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I’ve lost the weight, now can I ditch the diet?

THE QUESTION

I have recently lost weight using the Weight Watchers points program. What happens when I stop obsessively counting points? How do I make that kind of diet change stick long-term? Will I forever have to stick with the plan, or will my healthier eating habits become ingrained? It seems like after restriction, the obvious temptation is to binge, and then yo-yo.

THE ANSWER

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As a registered dietitian in private practice, I've spent my career helping clients lose weight and keep it off. My philosophy has always been, "the things you do to shed excess pounds have to be the very same things you do to keep them off." You can't simply start eating more food – or increasing your daily Weight Watchers points – once you reach your weight goal (unless, of course, you ramp up the exercise). If you do, you will inevitably regain some of the weight you lost.

That's why it's so important that the food plan that anyone follows to lose weight is a realistic and sustainable one. It should be a plan that's healthy, balanced and relatively easy to stick to long-term. Can you really see yourself drinking protein shakes at breakfast, lunch and dinner for years to come? Or forgoing bread, pasta and pizza for the rest of your life? (Of course, I know Weight Watchers does not espouse these practices.)

The things you do to successfully lose weight include not only the foods and portion sizes you eat, but also the framework by which you build your meals and snacks. Whether that framework involves counting points, tallying calories, balancing protein and carbohydrate at meals or measuring portions, you will need to continue to do so, at least to some extent, to help maintain your new healthy weight.

Still, you shouldn't have to do so "obsessively." Over time, you get into a groove that helps you stick to your plan, even after you've lost the weight. You build a repertoire of healthy meals and snacks that meet your allowed number of points or calories, which then become part of your routine. With practice, you come to know what and how much to eat at meals without counting points or measuring foods like you did early on. It gets easier.

New habits – eating smaller portions, reading nutrition labels, being assertive with food pushers, etc. – also start to become ingrained the longer you practise them. Your stomach and eyes get used to eating less food too, making it easier to stick to your plan for the long haul. If your diet is too restrictive in calories, however, the temptation to binge will be large, especially when hunger hits.

Likewise, if you completely ban your favourite treats while losing weight, you'll likely crave them. When you reach your goal, you might be tempted to treat yourself to the decadent dessert or burger and fries you haven't enjoyed for months on end. And that's okay. The problem is that you didn't learn how to integrate these foods into your new diet on an occasional basis. All-or-nothing thinking is a recipe for trouble.

So yes, maintaining your weight loss requires sticking to your plan 80 per cent of the time, just like you did while losing weight. And to help you do that you'll need to keep your points system (or daily calorie target) in mind and recalibrate from time to time. It's about accountability.

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Remember that old habits can easily creep back, making weight regain a strong possibility. Portion sizes become a little bigger, a few too many "extras" sneak in, you stray from the plan on weekends, motivation wanes for the gym, and so on. It's the reality, so it's best to plan for it.

Diet slip-ups will be less likely to occur, or certainly far less likely to accumulate, if you have an accountability system in place. To stay accountable and on track you might decide to count food points a few days each week, especially on weekends. Or, you can use your smartphone to track calories, or write in a food journal for the first week of every month. Attending weekly or monthly Weight Watchers meetings can also help.

It's also important to weigh yourself once a week. Frequent weighing provides an early warning system. It allows you to catch small increases in weight very quickly and take corrective action to prevent further weight gain.

Do whatever works for you, but do something. Being accountable provides focus and motivation, keys to getting results. You've come too far – and put in too much effort – to lose focus once you have achieved your weight goal.

Keep your eye on the ultimate prize: maintaining your weight loss.

6 tips from expert 'losers'

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The National Weight Control Registry, established in 1994, is the largest prospective investigation of long-term successful weight-loss maintenance, tracking more than 10,000 individuals who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for long periods of time. Researchers have learned that the following strategies have helped them succeed (they may not sound sexy but they've worked for thousands of people):

Eat breakfast

Nearly 80 per cent of study participants reported eating breakfast every day of the week. People who eat breakfast on a regular basis are more likely to have a structured eating plan throughout the day and are less likely to snack on empty-calorie foods.

Include healthy snacks

Instead of eating only two or three big meals, weight-loss registrants eat more often. Spreading out their food keeps their stomach always partly full and prevents overeating at the next meal. Eat three meals plus between-meal snacks to prevent hunger.

Keep tempting foods out of the house

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It sounds so simple, yet that's what 85 per cent of weight-loss registrants reported doing to stick to their weight-maintenance diet. Almost all say they stock their kitchen with plenty of healthy foods and about one-third say they eat in restaurants less often.

Don't deprive yourself

People in the National Weight Control Registry don't give up their favourite foods. They continue to enjoy them, but not as often as they did when they were overweight. Plan for a treat once a week, during weight loss and maintenance.

Exercise daily

The majority of participants (91 per cent) exercise regularly to maintain their weight loss. Most combine brisk walking with another type of planned exercise such as cardio classes, biking or swimming. Regular exercise burns calories and motivates you to make wise food choices.

Step on the scale

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To succeed at weight maintenance, 75 per cent of participants weigh themselves at least once a week, even after years of maintaining their loss. Doing so allows them to catch small weight gains and prevent them from accumulating.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel.

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