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Back in grade school, even if you didn’t do particularly well in a given subject, you could get an “E” for effort, assuming you tried hard enough. Unfortunately, when it comes to weight loss, “E” is about the only letter most of us ever see, and, after a while, that innocuous little vowel gets downright annoying. What does a person have to do to get an “S” (for strong or svelte) or at least a “T” (for more toned than last year)?

If your attempts at weight loss have met mostly with mixed and temporary successes, don’t despair! For one thing, the past is in the past. Demerits from previous terms do not carry over to the current one, and, happily, you can learn from your mistakes (see below). For another thing, if losing weight were simple and easy, everybody would have done it by now! Give yourself some credit for persisting in the face of adversity.

The fact is, it can be extremely challenging to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, particularly in this culture of conveniences, extremes and excesses. Plus, with so many complex diet and weight-loss programs out there (and so much conflicting advice), you can easily spend years working your way through them all without ever achieving an ideal balance or lasting results.

It’s kind of like ending up in a graduate-level organic chemistry class without ever having taken the intro course: Until you have some perspective and basic skills under your belt, not much is going to sink in except a deep, dunce-like sense of frustration.

To make sense of weight loss once and for all, it may be that what you really need is a high-altitude overview of what’s required and how it all fits together – and maybe a study guide to coach you through the core material.

In this article we’ll outline 16 essential lessons in four key topic areas – the ones you most need to master in order to manage your weight successfully. We won’t suggest that these simple lessons represent the be-all and end-all compendium of weight-loss knowledge. But we do contend that until you get these prerequisites nailed, all the more complex and detailed advice will be much harder to interpret and apply.

Learning From Mistakes

One of the best things you can do before embarking on any weight-loss program is to look closely at what has and hasn’t worked for you in the past. Choose to see your past experiences not as failures but as experiments – all of which are leading you in the direction of a very valuable discovery.

Perhaps you’ve tried adjusting your eating in several ways but have largely neglected exercise. Or you’ve embarked on a fitness plan without adjusting your diet and lifestyle to accommodate it. Or perhaps you’ve done all that stuff right but still found yourself repeatedly derailed by lack of focus or some other internal self-sabotaging mechanism. As long as you can look at this information objectively, it is useful to you.

When it comes right down to it, what’s missing in most weight-loss plans is balance and synergy. The key that leads folks to success is not any one magic bullet or secret weapon: It’s the artful, experimental combining of four separate-but-intertwining components:

· Lifestyle
· Psychology
· Nutrition
· Fitness

If you signed up for an actual class called Weight Loss 101, those are pretty much the topics you’d see covered on the syllabus, and that’s precisely what we’ll be covering here. So read up. Take notes if you like, and refer back to your personal experience whenever you can. There will be no pop quizzes, no midterm exams, no grades. But you can count on an intriguing research project (you), and – if you’re willing to complete the extra-credit study questions – some very rewarding homework.

Topic 1: Lifestyle

Seasoned weight-loss experts all agree that people who commit to making lasting changes to several aspects of their lives are the most successful in losing weight and keeping it off. Joe Decker knows this to be true. A few years ago he weighed 240 pounds. At 5 feet 8 inches, he had a body mass index of 36, which placed him in the obese category. One look at his life explained it all.

Joe, who was bartending in one of the wildest sections of New Orleans, subsisted on a steady diet of junk food and alcohol, living a party-centered life devoid of exercise or fresh-air activity. His sleeping patterns were downright self-abusive, his friends were all fellow partiers and his happiest moments were when he was either drunk or watching TV. As he describes it, “My life had no real meaning.”

One day, Joe woke up, looked at himself in the mirror and decided something had to change. Initially, he tried everything to lose weight – high-protein/low-carb diets, high-carb/low-protein diets, weight-loss medication, even a “grapefruit diet.” But nothing worked. “A few pounds would come off but then I’d gain back even more,” says Decker.

Eventually, it struck him that losing weight was a whole-life proposition. He dumped the idea of special diets and began focusing on just eating more wisely – lean proteins, good-quality fats, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables. As his nutrition improved, and his drinking subsided, he started feeling better and began introducing more regular, daily exercise.

