Weight loss is a confusing, frustrating issue for a lot of women. So many of the women who come to see me tell me they’ve tried everything to lose weight. And sometimes their efforts pay off…but only in the short term. So many of them end up yo-yo dieting, which takes a toll on both physical and mental health.

Research has demonstrated the difficulty in maintaining weight loss long-term. In fact, a 2001 meta-analysis of studies found that in 29 long-term weight loss studies, in just two years, more than half of weight lost was regained – and after five years, that jumped to ¾! These are certainly discouraging statistics.

But more recent research shows some promise in determining how weight loss can be sustained long-term. A 2018 study showed that when habits were changed (either bad habits broken or new healthy habits formed), weight loss was maintained for a year. Participants in two intervention groups not only kept off the weight they’d dropped over the 12-weeks of intervention, but continued to lose weight even after the intervention was over. Sixty-five percent had lost more than 5% of their body weight at the 12-month follow up. And there were other positive results as well – participants also increased fruit and vegetable consumption and their mental health improved.

This research illustrates the power that changing habits can have in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I know this is more easily said than done. If forming good habits was simple, everyone would be doing it naturally! There are so many factors that influence the habits we have, especially when it comes to food.

Examining and understanding food choices

Often, eating is less about hunger and more about tradition/habit. Without even thinking about it, women eat things simply because they always have. Take my client, Erin, for example. Every time she takes a trip to the lake, she stops at a specific store and picks up some gummy bears. When she was young, the first time her mother took her to the lake, that’s what they did. And her mother continued the tradition each and every time they went for a day trip. Now, it’s just what she does…but she’s 25! When I suggested that she just drive past the store, she had an “aha” moment: She doesn’t even like gummy bears.

Erin’s story isn’t unique. Whether it’s cake on birthdays, or salty snacks at the movies, or a juicy burger because it’s the 4th of July…so much of what people eat is tied to emotions (good or bad). 

An interesting article published in 2007 explored how aware people are of food decisions they are making. In one study, the authors determined that people grossly underestimate the number of food decisions they make per day – by an average of 221 decisions! In another study, they found that an exaggerated environmental cue, such as a large bowl, caused people to eat 31% more food. Of the 192 people studied, 21% didn’t believe they had eaten more, and 75% had other reasons, such as hunger, to explain why they had consumed more. Only 4% attributed the overeating to the cue. These studies, the authors said, showed that we are aware of very few food decisions we make every day, and are also unaware of the impact of environmental factors on these decisions — or unwilling to acknowledge them.

But if we want to change habits that lead to being overweight or obese, we must acknowledge how they influence eating behavior. And if we’re unaware, we need to take steps to notice the opportunities we have to make good decisions and avoid overconsumption.

9 Daily Habits and Routines That Can Lead to Healthy Weight Loss

Following are some habits that you can easily add to your daily routine to help shift your eating behaviors and help you lose weight. You don’t have to tackle them all at once — changing habits is difficult! Try one to start, and when that feels easy, add another…until you’ve mastered them all!

1. Track Everything

If you don’t keep an accurate record of what you are eating, how you are feeling, and why you make the choices you do it’s tough to examine what might not be working for you. I suggest keeping a journal – not just of food, but all the pieces that impact weight. You can use a trick journalists use when writing to be sure you aren’t missing anything important. Ask these questions: Who, what, when, where, why and how. Who were you eating with (and did their behavior change yours? What did you eat (and how did it make you feel afterwards)? When and where were you eating? Why were you eating (hunger or habit)? And finally, how were you eating? Standing up at the refrigerator makes it far more likely that you’ll eat too much, or make unhealthy choices, than if you are sitting at a table, paying attention to every bit.

When you have all of this information in writing, you can really reflect on it later. It’s so easy to forget the details, so I suggest getting the details down as soon after you eat as possible. The deeper questions and reflection can happen later, when you have more time.

2. Hydrate!

When you first get up, drink water…before each meal…before a snack (to help determine if you’re even hungry…an hour before bed…)

3. Eat consciously and mindfully

Setting a regular routine will help avoid impulse eating, and can make you more aware of the decisions you are making about what goes on your plate. When you stick to a regular eating schedule, anything out of the norm will be a conscious choice. This is far more effective for losing or maintaining weight than allowing “cheat” days. A day without rules or routine opens you up to excess. You may try to squeeze in everything you’ve been missing instead of eating because you’re actually hungry. Instead, stick to your schedules, but allow yourself the occasional intentional splurge.

Eat without distractions so you can be mindful of the food in front of you. Take a bite, then put down your fork while you chew. Notice the taste, smell, and textures of the food. Notice any memories or emotions that surface as you eat. This can feel strange when you first begin, but once you’ve tried it a few times you may start to realize that mindful eating allows you the space to truly enjoy food – and notice when you are satisfied a lot more quickly!

4. Include protein and healthy fats in every meal and snack

Some people suggest never skipping breakfast, but I know that different eating patterns work for different people. I’m a big fan of intermittent fasting myself. Whenever you eat, it’s important to incorporate some protein and healthy fats. These stick with you much longer than simple carbohydrates, and won’t cause the blood sugar spikes and crashes.

5. Read labels

Knowing exactly what is in your food can help you make better choices. If you’re eating anything other than fresh, whole foods look carefully at the label. How much sugar are you eating? Sodium? Trans fats? Ask yourself if it’s worth it before you open the package. If you’re eating out, ask if nutrition information is available before you place your order.

6. Weigh yourself daily

This can be a tricky one emotionally, especially since weight fluctuates naturally so it’s inevitable that the numbers will go up some days, down on others. But monitoring your weight at the same time, in the same (or no) clothing, allows you to notice right away if the number is consistently going in the wrong direction. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to get back on track – especially when you’ve worked so hard to lose weight and want to keep it off!

7. Boost your fruit and vegetable intake

Adding more fruits or vegetables to your plate is a great strategy for losing weight. They fill you up, and they’re full of nutrients that help your body use the food as efficiently as possible for energy. Have at least one serving of fruits or vegetables at each meal. Two is even better! Fresh fruits and vegetables also make a great snack. Pop some cauliflower in the air fryer, or dip carrots in hummus for a tasty treat.

8. Stay active by walking

There’s a lot of evidence that physical activity positively contributes to weight loss, and it doesn’t have to be intense exercise. Especially if you haven’t been very active before, starting with walking can be a great option. If you live near enough, try walking to the office a day or two each week. Or go for a short walk at lunchtime and eat outside instead of at your desk. Park as far away from the building as you can instead of looking for the closest spot. Walk the stairs instead of using the elevator. Commit to one ten minute walk each day to begin, and try to build to 20 or 30 minutes (either at once or in two blocks).

If you spend all day at your desk, build a five minute walk into each hour. You don’t have to go far – up and down the hall will suffice. Being too sedentary promotes weight gain, so this one habit can really keep you on the right path.

9. Build in planning/prep time

Some of the worst decisions people make around food happen because they aren’t prepared. Taking a little time each day to pack a lunch and healthy snacks before you head out (instead of relying on fast food or vending machines) can make a huge difference! If it’s hard to find the time each morning, try prepping for the following day right before you head to bed.

Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD