If you've lost weight and want to maintain it without being miserable from difficult restrictions or counting every calorie, the normal life you lived prior cannot be your normal life after. Blending new habits into your old routine and life is crucial. For me at least, this was the fun part. I could enjoy food and life in my new leaner and confident body. The 'old' normal wasn't making you happy anyways, if it were, you wouldn't have worked so hard to change!
When you diet, you often ban or limit foods that are high in calories and carbohydrates. Whether you've done an elimination type diet, like Whole30, counted calories or used a restrictive diet; the results you got, might seem to be from that specific way of eating, but that's not always the case.
What we don't often realize is that by following a diet, no matter what it's labeled, you end up limiting or restricting similar foods, often those that are empty calories, high refined carbohydrates, processed and low quality, and eating more real, whole foods.
It's not always limiting calories, certain ingredients or entire groups of food that work, but rather helping you choose more nutrient dense, higher quality foods. You might consider dairy as a whole, but low quality and processed cheese is much different than an aged, grass fed, raw cheddar. You're reaction, and its effect on your body, can be completely different between the two.
These low quality foods wreak havoc on our guts, cause inflammation, increase water retention/bloating, worsen cravings and cause hormone imbalance and overeating, which all effect our weight. So by limiting them in some way, either restricting whole food groups or limiting calories, you will experience results.
Consider any diet, you'd most likely be limiting these foods:
- Fried foods
- Sweets/dessert/baked goods
What happens when you start adding any of these foods back into your diet once your 'diet' is over? You crave them more, don't feel satisfied after a small portion (and overeat) and slowly revert back to your old habits.
In maintenance many people, including me early on, try to blend these foods with lower calorie healthy foods; it's hard to admit that foods that make us feel so good while eating them (that we enjoy so much), are detrimental to our health, wellbeing and maintenance success. We often use the 80/20 rule mentality, where 20% of your diet is non-diet favorites, but for successful maintenance that 20% can't be a free for all. A calorie isn't just a calorie.
It makes sense why most people who lose weight, gain it back (often even more) within 1-3 years. It's difficult to achieve balance with processed and low quality foods in your diet.
Motivation and staying on track is another area where diets shine and maintenance doesn't. When you have consistent rewards like feeling amazing, weight loss each week, clothes fitting looser and a diet end date, it's easier to stay on track for that short period. While in maintenance, there aren't consistent rewards, you don't know exactly how to eat or how much and it's difficult to sustain it for...life.
To maintain weight loss and actually enjoy life and food, you have to think about food differently. What's helped me the most has been structure; not rules or banned 'bad' foods or entire food groups. Rather than isolating a type of food, or food group labeled 'bad', I categorize foods based on quality and nourishment.
My advantage, or disadvantage however you look at it, is that I have a negative reaction to all low quality food; I get headaches, breakouts, terrible sleep, bloating, moodiness, increased cravings and really bad heart burn (like really bad). (This used to be my baseline before changing my lifestyle, and now only returns when I eat that kind of food, even a little.) I find that most people experience this in some form once they 'eat clean' for a while, then eat processed or low quality food from the food store, fast food chains or restaurants; they feel awful afterwards.
It's not a surprise that the healthiest diets in the world, including the Mediterranean diet, have clear health and preventive benefits but are also great for maintaining an ideal weight. These diets are based on fresh, local, seasonal and real food with virtually no processed food or refined carbohydrates.
Ok, so processed, low quality foods are bad and real food is good (in general but especially for maintenance). How do you actually eat this way in normal life and enjoy it? I'll list some tips that help me below!
- Assess your kitchen and let go. How many items in your pantry, cabinets and fridge are processed and low quality (even if they seem healthy)? Be honest! Clean your house from processed foods; if it has a label longer than the ingredients it should be made with, get rid of it. If there's sugar/sweetener, definitely get rid of it. Not having these foods in your house will help you explore healthier foods and stay on track. Restock with a variety of whole foods, or minimally processed foods if needed.
Sometimes I'll realize we've gotten a little lax by keeping indulgences in the house; various (organic) higher calorie, non nutritious, minimally processed foods like chips, dips, chocolate or small treats. These aren't bad once in a while but keeping them around makes us want them more frequently, which we try to avoid. No matter where you are in dieting or maintenance, it helps to assess your pantry/fridge every so often. When I realize we've been indulging more regularly, it's easier to stop it right then and there, before it becomes a bigger issue.
- Make a list of your favorite dinners. Then search for healthier, real food versions. One trick I've used since the beginning is 'dilution' where I eat the same meals but add as many vegetables as I can, therefore diluting the calories and carbohydrates in the volume you eat. Things like pasta, pizza and even nachos can be part of a healthy maintenance diet when lots of veggies are added like kale, spinach, zucchini, butternut squash, roasted red peppers, onions, garlic, herbs, etc.
- Have one vegetarian day per week. Rely on beans, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables for your meals and snacks.
- Try new recipes! There are endless options out there from amazing food bloggers and magazines. Add in one new recipe per week.
- Allow smart indulgences when it's really wanted, but not everyday. If you're a chocolate lover like me, find a high quality chocolate bar with little sugar (it's rich and satisfying, a little goes a long way + it's more expensive so you want to make it last!), focus on real food treats that highlight fruits, dips made with greek yogurt and spices or plant based ingredients (hummus) and baked/sautéed instead of deep fried.
- When at a social gathering, bring delicious, real food options that you and everyone else can enjoy. It helps to spend time away from the kitchen/food serving area and focus on socializing rather than eating.
- If dining out, try to choose a place that has a great real food, local/farm to table menu, or one that has some delicious looking dishes made with mostly real food.
- Remember it's ok to indulge, perfection isn't the goal. Our approach is 5-6 days of the week are home made, real food meals, with 1-2 treats/week if that, the weekends are less structured with less home made foods that are higher in calories.
I'd love to hear from you below! Do you find maintenance difficult? What throws you off track?