A former college athlete, Joe found it humbling to begin so slowly – just walking a few laps around his block. But then his stamina and endurance increased and he started incorporating running, biking and strength training into his workout program.

As his strength and health improved, so did his motivation and commitment to a healthy lifestyle. He began feeling more athletic, more interested in being outdoors, less interested in the party life and more committed to treating himself well. He began pulling his passion out of mind-numbing entertainments and into health, fitness and competitive endurance sports. As he did, both his mind and body felt clearer.

Eventually, Decker geared up to working out six times a week, and found that this structure worked well for him. “There were some days I just wanted to be a couch potato and watch television,” he says. “But once I actually started my workout I’d always feel great afterwards.”

Over the course of six months, Decker lost nearly 60 pounds and his BMI dropped into the normal range. But the biggest change that occurred in Decker was his focus. He quit his bartending job, became a trainer and started helping others get in shape. His circle of friends and daily activities changed completely. He also began doing some serious soul searching.

By acknowledging his own “addictive personality” and rechanneling it into a different, healthier set of concerns, Decker eventually embarked on a course of extreme athletic endurance competitions that won him a title – “The World’s Fittest Man” – that would have been utterly unthinkable only a few years before.

Joe recently chronicled both his personal transformation and his practical advice to others in a book titled The World’s Fittest You: Four Weeks to Total Fitness. While it offers plenty of detailed eating and exercise guidance and emphasizes a quick-start four-week program, its core message concerns a process of gradual but comprehensive life change, beginning with a complete life inventory.

Decker recommends writing down what your life is like now: “Are you healthy?” he asks. “Are you happy with the way you look and feel? Are you satisfied with what you see when you look in the mirror? Are you happy with your job? Your professional life? Do you have friends and family you can talk to?”

This is precisely the line of inquiry that sparked Decker’s own transformation. Asking these larger questions made him face himself, he explains. “Once I did that, I knew I wanted to change, not just what I ate, but my whole lifestyle.”

Lifestyle: Study Guide Questions

1) Are you leading the life of a healthy, active person – a person you could admire? Do you have the interests, priorities and passions of a healthy person? What positive changes do you think might make the biggest difference?

2) Are you surrounding yourself with other healthy and motivated people? Do you have constructive relationships that encourage and inspire you, or limiting relationships that blunt you and hold you back?

3) Are you aware of any lifestyle habits or addictions (eating, drinking, overspending, watching TV, people-pleasing) that are absorbing your energy or holding you back? What things are taking up an excess of your time and focus?

4) Do you have a variety of fun, relaxing or exciting opportunities to move and use your body throughout the day and week? Are you interested in using and enjoying your body beyond the confines of the gym?

Topic 2: Psychology

To create the proper mindset for losing weight, you need to tap the power of positive thinking, says Howard Rankin, PhD, author of The TOPS Way to Lose Weight: Beyond Calories and Exercise. This means that you must define the deep motivation and reason you want to lose weight, whether it’s living to enjoy your grandchildren, feeling freer to express your true nature, or another priority. Most of us want to look better, of course, but underlying that desire is almost always some other, more essential motivation, such as wanting to feel more confident, more like our best self, etc.

Unfortunately, many people draw their commitment to weight loss from their deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction with themselves. While this feeling can initially feel like a powerful motivator, it can also easily degenerate into a paralyzing cycle of self-hatred and self-sabotage (see Resolutions Reconsidered).

Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with you, most weight-loss experts suggest, it is much more effective to let your motivation come from a sense of how much better your life experience could be if it came from a place of health, vitality and solid self-esteem. See your weight-loss goal as serving those aims, they say, rather than as an antidote to your current lack of acceptability.

If your temptation is to be self-punishing (in thought or deed), be aware of those aspects of your personality and seize every opportunity to be kind and compassionate instead. Rankin also emphasizes that because making large-scale life changes is so demanding, you are more likely to succeed if you start gradually and attempt to adjust only one behavior at a time. “In most cases, you’re setting yourself up for failure by trying to do everything at once,” he insists.

Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with you, it is much more effective to let your motivation come from a sense of how much better your life experience could be if it came from a place of health, vitality and solid self-esteem.

Rankin advises launching your plan with a relatively simple commitment, like cutting out dessert one week. The next week add some exercise, and the week after that make the switch from soft drinks to water. As you accumulate small successes and feel their impact on your energy and self-esteem, he suggests, it will become easier to undertake larger adjustments.

