Weight loss without bullshit: changing habits

dietI’m sick of the bullshit around heath, diets, and nutrition. There’s more crap in this one field than anywhere else I know. It’s an entire industry that preys on people’s fears and insecurities. So starting today, I am going to help you cut the crap when it comes to nutrition. And to be clear, I have nothing to sell you here but truth.

If, like me, you’re overweight, then you’re looking for the silver bullet: The one study, the one diet, the superfood, the trick that will fix you forever.

Please stop. It’s not about whether you can lose weight. It’s about what you can keep doing forever.

  • If you are counting calories, what will you do when you get sick of counting?
  • If you are eating food from Jenny Craig, are you going to eat that same food forever?
  • If you have stopped eating carbs, will you stay off them forever?

Diets actually work. You want to lose 15 or 20 pounds? Cut the carbs. Cut the fat. Go paleo. Boost the exercise. They all work for three to six months, at least for some people. But what happens when you’re done? You go back to the old habits, and the weight comes back.

According to a comprehensive review of 29 studies, people gain back about three-quarters of the weight they lose within three years. Losing weight only to gain it back is not just pointless suffering, it’s unhealthy.

Weight Watchers makes money since they know you’ll be back.

jenny craigDiet books make money since they know you’re always looking for a new trick.

“Healthy food” companies make money because they keep changing the makeup of their food to match the latest trend.

Stop a minute and think. If their stuff really worked, then they’d run themselves out of customers. It’s a whole industry built around your inevitable long-term failure.

We all see the before-and-after pictures of the three people who succeeded. It’s like looking at that lottery winner. We all think we can be them. Unless you’re very lucky, you won’t beat the system.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@jbernoff”]Don’t ask how to lose weight. Ask how to make a permanent change you can stick with.[/tweetthis]

There is an answer. It’s to concentrate, not on losing weight, but on changing habits. When you change a habit, you make a permanent change. For example:

  • You could concentrate on getting rid of a snack. If you normally eat a snack at 10:30, tough it out for two weeks without eating. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll lose weight.
  • You could eliminate a food that’s getting you fatter. I used to be addicted to breakfast cereal. I changed my breakfast routine to one with a lot less sugar and lost 25 pounds. It hasn’t come back.
  • You could stop drinking, or cut back to one glass of wine a night.
  • You could start an exercise routine, like walking every day at lunch, or going to the gym every Tuesday and Thursday night.
  • You could concentrate on portion sizes at dinner. Take what you will eat, eat it, and then do not go back for more.
  • You could stop eating bread when you go out to dinner. (Restaurant food is amazingly full of calories, salt, and fat, but at least it tastes good. Bread is just a waste.)

Pick a habit, work on it, and master it. Then move on to the next one.

Obviously, this is more complicated than it sounds. To succeed, you’d need a complete list of habits that work, backed up by mainstream nutritional research, and a support system. I wish I could help you. I’d like to.

I’m working on it.

Image: djmadmole via DeviantArt

Photo: Jenny Craig

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  1. Josh,

    I do like your anti-bullshit approach, and you picked on a topic with this post that is usually buried in it.

    I’m a big guy. I’ve had personal experience with this subject. A few years ago I dropped 110lbs. Since then (thanks to some new vices) I’ve put 40 of that back on. Getting older definitely doesn’t make it easier.

    That big drop came via calorie restriction and exercise. I was strict.

    A couple of years ago I started adding weight on again (post divorce vices, not an excuse…just sayin’). This time around a friend of mine introduced me to Gary Taubes and Peter Attia. Their stuff was particularly anti-bullshit and quite compelling, so my attempt at permanent change vs just losing wait is via the extreme low carb approach. This nutrition approach has been working for me for almost 3 years now.

    I highly recommend http://nusi.org/. I’d be surprised if you didn’t appreciate what they’re trying to do.

    Kepp it up. I’ll keep reading.

  2. That portion size thing is key, I think. My dad is 92 and he is noticing that he has to eat less and less food to keep from having digestion issues. I am noticing the same thing. And it makes me mad! But it also makes so much sense. We don’t need to eat as much as we age, and we don’t like it. We want to find a solution, and that solution is to break the habit of eating too much, which seems to go on and on as we grow older. We get to improve our habit-changing skills regularly. (Sigh) So, you are right again, Josh. There is no magic bullet or pill we can take to fix our habit-changing skills.

  3. Good one, Josh. I’ve lost some by cutting out one meal a day. Now it’s a habit to just eat two meals and there’s no hardship involved. Then I lost a little more by exercising an hour a day. I have an injury that precludes vigorous exercise, but a half hour of walking and a half hour of weight lifting per day does the trick. It’s now a habit, so no hardship. Next up is cutting out deserts.


  4. I’m not sure why this came to mind, but remember this recurring line from “When Harry Met Sally?”:
    “You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right,” said Sally’s friend who couldn’t give up her habit of dating married men.
    Well. You’re right. I have dated Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers. I have flirted with Dr. Atkins, Dr. South Beach, Susan Powter (remember her?) and so many, many more. Get old enough with a propensity to be fat and chances are that you, like me, will have had a bad relationship with every diet out there. Oh. And don’t forget weight loss surgery.
    So, I’m in. Thanks for the No Bullshit wake up call. I may now be old as well as fat, but damn it. Now I just want to FEEL GOOD. Habit number one: Snacking after 8:00 pm.
    Best wishes to Josh and all.

