Creating New Habits for Lasting Weight MaintenanceMay 1, 2023
Weight regain is an all-too-common issue for those trying to maintain a healthy weight. After the effort and determination required for weight loss, it can be incredibly frustrating when the scale starts to creep back up. And yet, research indicates that approximately 90% of adults will regain at least a portion of their weight loss after 6 months. Reasons for this weight regain include several factors, namely genetics, hormones, and behaviors. While we can’t do much to alter our genetics, and our influence over our hormones is limited, we do have the power to manage and change our behaviors. The key to lasting weight maintenance is to have a strategy for identifying and altering the habitual behaviors that result in weight regain.
Simply put, it is all too difficult to fight a lifetime of unhealthy habits with willpower alone. We need to look to behavior change techniques to break the cycle and form new healthy habits. The good news is that habit-based interventions have shown promising results in sustaining behavior change, including weight loss maintenance.
The Habit Cycle
One common habit involves going out for a morning cup of coffee and breakfast sandwich. If this is part of our routine, you likely go to the same place and roughly the same time every day. This is a habit. You may alter the behavior by getting a different breakfast sandwich or adding a different creamer, but you are maintaining the habit of going out for coffee in the morning. Now imagine, making your coffee at home with a healthy breakfast. This change is an example of breaking a habit.
Understanding and Breaking Bad Habits
Habits are situational, meaning they are cues linked to your environment. For example, you may eat snack foods while watching television with your family. The idea of spending time together is a positive feeling that over time has become associated with eating chips and cookies. There is very little conscious thought associated with the activity, rather your hunger cues tap into this behavior before you have a chance to make a decision. In your mind, watching television with your family involves eating snack food. You are not consciously deciding to snack, rather it has become a habit. This habit cycle is why it is so difficult to rely on willpower alone when trying to enlist healthy eating behaviors.
To break a habit cycle, you need to identify the contexts or situations that are associated with the behavior and make a conscious decision to change them. This involves two steps.
- Identify and Disrupt. First, identify and disrupt the trigger of your behavior. For example, identify situations where you are likely to eat unhealthy breakfast foods like convenience stores or fast-food restaurants. Avoiding these trigger situations and changing your environment disrupts the habit.
- Replace. Once you have changed the environment, introduce a planned substitution for the unhealthy behavior. In this example, preparing a healthy breakfast at home replaces the fast-food option.
Sounds simple, right? Not exactly. Because habit behaviors are efficient, unintentional, and subconscious, it takes some time to break them. Breaking an unhealthy habit and replacing it with a healthy alternative requires motivation, effort, and consistency until the new behavior becomes the habit. It is important to repeat the new behavior in the same situation until it becomes automatic. Once the new habit is formed, less effort and conscious thought is required to maintain the new behavior.
Habit substitution tips for lasting weight maintenance
- Start slow by identifying one behavior at a time.
- Use a journal to note your feelings and thoughts about the triggers of unhealthy habits.
- Reduce exposure to situations that stimulate unhealthy habits (e.g., fast-food restaurants)
- Always be prepared with a new substitute behavior.
- Be patient. It takes some time to change, and repetition is key to creating a new healthy habit.
Karen Kruza, MPH RDN LDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Owner of Kruza Nutrition
ABOUT THE AUTHORKaren Kruza, MPH RDN LDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Owner of Kruza Nutrition where she focuses on weight management and medical nutrition therapy for GI disorders for adults and children. Karen is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University and West Chester University earning a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science in Nutrition & Dietetics, and Master of Public Health Nutrition, summa cum laude.