Learn What Worked for Long-Term Successful Dieters

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Lessons from Keeping It Off: Winning At Weight Loss by Robert H. Olson and Susan C. Colvin.

While browsing in the stacks at my public library I came across a very helpful book written back in the mid-1980s which reported on a group of people who had lost 20% or more of their body fat and kept it off for five years or more. The book is Keeping it Off: Winning at Weight Loss, by Robert H. Olson and Susan C. Colvin. Unfortunately, it is now out of print.

The successful dieters profiled in this book were dieting back before the high carb "low fat" diets came into general use. The typical diet they followed was one where they cut out all sugar and to cut a lot of saturated fats, though some of the dieters followed other plans with success, too.

What the authors found should be of interest to anyone who wants to achieve that kind of dieting success. Here is a summary:

Attitude is More Important than Specific Food Plan in Achieving Success

The main thing all the successful losers had in common was not their way of eating but their attitude.

These dieters realized that they and they alone were in control of their fate and that their diet wasnít about pleasing other people, reacting to other people, obeying other people, or rebelling against other people. They stopped living out child/parent struggles and battling with themselves, and found a place where they were eating the way they wanted to eat because it made sense to them.

The authors found that most people in the group used resources like Weight Watchers to gather nutritional information but did NOT rely on support groups for the success of their diet. The exception to this was a small group of people with compulsive eating problems who benefited from the group support system. But the authors point out that this group of dieters was the one that had the greatest number of people who lapsed during the period when they were researching the book.

Another important attitude the authors identified was that the successful dieters had given up "magical" thinking--the belief that eating one particular kind of food or a one-size-fits-all food plan religiously adhered to would solve all their problems.

Successful Dieters Test Diet Strategies to Learn How Their Own Bodies Work Best

Successful dieters used a wide variety of techniques to lose weight and keep it off. What they all had in common was that these dieters didn't accept any diet dogma, but instead took the ideas they heard about from others and experimented to see how their own bodies responded to these approaches.

When something worked, they used it. When they encountered problems, be they nutritional or psychological, these dieters looked for ways to solve them. The underlying attitude was one of respecting their own body's needs and reactions and finding a way of eating that respected them.

That meant that the group of successful dieters achieved their success using many different and even contradictory kinds of eating plans. Some people the authors studied ate only one meal a day, while others ate small meals every two hours. Some lost weight very gradually, others lost it all in a short time using medically-supervised fasts. Some avoided carbs completely, others ate the low fat veggie/grain diets.

However, whatever their approach, it is important to note that the authors found that all the successful dieters ended up cutting calories significantly. The successful dieters--whose goal weights were anywhere from 120 to 170 lbs typically ate 1200 calories a day while losing and 1800 calories a day while maintaining. Even more important, once the diet phase was over, most of the dieters continued to eat in a way that did not differ except in calories from the way they'd eaten while losing.

Men Exercised while Losing, the Women Exercised AFTER Losing

The authors found that the men in their group of successful dieters exercised during the period of weight loss. However, most of the womenóand there were many more in this group of successes than menódid not exercise until they were very close to their weight goal.

Very interestingly, this did NOT prevent these women from losing significant amounts of weight. Once the women had lost significant amounts of weight, their improved physical well being made exercise more attractive to them, althoughóand this is importantóthe authors make the point that few of these successful dieters reported that they enjoyed exercise. They saw it as something they had to do to maintain rather than as a pleasure in itself.

Successful Dieters Don't Think About Food

The dieters in this study shifted their interest away from food to the extent that they did not spend much of their time cooking, thinking about diet recipes, logging nutrients, or generally doing any of the things that a lot of us find helpful while losing.

The authors suggest that an intense focus on dieting strategies is still part of a food-obsession behavior that rebounds eventually. The successful dieters had channeled their energy elsewhere so that they were thinking of SOMETHING OTHER THAN FOOD. However, because of the time and energy they had put into their self-education in nutrition early on in their dieting experience, these successful dieters had a very good idea of what they were eating even while concentrating on other things.

Diet Was Only A Part Of What These People Changed About Their Lives

The authors point out that many of the women who succeeded in dieting also took steps to change other facets of their lives that had caused them to feel hopeless, such as bad marriages or career dead ends. The diet success taught them that they could control their own lives and they moved into making other important changes.

Successful Dieters Keep Aware of what they Weigh

The authors mention this in passing without stressing it. But my own experience over a lifetime of controlling my weight has been that itís a lot easier to maintain a significant weight loss if you make yourself get on the scale on a regular basis and put yourself back onto a weight loss regimen any time you regain three to five pounds that aren't just water weight.

Losing three to five pounds is almost always doable and can be done within a month or two. But if you let the weight regain creep up to ten or twenty pounds, losing it again may become an overwhelming and depressing task.

Not Easy, Not Magic, but Well Worth Thinking About

The findings of this book, while it obviously didnít make these folks million-dollar earning Diet Gurus, resonated very strongly with me and my own experiences in losing weight. Over the more than 17 years during which I've been dealing with a diabetic body I've found that sense that Iím in control is very important. I have to feel that Iím eating what I eat because I've chosen to eat that way, not because of some hard and fast set of rules imposed from outside myself, no matter how "healthy" they might be.

When I say, "I canít eat that food because itís not part of the X diet" Iím setting myself up for eventual rebellion. When I say, "I have chosen not to eat that food because it has an unpleasant effect on how I feel afterwards," the plan becomes doable.

Rigidity puts us into conflict with our inner selves, and too rigorous a suppression of those selves seems to be the thing that causes those dramatic rebounds we all donít want to think about.

I've also found that I can learn a lot from reading diet books, but that they all tend towards a rigidity that makes it hard to live their ideas out in the real world, year after year after year. Knowing where I can be flexible with my eating plan and where I must be careful or face disaster is an ongoing process that requires continual testing, experimentation, and adjustment.

Finally, it's also worth considering the authors' findings that once we have learned about nutrition and about what our bodies can and cannot handle, there should come a time where we have to let go of the intense focus on food and find other things to obsess about.
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