Habits are hard to change. Actions we repeat over and over become second nature, and we often do them without even thinking. This is helpful when it comes to things like daily hygiene rituals or driving a stick shift, but the force of habit can also make it difficult to change our behavior when we want to. If you’re thinking about starting a weight loss journey, the idea of making necessary lifestyle changes can be daunting; however, there are several ways you can set yourself up for success.
Acknowledge that change is hard, and believe that you can do hard things.
Avoid beating yourself up for not having already made the changes you desire. Behavior experts agree that people are best able to make changes when they start with a positive attitude rather than with regret or fear. Adopting a growth mindset—the attitude that your basic traits are things that you shape through your efforts rather than static qualities—can be an important first step.
If you’ve been overweight for a long time or have experienced failed attempts of weight loss in the past, you might find positive thinking difficult. Take the time to pay attention to the thoughts you have about your body, your health, and your weight, and consider how your self-talk might be working against you. If you notice self-disparaging thoughts, practice replacing them with supportive ones. One simple but powerful way to start is by transforming negative statements with the word “yet”: for example, instead of thinking, “I can’t meet my weight loss goal,” try “I haven’t lost the weight I want to yet.”
Prepare for success.
One theory of behavior change divides the process into progressive stages. Between contemplating a change like losing weight and taking action to make the change is a stage of preparation. Preparation is the stage where you consider the barriers to success you’re likely to encounter and make plans to overcome them. For example, if you want to work out in the mornings but have a hard time getting out of bed early enough, then you might start going to bed earlier, set an alarm in the morning, and plan a morning routine that you enjoy so you develop positive associations with getting out of bed. If you struggle to find time to prepare healthy meals during the week, you might spend time on the weekend making food ahead of time. Anticipating and preparing for challenges makes success much simpler to attain.
Understand caloric balance.
Caloric balance is the balance of energy, measured in calories, that you consume vs. the energy you expend. When you are trying to lose weight, you’re aiming to expend more calories than you’re consuming. A pound of fat equates to approximately 3,500 calories, so this is the overall caloric deficit needed to lose a pound of fat from the body. If you want to lose a pound per week, then, you would divide this amount by seven days to get your daily target caloric deficit: 500.
To determine how many calories you’re burning each day, start with your basal metabolic rate. You can do this simply with an online calculator. Then add the calories you burn through exercise. You can do this easily with a Fitbit or similar device, or you can use resources like this online tool from MyFitnessPal to estimate the number of calories you burn with various forms of exercise. Subtract the calories you consume (which you can also determine with a number of online tools) from what you burn to determine your actual caloric deficit.
If you find that you feel hungry when sticking to your caloric targets, take a look at the calorie density of the foods you’re eating. Choose foods that you can eat more of while getting fewer calories, such as those with high fiber and water content like fruits and vegetables. Eating low-calorie-density foods will help you feel fuller while eating fewer calories.
Go beyond the scale.
While you may think of your goal as “weight loss,” losing pounds isn’t everything. Body mass index (BMI), a simple calculation that uses only height and weight, is often used to sort people into “underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” and “obese” categories. However, BMI alone can be dangerously misleading. Because muscle is denser than fat, healthy, muscular people are sometimes classified as overweight or obese, while others with an unhealthy proportion of fat and low muscle mass can have a “normal” BMI.
As you lose weight, you’ll lose some muscle mass in addition to fat. Muscle mass helps maintain a high metabolism rate, so as you lose weight, you’ll also experience a drop in metabolism, meaning you’ll burn calories more slowly. You can offset this by focusing not just on cardiovascular exercise, which focuses on burning calories, but also on strength building. The more muscle mass you retain, the easier it will be to continue to lose weight.
Track (and celebrate!) your progress.
You can get the best insight into your weight loss progress with body composition analysis (BCA). Unlike BMI, BCA provides information about the proportion and location of fat and muscle in the body. If you’re about to start a new weight loss journey, getting a baseline BCA is a great way to begin tracking your success. Repeating the test during your weight loss journey can provide valuable information to guide your nutrition and exercise strategy.
Iowa Radiology offers BCA using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) and the BodyLogic scan. DXA uses low-dose X-rays to create a detailed picture of the body for the most accurate body composition analysis available. The cost is $49 per scan or $139 for a package of three, due at the initial time of service. You can schedule an appointment with no referral necessary by calling 515-226-9810.
For more information about body composition analysis and other important health topics, browse to our blog.
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Getting Past a Weight Loss Plateau. MayoClinic.com. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss-plateau/art-20044615. Accessed August 7, 2020.
Jaffe A. Why Is It So Hard to Change Bad Habits? PsychologyToday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-addiction/201903/why-is-it-so-hard-change-bad-habits. Published March 26, 2019. Accessed August 7, 2020.
Sesame Street and Janelle Monae. The Power of Yet. YouTube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLeUvZvuvAs. Published September 10, 2014. Accessed August 7, 2020.
Why it's hard to change unhealthy behavior—and why you should keep trying. Harvard Health Publishing. Health.Harvard.edu. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/why-its-hard-to-change-unhealthy-behavior-and-why-you-should-keep-trying. Published January 2007. Updated August 2, 2019. Accessed August 7, 2020.