7 Secrets to Long-Term Weight Loss

New research reveals that the key to banishing unwanted pounds for good is outsmarting your hunger hormones, with easy changes in daily habits. The simple formula for long-term weight-loss success includes eating more of the right foods, learning to love your body, and making friends with your scale.

Here’s the latest skinny on how to win at losing weight, with science-backed strategies.

The Leptin Connection

Here’s why willpower alone doesn’t work over the long haul: Shedding 10 percent or more of your body weight triggers hormonal changes that increase appetite. And as a double-whammy, your metabolism also slows down.

Leptin levels can remain depressed for a year or more after you have lost weight. That’s why 75 percent to 95 percent of people who lose weight regain most of it within two or three years.

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The 22 Percent Solution

To overcome the effects of leptin on metabolism, dieters who have lost 10 percent of their body weight have to trim daily caloric intake by 22 percent to stay at their goal weight, Columbia University Health Sciences researchers report.

For example, if you’ve dropped from 150 pounds to 135, you’ll need to eat about 250 calories less than someone whose stable weight is 135, or torch the 250 calories through exericse. In other words, it’s essential to continue the habits that helped you ditch those pounds in the first place.

7 Steps to Stay Slim

On average, members of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR)—an ongoing study of more than 10,000 adults who have succeeded at long-term weight loss—have lost 66 pounds and kept it off for an average of 5.5 years. How did they do it? The NWCR and other studies point to these 7 habits:

1. Exercise every day

Nine out of 10 NWCR members average an hour of exercise a day, and 62% watch fewer than 10 hours of TV a week. A review of studies concludes that exercising 60 to 90 minutes a day, plus counting calories, “substantially increases the odds of successful long-term weight maintenance.”

To make working out a habit, look for a variety of activities—jogging, lifting weights, playing tennis, cycling or a Wii fitness game—you can enjoy regardless of the weather.

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2. Eat more to weigh less

A new review of 17 earlier studies published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that filling up on low-density foods (those with fewer calories and more water per serving, such as fruit and vegetables) is a key factor in weight control, while trying to limit yourself to smaller portions of higher calorie items is a recipe for failure.

A recent study found that people who ate a three-cup, low-density salad before a meal ate 8 percent fewer calories overall than those who ate a small salad with high-fat ingredients.

3. Don’t skip breakfast

Nearly 8 out of 10 (78%) of NWCR members eat breakfast every day. Without a morning meal, your stomach will be pumping out appetite-stimulating hormones like crazy, making the urge to overindulge later in the day hard to resist.

4. Weigh yourself regularly

Three out of four NWCR members weighed themselves at least once a week to make sure they were still on track. For an accurate reading, weigh yourself before breakfast.  

5. Keep a food diary

A study by Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research found that people who kept a daily food diary lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t track what they ate, probably because the act of recording makes you reflect on your food choices.

One cool tool to update your food intake on the fly—such as the granola you added to your low-fat fro-yo after work—is My Diet Diary-Calorie Counter, a free smartphone app. The app also calculates how many calories you are burning, so if two pounds have crept back, you can tweak your activity level to torch them before they turn into 20.

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6. Love your body

Becoming more accepting of what you see in the mirror can more than triple success with a weight-loss program based on diet and exercise, a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition reported last year.

The researchers found that dieters who dislike their bodies are more prone to unhealthy eating patterns, including bingeing and emotional overeating. Those who attended group sessions to discuss ways to improve body image dropped an average of 7 percent of their starting weight during the 12-month study, compared to a 2 percent loss for the control group.

7. Have self-compassion

When you can forgive yourself for eating a high-calorie treat, you are less likely to trigger the vicious cycle of negative feelings that cause emotional overeating and weight regain. 

In a 2007 study at Wake Forest University, womenincluding dieterswere told they were participating in a taste test of various candies and divided into three groups. Two of the groups were given a doughnut to eat before the taste test. Those who were urged to forgive themselves for eating the donut ate significantly less candy than those who felt guilty about breaking their diet with the donut.

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