It will also feel easier if you don’t go it alone. When you make any kind of big shift, Rankin suggests, a support group of some kind can be invaluable. A support group, whether formal or informal, provides positive feedback and encouragement while anchoring you in your own commitment. It can also be a valuable source of information and positive role models.

It’s important to choose a group that suits your personality, needs and budget. Some commercial support organizations heavily market their own food products and encourage you to rely on them for weight loss. That can create a big financial burden and set up a reliance on processed foods. Seek out a group whose system and culture really appeals to you and that promotes a sustainable, sensible approach to weight loss.

Not a joiner? You might try an online support resource that emphasizes lifestyle changes and offers one-on-one guidance from a registered dietitian.

Many local hospitals and medical centers also offer structured weight-loss support groups. Your primary-care physician can refer you to an appropriate facility. If you’re not able to find an organized group, enlist close friends and family members who can help give you positive feedback and support.

Finally, keep in mind that your body and mind are linked! Both nutrition and fitness can have huge physiological impacts on your emotional and psychological well-being. Both affect the hormones responsible for communicating brain-body messages and for regulating metabolism.

Just as clearing away emotional issues can make it easier to begin eating right and exercising, it is not at all unusual for people to start exercising and eating better and suddenly find themselves more energized, optimistic and motivated overall!

Psychology: Study Guide Questions

1) Have you explored your motivations and values around losing weight and articulated or documented them in a clear, powerful way? Have you visualized and documented your ideal body and your life as a fit, healthy person?

2) Are you approaching weight loss from a positive perspective (the desire to reach your greatest potential and happiness as a person), or from a negative one (the assumption you are not “good enough” as you are, and that only by losing weight can you become “okay”)?

3) Are you aware of how certain aspects of your psychology (belief or value systems, fears, patterns of negative thinking, assumptions, etc.) might be playing a role in making or keeping you heavy? Have you established a protocol (e.g., counseling or EFT) for disassembling or dealing with them?

4) Have you developed a clear, realistic, gradual weight-loss plan – one that guides, encourages and rewards action but that also observes obstacles and adjusts for setbacks? Do you have a support group or guide to help you monitor progress and overcome hurdles?

Topic 3: Nutrition

One of the biggest mistakes people make in losing weight is approaching their eating habits as a diet. This implies a temporary change and also elicits all sorts of troubling connotations of temptation and denial.

It is far more useful to approach eating as a pleasant and positive “fueling” activity, the whole point of which is to provide you with the best energy and vitality possible. When you start thinking of eating right as a way of supporting your body’s natural health and weight-regulating systems – rather than merely as a way of limiting calories – nutrition becomes a lot more interesting. And the more you learn, the more empowered and motivated you’ll be to make good choices.

According to Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, a licensed nutritionist who conducts weight-loss classes and counseling at Nutritional Weight and Wellness in St. Paul, Minn., very few people understand that good nutrition makes losing weight far easier. “Until you understand the biochemistry of eating,” she explains, “the whole thing is completely mysterious and frustrating.”

If you restrict caloric intake but fail to properly manage your blood-sugar levels or to correct nutritionally related hormonal imbalances, Kvist explains, you may find that your body simply adjusts by metabolically slowing down.

It’s very common, Kvist points out, for people to blame themselves and their emotional weaknesses for eating behaviors that have their roots in biochemical imbalances. “They may not see that the bagel they are having for breakfast is setting them up for irresistible sugar cravings and feelings of depression in the afternoon, or that missing out on good nutrition at lunch is causing them to overeat at night.”

Biochemical and nutritional problems can also make it very difficult for people to lose weight. If you restrict caloric intake but fail to properly manage your blood-sugar levels or to correct nutritionally related hormonal imbalances, Kvist explains, you may find that your body simply adjusts by metabolically slowing down.

“Getting an appropriate balance of protein, carbs and fats is important,” Kvist notes, “but just as important is monitoring the nutritional character and quality of those macronutrients.” She points out that getting adequate essential fatty acids is necessary to support thermogenesis – your body’s ability to burn fuel for warmth. Getting a good supply of amino acids is crucial to neurotransmitter production, which in turn affects both mood and energy. Eating in a way that supports consistent blood sugar levels helps you reduce cravings and sustain activity.

