of or a part of many social occasions. Families gathering over a meal, coworkers celebrating a birthday with cake in the office or friends meeting up for drinks are a few examples. Since food is part of the event, there is an expectation that you will eat, even if you aren’t hungry or are trying to eat less. Of course, there is nothing wrong with getting together with others in a setting that involves eating, but the fact that so many of our social gatherings include food makes it challenging to change your diet. Additionally, the food available in these situations is not always diet-friendly.
Relationships with others can either support or be unhelpful to changing your behavior. Many people find that programs like Weight Watchers, which include group support and being accountable to others, improves their adherence and success. You can get the same benefits from a friend, family member or coworker. On the other hand, other people in your life can interfere with your success. A well-meaning friend who bakes brownies for you or a family member who serves large portions or second helpings at dinner make sticking to your diet more difficult. Spouses and friends can knowingly or unknowingly make comments or decisions that can sabotage your best efforts.
Your own personal belief about your ability to make a behavior change, called self-efficacy, is critical to your success. The degree of your self-confidence is based on your own past experience, as well as your thoughts and feelings about the behavior you wish to change. Chances are that if you have tried and failed to lose weight several times in the past, you may feel less hopeful about your success this time. Think about it this way: Your past experiences have taught you what doesn’t work and what not to try this time around. This information can help guide you to an approach that will work for you. Once you believe that this time is different, you have a better chance for success.
Because of the personal, emotional and social factors surrounding food and eating, losing weight and keeping it off is challenging, to say the least. Ultimately, you are responsible for what you eat and how much you exercise. Taking control of these factors is difficult – it requires saying “no” a lot – but essential for your success.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.