Being on a weight loss diet can be annoying. It's tough to have rules to follow, frustrating to face restrictions,and maddening to cheat when you promised yourself that you wouldn't. But as annoying as that diet can be, it can also provide an underlying sense of relief. Once you hit your stride, you are following a plan. The anxieties caused by an overwhelming number of food choices are tamped down. You've got a roadmap to follow.
In my medical practice, we offer the option of beginning weight loss with two weeks on a diet of pre-made liquids and bars. Although we don't push for this choice, most people elect it. They tell us that they have a feeling of freedom when they don't have to make any food decisions at all. They also enjoy a sense of putting distance between themselves and the way they used to eat. They like having a plan, even a very restrictive one.
Studies show that weight loss is achievable on virtually any diet, as long as that diet is followed very consistently. This conclusion might lead you to believe that all diets are equal. But there is an important piece of information missing. What allows consistency to happen? Is it possible that some people can't follow a given diet because it does not fit them properly? We know that this is true. For example, people who are pre-diabetic or insulin resistant may find the Atkins diet easy to follow because it takes insulin out of the picture. Smaller people with normal insulin, on the other hand, might find it very difficult to adhere to a diet that is so low in carbohydrate.
Each of these points, the importance of having a roadmap and the importance of that map fitting your personal needs, has major implications for your success…not only during weight loss but after weight loss as well. Once you enter maintenance, experience has shown that you are headed for failure if you don't have a well thought-out plan and if that plan doesn't match up with your needs.
Most people don't like to think of themselves as continuing "on a diet" after they finish losing weight. (And by the way, no one ever thinks they are finished losing or is ever completely happy with the weight they've achieved. So let's just say we are talking about a plan you need once your body has given up whatever weight it is able to get rid of at this particular time.) Since in America we use the word “diet” to mean weight loss, we have to give the post weight-loss plan another kind of name. Let's call it a personal Food Constitution.
Unlike diet books, Food Constitution books are not to be found 50 deep in your local Barnes and Noble. No one cares much about publishing something about how to construct this most important of documents. (Refuse to Regain is one exception. You might also look at the Thin for Life books for ideas) As I was told by my book agent, publishers are only interested in books that solve problems. Once weight is lost, she said, most people think they don't have a problem any more. At first, I didn't believe her. But now I do. We still have alot of work to do in order to convince people that the heavy lifting begins with the end of dieting.
So, you will have to be your own Thomas Jefferson figuring out the self-imposed rules and safeguards that keep your personal union strong. Like the framers, you should seek to produce a plan that can work for many years, albeit with a few amendments. And the plan should make you proud.
So how to begin? Here are my suggestions, but remember, each plan will be different and personal to your needs:
1. Start with Your Endpoints
What do you want to preserve and protect? It may be weight. But it also may be a new, lower Hemoglobin A1c, a life without blood pressure medicine, a commitment to supporting local agriculture, or a desire to be more organic. Your constitution is not just a way of eating, it's a way of being which will reflect who you are for some time to come. When you defend this plan to others, you want to be proud of what it says about you.
2. Look to the Diet That Created Your Weight Loss
In general, the diet that got you to the dance is the one that, with some tweaks, will work to maintain your loss. This is not to say that you can't go a completely different way in maintenance, but this is an easy and reasonable starting point. Spend several months expanding your weight loss diet slightly and gradually. Be extremely careful about carbohydrates. I'm not going to reiterate my personal biases in detail, but suffice if to say that carbs create insulin which creates fat and many carbs tend to trigger addictive food responses.
Create default menus, meals which you know you like, which don't cause weight gain and which you can make easily. While working on these basic menus, consider food timing as well. Are you someone who needs frequent snacks to get through the day? Slot them in. I personally recommend creating some food-free periods each day that last at least 2-3 hours. This allows the body to use some of the food you've stored. If you decide to do this, figure out when these periods fit best for you.
If you don’t like your weight loss diet or feel it is unhealthy to continue, see the next suggestion.
3. Start Spare
If you are starting from scratch, start basic. In the beginning, eat mostly vegetables, low fat animal proteins (lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs and low fat dairy), fruits and nuts. Make the vegetable part bigger than the animal and fruit part. Practice eating this way and see if you can get comfortable right there. If not, experiment with some add-ons. Be very careful with adding back if you are someone who had any of the markers of insulin resistance. These include: weight mostly in the belly, high blood pressure, borderline or high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low good cholesterol. People who are insulin resistant should really, truly stay away from starches and sugars lest their problem swiftly recur. Similarly, if you are someone who has had an inflammatory condition (like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel or multiple sclerosis for example), I would think twice about the re-introduction of grains. If you do decide to broaden your diet, start with beans, lentils and other legumes. Try a sweet potato here and there. See if the scale stays stable. It’s hard for me to give you direction on grains as I am not a fan, but if you go that route, watch the scale closely and look for any inflammatory issues like excema, joint aches, etc. There are certainly those who can tolerate grains, but I’m not convinced that people who have been overweight in the past are among them. If you are doing fine and staying weight stable, then grains would seem to work for you.
4. Consider the Use of Calorie Labeled Foods and Meal Replacements
While I advocate a maintenance diet that avoids most processed foods, there are still benefits to using pre-labeled foods in your daily plan. Many people take one meal out and replace it with a yogurt, nutrition bar, or liquid supplement. These foods allow for complete control of calories and knocking one meal out makes life a lot easier.
5. Find Your NTTs
Non Triggering Treats are foods that are sweet, savory or even a bit salty that feel like fun but don’t throw you under the bus. A regular ice cream bar might send you off on a binge, but a Weight Watcher’s ice cream sandwich might not. You might concoct your own NTT (one of my patients loves smooshing frozen blueberries in low fat creamer and splenda) and discover that it does the trick when you simply have to eat something during American Idol. Every long term eating plan needs some NTTs. Work on a list.
The most important tip I can give you for how to eat after weight loss is this one: Do it With Conviction! Successful maintainers have, for the most part, undergone what I call a Food Conversion. They believe something different about how to eat than they did before and the change is pretty radical. The period directly following weight loss is critical, because new maintainers do not have this sense of belief just yet. It’s something that comes as you learn to enjoy your new diet and see its benefits: sort of like an arranged marriage that blossoms into love. So don’t go running back to your old lover — the standard American diet — just yet. Give the new one a chance. He or she may look a little geeky right now, but there’s a powerful magic lying beneath that unassuming exterior. Don’t you want to find out what it is?
You can read more from Dr. Berkeley at www.refusetoregain.com or follow her on Twitter @BBerkeleyMD.