Finding that secret to help clients achieve a permanent healthy weight for a client is the goal and desire of nearly every weight loss/nutrition coach in current practice. We are often presented with a client who has tried for many years to attain a target weight but fails to sustain their weight loss or stop losing weight before the target is reached. Many of these clients have attempted a major weight loss on more than one occasion with more than 40 percent of the current adult worldwide population attempting weight loss at any given time (Santos et al., 2016).
However, once bright-eyed optimistic coaches find themselves scratching their heads and searching for the reason why some of their clients fail to lose weight or sustain a healthy weight despite advising their clients correctly using evidence-based recommendations. I have dealt with frustrated calls and emails from clients who despite weeks of sticking with a diet, fail to see the scale budge.
The truth is that daily habits are the fates that determine success or failure in a weight loss attempt, especially in the long term. Let's review some common habits that can sabotage weight loss.
Choosing a Quick Fix Diet Plan
We have all heard of so many quick-fix strategies for losing weight with low carbohydrates and fasting topping the list followed by various supplements, shakes, highly restrictive eating plans, or very low-calorie diets. While many of these diets produce a quick drop on the scale, they, unfortunately, do not stand the test of time.
Individuals seeking weight loss will often begin a new diet very enthusiastically, adhere to the diet for a time, find that the quick-fix diet is not sustainable, quit the diet, and regain the lost weight (sometimes plus some). Similarly, it is common for clients to continue to adhere to a quick-fix diet and find that they no longer see the same dramatic results they did in the beginning. There are several reasons for this.
First, there is a psychological phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect which refers to the increase in adherence to behavior when a person believes they are being monitored. When a person is starting a new diet, oftentimes they will tell their friends or loved ones about the new diet. Perhaps they have even employed a nutrition coach who sells plans based on one of these diets. The person may adhere more strongly to the diet if they feel they are being monitored, but this will only last for a limited period until the novelty wears off (Turner-McGrievy et al., 2017).
Second, some diets such as a very low carbohydrate diet or fasting/cleanse programs will initially produce dramatic weight loss due to a loss of water weight (sometimes as much as 10 pounds in less than 2 weeks). These diets may initially show a significant drop in scale weight, but it is primarily driven by water loss rather than fat loss.
Fat loss that may occur later will only be due to the calorie deficit that these diets produce leading a client to feel that their progress has stalled and ultimately abandonment of the diet (Masood et al., 2019).
Cutting Out Meals
It may seem tempting for clients to skip breakfast or lunch to leave room in their daily calorie budget come dinner time. Unfortunately, this strategy tends to backfire. It is well-established that skipping breakfast can lead to adverse health outcomes and is correlated to obesity (Wicherski et al., 2021).
Yet, this phenomenon tends to hold when skipping any meals. Yamamoto et al., (2021) conducted a retrospective study examining the effects of skipping lunch and dinner among 26,433 university students in Japan over 3 years. The researchers found that the students who regularly skipped dinner had the highest rate of weight gain as compared to their peers.
The human body has inherent mechanisms to fight against weight loss. Skipping meals as a weight loss strategy, or an eating pattern (i.e., not taking breaks from work to eat, consuming one meal a day, etc) tends to be associated with higher overall body weight as the body will tend to overshoot caloric requirements at subsequent meals or cumulatively over weeks and months (Wicherski et al., 2021).
Relying Solely on Caloric Restriction
Modern lifestyles often lead to overall inactivity in daily life. The human body was designed to move. Inactivity even in a caloric or hypocaloric state will lead to alterations in metabolism that can increase susceptibility to weight gains such as insulin resistance, muscle breakdown, reduced capacity for exercise, and impaired glucose and fatty acid metabolism.
Likewise, even slight overfeeding coupled with inactivity changes the genetic expression of adipose (fat) tissue making weight gain even more likely (Biolo et al., 2005). Similarly, though most of the caloric expenditure (in non-athletes) comes from life processes defined by resting metabolic rate, without physical activity, it is very difficult to achieve a significant enough, not to mention sustainable, caloric deficit.
Furthermore, physical activity is almost always necessary to maintain weight loss long-term. Patients being treated for obesity in a clinical setting are advised to exercise at a minimum of 250 minutes per week in conjunction with employing healthy eating strategies to lose weight and maintain their new healthier weight (Balfour & Boster, 2022).
