Small tricks to help you shed pounds and keep them off

Weight loss can be challenging, but there are some strategies for success.


Image: © Wand_Prapan/Getty Images

If you're struggling to lose weight, you probably feel like the odds are stacked against you. You're not necessarily wrong.

"There is so much great-tasting food, and it's abundant and in your face all the time. To me it's kind of a miracle that people aren't even heavier than they are," says Dr. Meir Stampfer, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In addition to an abundance of food, most people today also have a far more sedentary lifestyle than past generations. "Even active people who exercise a lot aren't expending the calories their ancestors did," says Dr. Stampfer.

So, while losing weight is simple in theory — reduce your calorie intake — it's not easy in practice. "If you put people into a locked metabolic ward and feed them only 60% of their usual caloric intake, they will lose weight. But for free-living people that's really hard," says Dr. Stampfer.

But as hard as it is to shed pounds, the bigger challenge may await if you are successful. "It is relatively more difficult to maintain the loss," says Dr. Lu Qi, adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

This is particularly true for women after menopause. "When people get older, it becomes difficult to dissipate the energy from foods. They need to modify their eating habits — to follow healthier patterns," says Dr. Qi. "It's challenging to change any habits, including eating habits."

People today view food as far more than just sustenance. Eating is a source of gratification; it's a social activity; it's a reward. This is why many diets work in the short term but fail later on. "Many diets are a radical shift from what people normally eat, and this is not sustainable," says Dr. Stampfer.

But don't throw your hands up and resign yourself to keeping those extra pounds. There are strategies that can help you chip away at excess weight. Below are some simple tips that you can use to get the scale moving in the right direction — and keep it there.

Don't diet; improve your diet. Don't focus your eating solely on weight loss; focus on overall health. Follow a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. "Even today, after all the data that we have, people still think that eating fat makes them fat, and they try to find low-fat products," says Dr. Stampfer. "That has been very well debunked. Eating fat doesn't make you fat. There are good studies that show eating healthy fats helps people control their weight better than diets than exclude them."

Over all, choosing a sustainable diet that is focused on health and not just weight can help you make lasting improvements. "Adopt a healthy diet, and eat just a little bit less," says Dr. Stampfer.

Exercise regularly. This has been said a million times, but it can't be emphasized enough: boosting your activity level can help you lose weight and keep it off. "For most people, long-term weight control is hard without some physical activity," says Dr. Stampfer.

Your metabolism slows with age, which means you burn fewer calories to keep basic body functions going. At the same time, bone and muscle mass decline and fat mass increases. This insidious pattern happens naturally as you get older unless you take steps to avoid it.

"I'm a strong advocate of not just aerobic activity but also weight training and calisthenics," says Dr. Stampfer. "Muscle building can not only bring up your body's metabolic rate, but also bring its own distinct health benefits that are often not as well appreciated as those associated with aerobic activity."

Try a variety of strategies. Different diets work for different people. Sometimes finding the right strategy takes trial and error. One approach that holds promise for many is mindful eating — taking the time to stop and really focus on and enjoy your food. "The scientific evidence to my eye is meager, but I like the concept," says Dr. Stampfer. "We've all had that experience of eating a bowl of something and not even remembering having eaten it."

Another simple trick is to put your fork down between bites instead of holding it in your hands. Pick it up when you are going to take the next bite.

Persevere. Losing weight is really hard to do, and many people fail many times before they succeed. Don't give up. Each day, commit to eating a little bit less, says Dr. Stampfer. If you go off track, recommit the following day and keep at it over time.