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Congratulations! You did it! You worked hard, ate well and shed some serious pounds. Anyone who’s traveled down the weight-loss path knows that’s no easy feat. They also know it’s only half the battle. Now the goal is to keep those pounds off for good.

Research suggests that without a thoughtful maintenance plan, the vast majority of “big losers” find themselves back where they started in relatively short order. They revert to old habits, get derailed by stress or life changes, or lose weight too rapidly, disrupting their metabolism and making their losses nearly impossible to maintain. A 2010 Penn State College of Medicine study, for example, found that nearly 83 percent of people regain most, if not all, of it within a year. Other studies have shown that as many as 95 percent of people who lost 10 percent or more of their body weight regain a significant amount of weight in five years.

There are plenty of success stories, however. Sue Thompson, MS, a clinical psychologist and motivational speaker in Wilmington, Del., lost 85 pounds and has kept almost all of it off since 2007. “It took me two years to lose the weight,” she recalls, “then I gained 20 back and had to work like crazy to lose 10 of that.”

It helps to remember that hitting your goal weight isn’t the finish line, Thompson explains. You don’t stop the healthy habits once you see that magic number on the scale. That would be like someone quitting smoking, then celebrating by buying a pack of cigarettes. “To succeed, you gather your strategies and make them so much a part of your life that eventually you don’t even think about them,” she says.

You’re ahead of the game if you lost weight slowly and in a healthy manner, explains Julie Starkel, MS, MBA, RD, a functional-medicine nutritionist and registered dietitian at Green Lake Nutrition in Seattle.

Ideally, you should lose no more than 5 percent of your body weight in three months, Starkel says. Why? Your body has a “set point,” the weight at which all your organs and body systems (including your metabolism) function at their best.

The set point serves an evolutionary purpose: It’s the body’s way of monitoring your fat stores for survival. Trouble is, the set point doesn’t distinguish between dieting and starvation. Don’t worry: It will adjust slowly as you lose weight. “But if you lose weight too rapidly, your set point can’t keep up,” she says, “so you’ll have to work harder to maintain the weight loss while your body adjusts.”

Sometimes it can take a full year for your body’s set point to catch up to your weight loss, Starkel adds. “So if you dropped weight fast, you’ll have to be much more diligent than someone who lost weight slowly.”

Either way, “you can up your odds of long-term success by taking care of yourself and paying attention to a few key factors,” explains Jean Fain, LICSW, MSW, author of The Self-Compassion Diet (Sounds True, 2010). Here are five ways to make your weight-loss success a lasting one.

1. Be Patient With the New You

“Weight loss delivers all kinds of physical, mental and emotional benefits, but the reality of a sizable weight loss is often very different than the fantasy,” says Fain. “Like everything else in life, it’s a mixed bag.” For instance, it might take some time to adjust emotionally to what you’re seeing in the mirror. Shopping for clothes, eating in public or encountering old friends who haven’t seen the “new” you may spark anxiety for some people.

“It’s very important to cultivate self-compassion,” Fain says. If you feel anxious about going out and socializing in your new, improved body, remind yourself that “you’ve found your way to a healthy weight, and now you’re finding out how to get comfortable in your own skin,” she adds. During this identity shift, show yourself the same level of care and compassion you would show a best friend who’s going through a big life change. (For more advice on adjusting your sense of identity as you lose unwanted weight, read “Your Body, Reframed.”)

2. Avoid Triggers

While you were losing all that weight, you may have consciously avoided certain situations, such as eating out with friends. Be mindful that you might be able to indulge once in a while now, “but your old triggers are probably still triggers,” Starkel says. “It’s sad, but many of my clients have had to change friends or say goodbye to activities they once loved.”

Starkel encourages her clients to assert themselves and offer alternatives to these sorts of triggering situations. “I had one client who was in a cupcake-decorating group. After she lost 50 pounds, she realized she was no longer able to attend cupcake-decorating parties without backsliding. So she convinced her friends to try jewelry-making instead.”

Other triggers can include everything from emotional stress and travel to life changes such as getting married, moving or having a baby. “Some people have difficulty embracing change and enjoy comforting themselves by gorging on previously forbidden foods,” notes Aileen McCabe-Maucher, RN, MSW, LCSW, author of The Inner Peace Diet (Alpha, 2008).

She’s seen journaling exercises help many of her clients maintain their weight loss. “I recommend journaling about the ‘rewards’ you have received by being overweight or by overeating,” she says. “Next, write about the pain that being overweight has caused you.”

McCabe-Maucher argues that seeing these pros and cons in writing is enough to keep many of her clients on the path to good health. “It can be difficult to acknowledge that the source of your pain could also bring you pleasure,” she says. “But in order for you to make permanent changes, you have to realize that the pain of being overweight is greater than the pleasure derived from overeating unhealthy foods.”

If you need help tuning in to your triggers and working through the psychological aspects of weight-loss maintenance, seek support from a trained therapist or support group. Some people who struggle with weight problems have underlying issues, such as past abuse, grief or unresolved anxiety. And no amount of weight loss will, on its own, resolve those problems.

