Losing the first 20 pounds

By Valerie Edwards, MS, RD, LD, clinical dietitian, Providence Outpatient Nutrition Services, Providence Portland Medical Center

How many pounds did you resolve to lose this year? Forty? Sixty? More? If you truly want to lose weight and, most importantly, keep it off, I urge you to scale down your goal. Just focus on the first 20 pounds. Aiming lower doesn’t mean that you’re giving up on the ultimate number. In fact, it makes you more likely to succeed.

The problem with big weight-loss goals is that, more often than not, they set you up for big disappointments. You work and work to chip away at the big number, but the goal seems so far away that you eventually get discouraged and give up – and any weight that you lost comes right back.

A 20-pound goal, on the other hand? That sounds doable. From day one, you start out with more confidence that you can achieve this. You see progress and approach your goal faster, and that success is highly motivating. When you’re feeling positive and motivated, you’re more likely to continue the healthy habits that got you there.

Not only that, but there are some seriously positive health benefits to losing 20 pounds. Studies consistently show that if you have problems with high blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can significantly improve your numbers.

So how can you lose 20 pounds and keep them off? Don’t fall for the latest diet, no matter how alluring its promises of quick results. Most diets are so extreme and depriving that the only lasting result is the weight you gain back after you can’t stand the diet anymore.

The key to weight loss that lasts is to make changes in your life that you can live with. Here are several ways to set yourself up for success:

Make food decisions in advance. We face more than 200 food decisions every day. With those kinds of numbers, you can’t count on willpower to ensure that you’ll make healthy choices every time. So make as many choices as you can ahead of time:

  • Take your lunch to work to avoid making poor decisions in the cafeteria.
  • Use smaller plates at home to help you automatically choose smaller portions.
  • Make a grocery list before you go to the store, and buy only one treat to prevent choosing “all of the above” in a moment of snacking weakness at home.

Include a fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack. Studies show that people who eat more fruits and vegetables are more successful at taking weight off and keeping it off. Five a day is the minimum; more is better. Some tips:

  • When you’re planning dinner, figure out the vegetables first and then build the meal around them.
  • Roast your veggies. Almost every vegetable gets sweeter when you roast it, and it takes only a couple of minutes to prep them for the oven. Here’s how.
  • Eat your salad first. Prewashed greens make salad prep a cinch.

Become a dessert snob. Instead of automatically eating that store-bought birthday cake in the break room, ask yourself: Is that really how I want to use my treat calories today? Be selective – hold out for the good stuff.

Take the good from diets and leave the rest. As much as I discourage diets, most of them probably have at least one positive thing that you can take away. So ditch the diet and just try that one thing. If a diet promotes protein to feel full and satisfied, for example, then try including a little lean protein in your meals and snacks. Just don’t go whole hog.

Eat out no more than twice a week. That includes restaurants, takeout, pizzas, drive- thrus, “breakfasts” at coffee shops and many premade foods at grocery stores, all of which can sneak in far more calories than you need or want. If that’s too limiting, focus on making more healthful choices when you do dine out. Better choices include bowls that are heavy on veggies with a little lean protein, such as chicken or tofu, or entrées that feature mostly fish (not fried) and vegetables. Limiting rice and noodles to half a cup also keeps calories down. Be aware, however, that these options still are likely to be higher in sodium than home cooking.

Watch what you drink. Remember that your body is made of mostly water, so it’s happiest when you drink mostly water. Calories from alcohol, soda, coffee drinks and sports drinks add up quickly.

Take responsibility for your choices. It’s easy to blame your eating habits on the fact that you live alone – for example: “It’s hard to cook for one.” But it’s just as easy to blame your habits on the fact that you live with others – for example: “My family won’t eat vegetables.” In the end, it’s more productive to take personal responsibility for eating the way you need and deserve to eat. Cook for yourself. Freeze your leftovers. Eat your vegetables. It’s all about you.

Break out of your habit cycle. In the book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes a three-step “habit cycle”: Certain cues trigger us to engage in routines that lead us to rewards. For example: You arrive home after a stressful day at work (cue), you have a drink or two and some cheese and crackers (routine), and you feel more relaxed (reward). Your routine delivers the reward, but at a cost of 500 or 600 extra calories a day. Is there a healthier routine you could insert to achieve the same reward? Instead of the wine and cheese, perhaps you could put your feet up and unwind to some music while enjoying a cup of tea or a glass of sparkling water with lime. Or you could change into your sweats and do 20 minutes of yoga or go for a rejuvenating walk. As Duhigg says, “Habits aren’t destiny.” If yours are making you unhealthy, change them.

Set your own rules. Everybody wants to give weight-loss advice, but we’re all better off when we just figure out what works for us. Some of the above suggestions might really resonate with you; others may not. Try a few things and adopt your own rules that work for your lifestyle, your exercise routine, your health and your energy needs. If it feels right, works well and fits into your life – that’s a good rule.

Once you’ve lost the first 20 pounds, congratulate yourself on your success. You’ve not only lost a significant amount of weight that has made you much healthier, but you’ve also ended a pattern of adding a few pounds every year – a major achievement in itself. You haven’t finished a “diet” that is now over; you’ve developed new habits that fit comfortably into your life. Keep them up. If you stumble, now you know how to get back on track. And if you choose to set another goal down the road, you now have a foundation for success that you’ve proven works for you.

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