But while many people can intuitively accept that getting adequate nutrition is essential to weight loss, far fewer understand the nutritional principles involved. “It’s complex,” says Kvist, “because our bodies are complex. But once you do know this stuff, it’s incredibly empowering and liberating. I’ve been teaching nutrition and weight loss for 20 years, and I never cease to be amazed at the powerful breakthroughs people have when they finally see how their bodies process the food they eat.”

Striving for good variety and high quality in your food choices (freshness, wholeness, healthy preparation) is far more important than achieving some “perfect” mathematical ratio of carbs, fats and proteins, says Kvist. Still, carbs (from fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains) are critical for energy. Proteins (from eggs, meats, dairy, legumes and nuts) are essential for building and maintaining lean muscle. Fats (naturally occurring and added in the form of healthy oils) are crucial for satisfying hunger and supporting a variety of important biochemical operations – including some, like thermogenesis, that are key to losing weight!

Emphasizing whole foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, will make weight loss easier.

Emphasizing whole foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, will make weight loss easier for a variety of reasons. First, these foods have relatively “low energy density,” which means they’re high in water and don’t contain many calories. You can eat quite a lot of them to help satisfy your hunger. This helps you avoid overeating more calorie-dense foods.

You also need the nutrients, phytochemicals and fiber from whole fruits and vegetables to stay healthy, to feel energetic and keep your digestion working properly. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can also facilitate weight loss and keep thirst-driven “phantom” cravings at bay.

In addition to making smart and healthy food choices, of course, you also need to consider how much you eat. Eating smaller meals and adding two or three small snacks to satisfy cravings and energy needs can help you reduce your desire for large portions. Try tracking your intake in a food journal. You will probably note that as your nutritional health improves, your desire to overeat will also naturally diminish.

Nutrition: Study Guide Questions

1) Have you abandoned the “diet mentality” in favor of a sustainable commitment to healthy eating for life? Have you created a plan that incorporates gradual, consistent eating improvements versus dramatic, overnight changes?

2) Have you educated yourself about nutrition and built a solid eating plan around a variety of fresh, whole nutritious foods you enjoy? Have you included a good balance of healthy proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fiber? Have you stocked your visible shelves with healthy foods?

3) Have you planned your food intake and broken it into several small meals a day? Have you ensured that you are eating enough, and often enough, to fuel your activity demands and athletic goals while minimizing cravings and hunger? Are you drinking enough water, and getting enough nutrients and fiber?

4) Have you tracked your food intake in a journal and taken note of your portion sizes and your eating schedule? Have you grown aware of any undermining or unconscious eating patterns (night or car snacking, meal skipping, sugar and carb addictions, etc.) and how they affect your energy levels and well-being?

Topic 4: Fitness

No weight-loss program is complete without an adequate fitness plan. Fitness helps you burn lots of calories and develop lean muscle mass. Moderate exercise builds immunity and keeps you healthier overall. It gives you energy, balances blood-sugar levels and helps you build self-esteem. And one of the best parts about improving your fitness is that it makes losing weight easier and more enjoyable overall. A recent study by Consumer Reports found that eight out of 10 people who succeeded in losing weight listed exercising three or more times per week as their No. 1 strategy.

How much exercise do you need to lose weight? That depends in part on what you are eating. But the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), one of the leading fitness research organizfations in the country, generally recommends at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise five times per week.

You should also include a balance of strength training and flexibility work in your overall regimen. If it feels overwhelming to undertake all three at once, start with what appeals to you and what you can do. Plan to periodically review and expand your fitness program as you get stronger, more confident and more motivated. Which you will!

This brings us to an important and paradoxical point: You may find that you have far more success losing weight when you stop thinking about exercise as a way to lose weight and instead get serious about the process of becoming fit.

“Educate yourself about how your body works and how you can help it work better.”

“Instead of thinking about fat, how fat you are, how much fat you want to lose, and identifying yourself as a fat person,” advises Sally Edwards, a leading fitness expert and heart-rate training advocate, “start thinking about your health and fitness. Instead of doing things that remind you of how fat you are, start doing things that help you think about how fit you can become. Educate yourself about how your body works and how you can help it work better.”