“I encourage everyone to make an appointment with his or her counselor or nutritionist every quarter, just to check in and maintain that support and accountability,” says Starkel.

3. Focus on Protein and Fiber

Even if you have moved beyond restricting your intake of certain foods, it’s important to remain diligent about nutrition and balance, says Ann Kulze, MD, author of Eat Right for Life (Wellness Council of America, 2010). The key here is making sure you’re eating enough whole, unprocessed foods. Kulze emphasizes the importance of protein and fiber, because these foods quiet the “hunger-generating” hormones in your body.

“We think fiber is particularly important, especially over time, in regulating appetite, because it helps maintain insulin sensitivity, which is critical for maintaining the activity and function of the body’s chief appetite-quieting hormone, leptin,” says Kulze. Additionally, fiber helps prevent that glucose spike and fall that leads many people to overeat. Good sources of fiber include all beans, vegetables and fruits (especially berries), sweet peas, apples, pumpkin, cauliflower, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, okra and squash.

“Protein is also essential, because it provides more prolonged satiety relative to carbs and fats,” Kulze adds. She recommends including at least 15 grams of lean protein with every meal, starting at breakfast. Some healthy protein choices include fish, shellfish, poultry, wild game, whole soy foods, eggs, nuts, seeds and Greek-style yogurt.

4. Eat Intuitively

Processed foods, desserts and alcohol aren’t totally off-limits as you work to maintain your weight, but Starkel counsels moderation and suggests that you pay attention to how your body feels before, during and after consuming them. This is called intuitive eating, and it’s a powerful tool in maintaining a healthy weight.

“The goal is to pause and reflect on how you feel with as much kindness and as little judgment as humanly possible,” Fain says. Are you enjoying that glass of wine, or are you just drinking it mindlessly because there’s an open box of chardonnay in the fridge? Are sweets fulfilling a physical craving, or an emotional one — for comfort, relaxation, companionship or relief from anxiety?

“Essentially, intuitive eating involves listening to your body, noting the signals you get from your mind, your stomach, and being fully present while you eat,” Starkel explains. That means avoiding distractions such as the television or computer during meal times. Chew slowly. Taste it. Enjoy it. “Eating should be an activity in and of itself,” she says. “Even if you don’t pray, I recommend starting each meal by being thankful for the food in front of you. Consider where it came from and what it will do for your body.” This simple act, she says, will make you more aware of what you’re eating over time. For more on this topic, read “Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss.”

5. Muscle Up

Of course, even all these strategies combined aren’t going to be able to offset a sedentary lifestyle. To make your weight loss permanent, you have to keep up an exercise routine that you enjoy. If you slow down, so will your body’s metabolism.

Your body’s daily caloric requirement is determined in part by how much you move every day. When you become inactive, you burn fewer calories throughout the day, and your metabolism responds by slowing down. Low levels of daily physical activity can also lead to illness and depression, which further sap your energy. But the biggest impact exercise has on your weight-maintenance efforts has less to do with calories than with fitness.

“Your ability to maintain weight loss is closely related to your level of fitness,” explains Tom Nikkola, CPT, CISSN, nutrition and weight-loss program manager at Life Time Fitness. Fit people have lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone that can trigger overeating and cause your body to store fat more readily) and higher levels of growth hormone (which builds muscle and increases your metabolism).

“More muscle and better cardiovascular fitness also make moving feel like less of an effort,” Nikkola says. As your fitness improves, you feel more comfortable taking part in challenging activities, which makes your body even more fit.

Also noteworthy: Being fit improves sleep quality, which helps you maintain a healthy weight. “Studies show those who lack sleep are more stressed and have trouble controlling blood sugar, which is important for fat burning,” he says.

The types of exercise you choose can also influence your weight-loss maintenance, experts emphasize. Cardio and interval training are helpful, no doubt, but you should also lift weights if you want to keep your metabolic rate high and build sleek muscle. (Read “Simplicity Complex” for a workout that combines cardio, interval and strength work.)

Numerous studies published in scientific journals worldwide demonstrate that resistance training alters your hormonal environment in a way that promotes weight maintenance. In particular, weight training helps regulate the hormones leptin and insulin, two key players when it comes to appetite, energy expenditure and weight control.

If at First You Don’t Succeed . . .

Don’t worry. It can take some practice before you find the right mind-food-exercise balance to maintain your weight loss, Starkel notes. Don’t fret if you gain a couple of pounds, she says — stress and dieting can compound the problem and lead to further weight gain. Instead, she suggests increasing exercise and cutting down on grain-based and processed carbs. Make small adjustments and consult with a certified nutritionist, dietitian, or personal trainer for guidance.

If, on the other hand, you find that you’re gaining weight precipitously, or that you’re no longer able to keep healthy weight on, consult with a healthcare professional to rule out a medical condition.

Positive change is not a quick, linear process, Fain adds. Be patient with yourself and remind yourself frequently of all the benefits you’re enjoying from being leaner. Eventually, you won’t have to think about maintenance as much as you do now. A healthy lifestyle will become your new normal.

This article originally appeared as “Keep the Weight Off!” in the May 2012 issue of Experience Life.

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