Physical activity does not have to be completed in a gym setting. Household chores walking with friends, and/or yard work can provide a framework to achieve plenty of physical activity. In nearly all cases, I advise clients to use a step tracker to measure how physically active they are daily and to create a target step count to ensure that a minimum amount of physical activity is completed to support weight loss.
DINING Out Frequently
Enjoying meals out with family and friends is part of most human societies. It is not sustainable to completely avoid eating out with friends and family, however, when this becomes a habit, it can derail a weight loss effort. Meals eaten outside the home (or rather not home cooked) are generally higher in calories, saturated fats, and sugar while lower in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It is very easy to overshoot caloric needs if eating out frequently (Gesteiro et al., 2022).
This point was well illustrated in a 2016 cross-sectional study that examined the association between body mass index (BMI) and eating out at a sit-down or fast-food restaurant at least weekly. The researchers found that for every occasion of eating out in a week, there was an increase of roughly 0.8 kg/m2 in BMI (Bhutani et al., 2016).
There are indeed ways to make healthier choices while eating out at a restaurant, but most restaurant foods are high in calories and fats so the diner must be extremely careful to plan meals when eating out while trying to lose weight.
Eating Too Fast
I recall as a small child, my health-conscious gastroenterologist grandfather would often remind me to slow down while I was eating and constantly assess my hunger cues. Although I was often annoyed by his advice, I have come to realize the value it held.
Fast eating rates are highly associated with lower satiety and increased energy consumption at meals. Hormones that regulate hunger and satiety are secreted at a certain rate and in response to food entering the gastrointestinal tract, however, there is a delay in the secretion of these hormones. Peptide YY (PYY) and Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) are secreted as food enters the intestine and are responsible for decreasing hunger, suppressing, glucagon, and facilitating insulin secretion, but they are secreted at a limited rate. Eating too quickly does not allow the body to adapt to these hormones thereby overshooting caloric needs (Argyrakopoulou et al., 2020).
Eating fast is a common phenomenon for those of us with busy work and family lives. However, it is important to take breaks (and enough time) to eat meals/snacks, especially for those looking to lose weight.
Giving Up Too Soon
Long-term weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint. I find myself reminding clients of this almost daily. Likewise, it often takes some time to find the right balance of macronutrients, caloric deficit (via nutrition), and physical activity to induce steady weight loss as everyone is different. It is also important to note that weight loss often stalls after 6 months and periodization that involves periods of maintenance and deficits is recommended to achieve long-term changes in body composition (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).
It is very tempting to end a nutrition plan because a client is not seeing fast results, but giving up early can lead to more failure and frustration with a weight loss attempt. I often advise my clients that have 50 to 100 pounds to lose that it may take up to 2-3 years to achieve the results they are seeking, and they will see periods of steady weight loss, stalling, and maybe even periods of slight weight gain during their journey. It is almost always true that sticking to healthy habits long-term will produce sustainable results (Summerfield, 2016).
Weight loss can be a challenging and rewarding journey, but remember, it is a journey. There are no shortcuts, quick fixes, or special diets that produce true results. Rather than seeking fast results, placing the focus on changing goal-sabotaging to goal-crushing habits will help our clients win the body composition game!
Interested in becoming a Weight Loss Specialist? NASM’s Weight Loss Specialization is specially designed to help you create actionable plans for your clients to lose weight and keep it of in healthy ways that’s unique to them.
Argyrakopoulou, G., Simati, S., Dimitriadis, G., & Kokkinos, A. (2020). How Important Is Eating Rate in the Physiological Response to Food Intake, Control of Body Weight, and Glycemia? Nutrients, 12(6), 1734. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061734
Balfour, J., & Boster, J. (2022). Physical Activity And Weight Loss Maintenance. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK572051/
Bhutani, S., Schoeller, D. A., Walsh, M. C., & McWilliams, C. (2016). Frequency of Eating Out at Both Fast-Food and Sit-Down Restaurants Was Associated With High Body Mass Index in Non-Large Metropolitan Communities in Midwest. American Journal of Health Promotion, 32(1), 75–83. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117116660772
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