  5. Josh- You are mostly right on the habit changing stuff. As a PhD in Exercise Science, I am probably more aware of the BS in this field than any other. The real change when it comes to food is “mindless” eating. We teach ourselves from birth to ignore our bodies cues about being hungry and full, and thus eat to excess.

  6. Portion control is a huge win; it’s one place where packaged meals really help, because otherwise it is so easy to eat more than you think you are eating.

    The key to long-term weight loss for me is to be just under your setpoint every day — 100 calories or so = 1 lb/month. If you’re just under, your body doesn’t get upset about it, it figures you’ll make it up tomorrow. But if you’re 500 under, then it gets worried that you’re in a famine and panics.

    1. It is not just the bread but the culture that goes with it. For instance the typical sandwich is two slices of bread, which is two servings. Your meal is then mostly bread instead of partly bread. In order to make the bread look nice and big as we like it, a high-gluten flour is often used. The bread is often pre-sliced, which you don’t normally see in “good bread” countries such as Germany and France.

  7. Simple reducing diet: No bread, no chips. Exercise at least every other day. For rapid weight loss, I used Herbalife F1 shake mix replacing two meals. This works and I envisioned the plan in about 5 minutes, sitting in my living room.

    My waist size decreased from 38 to 34 in three months. In order to keep the weight off (which I have done for one year), build a repertoire of foods you can make. I make salad, lentil soup, and vegan bread. I instituted a two-pound warning track: upon crossing that amount I revert to the shakes, salad, soup, vegan bread (and don’t forget, exercise).

  8. *–shift to open-faced sandwiches and/or eliminate buns from your diet.

    i love sandwiches, but much nutritional science (gary taubes, good calories, bad calories is the best) suggests carbs, especially processed ones, lead to weight gain, diabetes, and a host of interrelated negative health outcomes. take off a slice of bread from every sandwich and you’ll be better for it. plus, the same science suggests that carbs do not satiate effectively, meaning that you can cut your bread consumption without needing to replace it with an equal amount of something else.

  9. My first habit change towards a healthy self is to switch to an alternative form of food. Slowly mix in the healthy food over time. To start out I had half white rice and half brown rice, now I’m 100% on brown rice.

  10. Set realistic goals. When anyone starts a diet with big numbers of weight loss in mind they set themselves up to fail when the goals just can’t be reached. When realistic goals are set instead of those impossibly huge ones some diets promise in short amounts of time reaching them is possible so you are able to feel good about your progress not like you failed when you can’t achieve the impossible goals. A very realistic goal to set yourself up for success is losing about a pound a week, 6 pounds a month or for a year 60 pounds. These goals are achievable and will help keep you motivated when you reach them.

  11. Weight cutting is not designed to produce permanent changes. On a side note, it is not exactly the healthiest process. But alas, it is a necessary aspect of competitive sports that implement weight classes. I obviously don t recommend this method for the average dieter seeking permanent weight loss results.

  12. A Saudi debate about the societal function of soccer expanded
    this week with controversy over a gaggle of female American Congressional staffers being allowed
    to observe a match in a Riyadh stadium from which Saudi women are barred and a video by which a instructor encouraged his students to chant slogans for a soccer membership slightly than the nationwide anthem.

  13. What helps me to loose weight is by having a Healthy breakfast, moderate portion of lunch, and a full course dinner. don’t eat later than 9pm.

  14. I think to lose some weight not enough to do workouts. You need some proven system that works…
    In this free report, manual guide…
    For overweight women who are almost (but not quite) satisfied with their results, and can’t figure out what they are doing wrong?
    you’ll find the answer.

  15. agreed.most people think that if i din’t work on myself 20 years i can easily loose weight in 2 weeks.That is not how it is working.It”s impossible to loose weight so fast.you have to work fast until you can see some results.For me i love to run and workout combaining some weight loss products.But just sitting on the couch and drinking weight loss product will not work.

  16. Portion control is the easiest way to lose weight.

    Overeating is easy, portion control is almost as easy and once you get into the habit, especially if you have a high calorific daily requirement (i.e. tall/muscular) or are exercising regularly the weight will just fall off. The difficult thing for most people is the fact they are used to eating snacks and treats in between meals instead of real food.

    If you are exercising and aren’t over eating, there’s no reason you can’t substitute your treats for another small meal since real food is generally calorie sparse and nutrition dense vs snacks/treats.

    Stop buying diet treat bars “under 99 calories” and instead look at what you can have that’s filling for the same number of calories. You’ll be surprised at how much actual food you get for 100 calories vs those useless diet bars.

    Learn about nutrition, that’s also a helper. Ignore fad diets. If you want to count stuff, know your macros.

    Dieting isn’t that hard, it’s mostly about making/breaking habits more than anything.