Ask an expert: Making weight loss last

Q: “Every January, I get super motivated to go on a diet and lose weight. I make radical changes in my diet, lose a few pounds and feel great about it – but a few months later, I’m right back to my old ways – and my old weight. What dietary changes can I make this year to get results that last?”

Answer provided by Valerie Edwards, M.S., R.D., L.D., clinical dietitian, Providence Portland Medical Center

That super-motivated feeling we have at the beginning of a fresh new year is so invigorating. That’s why January is such a great time to set goals and to start making positive changes in our lives. However, as you’ve found, changes that are too extreme are hard to maintain as time passes and motivation fades. And if you can’t keep up the changes, you won’t keep off the pounds.

This year, forget about diets that cut out an entire food group or that leave you feeling deprived and famished all the time. For that matter, just forget about diets. They’re too unnatural to keep up.

To get sustainable results, you need to make sustainable changes. Take the energy and determination that you’re feeling right now and focus on creating a plan you can live with. Here are some simple recommendations that have been proven to work:

Make one important change in your diet: Eat more vegetables and fruit

The most significant and consistent dietary mistake that almost everybody makes is not eating enough vegetables and fruit. Eating more of these convenient, easy-to-prepare nutritional powerhouses is one of the easiest and healthiest ways to lose weight and keep it off. Besides their huge nutritional benefits, fruits and vegetables are low in calories, so when you fill up on them, you leave less room for higher-calorie foods.

Here are several ideas that can help you get more vegetables and fruit into your daily meals and snacks:

  • Make them a priority. When fruits and vegetables are an afterthought, they’re easy to leave out. So as you start planning dinners, think of the vegetables first, and build your meals around them.
  • Make it a habit to eat a serving of fruit every day at breakfast, and another one either at lunch or as an afternoon snack. It’s easy to toss a handful of berries or sliced bananas onto your cereal in the morning, and to grab an apple in the afternoon. Making this a habit simplifies your grocery shopping and meal planning. It also makes you much more likely to grab fruit instead of cookies or chips as your easy, go-to snack. If you need a more substantial afternoon snack, add some yogurt, a quarter cup of nuts or a tablespoon or two of peanut butter to your apple or banana.
  • At lunch and dinner, fill half of your plate with vegetables. Don’t worry about measuring things and counting calories – just make sure that a salad, some cooked vegetables, or some combination of the two takes up half of your plate. Watch for the next issue of To Your Health for more information on the plate method.
  • Keep frozen vegetables on hand. They’re super nutritious, they don’t go bad, and they’re about as easy as it gets to prepare. Just open a bag and zap them in the microwave, or add frozen vegetables to your pasta sauce, casserole, soup, chili or stew for a great, low-calorie nutritional boost.
  • Eat with the seasons. Winter may be the toughest time for fresh produce, but it’s still out there. Look for squash, citrus fruits and braising greens, or go with frozen fruits and vegetables (and remember to freeze your own this summer). With the coming of spring, you can look forward to new, tender salad greens, snow peas and asparagus. Summer is the season when the farmers markets explode with berries, plums, peaches and a wild variety of fresh vegetables. Fall harvests deliver apples, pears, hearty greens and root vegetables.
  • Click here to find out how many vegetables and fruits you should be eating every day, and check out the “tips” links for more ideas on how to boost your intake.

Add one thing to your daily “to do” list: Keep a food journal

Research suggests that you’ll be more likely to stick with your new fruit and vegetable goals if you write them down. Get a notebook or start an online food journal (dailyplate.org and fitday.com both provide journals) and record your specific goals – for example: “I will eat at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables every day.” Track your progress daily, and give yourself a star for each day that you achieve your goals.

Make one request of your social network: Ask for their support

It’s much easier to stick with changes when everyone in the household is on the same page. Eating more fruits and vegetables is good for everyone, not just you. Encourage your whole family to join you in your new habits, or at the very least, ask them to support you as you make this change. For the best success, enlist the support of your friends and coworkers, too.

Think beyond the plate: Don’t be a couch potato

You asked about dietary changes, but if you really want to get sustainable results, add exercise to the mix. Vegging out in front of the TV will not make you thinner or healthier. Walking, bicycling or enjoying other physical activities every other day for at least 30 minutes will. Track your activity, along with your fruit and vegetable intake, in your journal. As the pounds slip away, just watch yourself get more and more motivated to keep it up.

Enjoy the fruits of your success

Eating more fruits and vegetables is not “a diet.” It’s not radical or complicated. It won’t leave you feeling starved or deprived – those feelings are a dead giveaway that whatever you’re doing is never going to work over the long term.

Choosing to eat more fruits and vegetables and to become more active is simply a shift in priorities that we all can make every day to become not just leaner, but healthier. Adopting these priorities commonly leads to lower blood pressure, better blood sugar control and lower cholesterol. If your weight doesn’t fall as low or as rapidly as you’d hoped, don’t lose sight of these other, very important measures of success.

One last piece of advice: as you adopt these new habits, don’t just pay attention to what you weigh – pay attention to how you feel. Most people find that eating more vegetables and becoming more physically active leaves them feeling much better, which makes their new habits easier to sustain. And voila – once you’re on a path that is sustainable, you’ll find that the results are sustainable, as well.