Don’t be afraid to seek help in designing a fitness routine. If you don’t enjoy exercising on your own, find a training group or group activity that will keep you motivated. Most cities have local running and walking clubs. (Check out for more information about clubs in your area.) Your local fitness center may have group activities ranging from swimming to bike riding to basketball.

Most experts recommend monitoring your progress in a weekly journal or fitness log, noting when you worked out, how long, what you did, plus changes in your diet and any weight you may have lost. But don’t get obsessive about weighing yourself all the time. Instead, start paying closer attention to how your body feels and to the changes taking shape beneath the surface.

Be ready to adjust and fine-tune your program as you go along (for more on heart-rate training for weight loss, see “A Better Way to Burn Fat“), and remember that even if you do everything right, your weight is likely to fluctuate up and down by a few pounds on a regular basis.

As you put on muscle and lose fat, you will see and feel a positive difference. And if you don’t? More than likely something is missing: It could be a lifestyle or psychological thing, a food or nutrition component, or some combination of all of the above.

You might start by running through this article’s study guides, asking yourself questions and looking for things you may have missed. You might also decide you could use some outside help. Consulting an expert in any of the above areas can help illuminate blind spots, endow you with important skills and pull you out of downward spirals.

Never be shy about asking for help and support. It beats taking an incomplete for the semester (or forever). In fact, come to think of it, that’s one effort that just might net you a big, gold star.

Fitness Study Guide Questions

1) Have you decided on a balanced workout or activity program that includes cardio, strength and flexibility?

2) Have you established a realistic workout schedule in keeping with your goals and made this time “sacred” in your calendar?

3) Have you obtained the educational materials, expertise, gear and support you require (books, trainer, journal, shoes, heart-rate monitor, etc.)?

4) Have you integrated fitness goals and fitness-maintenance activities into your life (changing routine, reading about fitness, doing events, active entertainments, etc.)?

Key “Weight Loss 101” Course Concepts

1. Establish a realistic goal: Think about what you want to achieve and why. Set a positive-minded, health-and-fitness-oriented goal that you know you can accomplish. Be specific and realistic.

2. Find a support system: Surround yourself with people who can help you achieve your weight-loss goal, whether that’s a formal support group, a class, one-on-one counseling or your friends and family.

3. Think positively: Resist destructive thinking and put your energy toward proactive steps that will take you to your goal. Stop thinking of yourself as fat, and start focusing on how fit you can become.

4. Use nutrition as an ally: Emphasize good nutrition and educate yourself about how nutrition enables your body to control cravings and regulate its weight through healthy metabolism. Remember that you need good nutrition in order to exercise effectively.

5. Find time for fitness: Keep in mind that fitness isn’t just about burning calories: It’s a fundamental component of a synergetic, effective weight-loss strategy and an active, healthy lifestyle.

6. Watch for positive change: But don’t get hung up on the scale. The first changes may be seen and felt elsewhere!

7. Get help when you need it: If you aren’t making progress, or if you’re feeling bogged down and confused, get some expert help!

Common Weight Loss Mistakes

1. Rewarding yourself with food. Food should not be used as a reward or to celebrate weight loss. Instead, choose a non-food item such as a book, CD, movie or massage.

2. Skipping Breakfast. When you skip breakfast you’re more likely to overeat at the next meal. If you’re in a rush in the morning, grab a healthy breakfast bar or yogurt.

3. Sneaking or hiding food. If you’re sneaking food, you’re ashamed or embarrassed about your eating habits. Instead, identify what emotions trigger you to eat. (See “5 Eating Patterns to Avoid” strategies to avoid secret snacking, mindless munching, and more.)

4. Eating on the run. If you’re standing in the kitchen or eating in front of the TV rather than sitting at the table, you’re more likely to overeat.

5. Missing Workouts. When you skip a scheduled workout, you’re getting out of your routine. If you can’t make it to the gym, climb stairs at your office on your lunch break or do crunches and pushups while watching TV.

6. Using exercise to justify bingeing. A tough workout doesn’t license you to go home and snarf a hot fudge sundae. Instead, eat a small, healthy snack to refuel your body and feel good about your fitness achievement.

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