Reaching your weight loss goal isn’t *always* the end of the weight loss journey: Yo-yo dieting or weight cycling (losing weight only to gain it back), can be a frustrating reality. It happens: Your job gets stressful, you have trouble finding time to work out, a vacation really sets you back.
But our mentality surrounding weight loss can also be problematic. It's easy to think a diet is something to go on and then get off as quickly as possible, says Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., founding director of the University of Pittsburgh's Weight Management Center. "But lasting weight loss requires making lifestyle changes that will work long-term." (See: 6 Ways to Make Your Health Transformation Last.)
And yo-yo dieting has serious setbacks which can make meeting your health goals more difficult. "Repeated crash dieting increases metabolic hormones, such as insulin, and elevates levels of sex hormones, including estrogen," says Andrea Pennington, M.D., author of The Pennington Plan for Weight Success. "These changes cause you to start putting on weight around your middle, which research has linked to insulin resistance, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease."
Repeatedly beating your body down with endless hours of steady-state cardio and low-calorie and low-fat diets? That can lead to metabolic damage. (Working with a professional can help you realign yourself hormonally, metabolically, and behaviorally, experts say.)
If you're consistently fluctuating between weights, your confidence can also take a hit. "The more times you go through the gain-lose-gain cycle, the less convinced you become that you can break free from the constant ups and downs," says Keri Gans, R.D., a dietitian in New York City. "No one wants to diet forever; it's hard work."
So how can you stop yo-yo dieting and settle in on a healthy weight that works for you and *all* of your health goals for life? To avoid regaining, follow these tips.
Make a List of Restorative Activities
You've got a looming deadline at work, your in-laws are coming to town, the house is a mess. Before you know it, you've demolished an entire bag of chips while freaking out over your to-do list. "Stress eating can quickly turn into a binge: We don't register what we're munching on because the food's going down so fast," says Martin Binks, Ph.D., an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Texas Tech University. Instead of reaching for an unhealthy snack, make a list of other calming strategies (going on a run, meditating, curling up with a book), Binks suggests. When you feel overwhelmed? Consult your list and pick out something you can do in the next 10 minutes. (Related: 20 Simple Stress Relief Techniques)
Set a New Goal
There will always be a reunion, wedding, or vacation you want to look and feel your best for. But rather than keeping the pounds off just long enough for an event, think about rewarding long-term achievements (and book these spa treatments to try before a special event instead). Maybe you want to train for your first half-marathon or get in shape to hike the Grand Canyon. Setting a big new goal each time you check one off your list will keep you headed in the right direction.
Focus on the Positives
Focusing solely on calories in and calories out can make it hard to stick to your plan if you aren't seeing results. "Even if you're doing everything right, your weight can fluctuate based on the time of day or how hydrated you are," says Evelyn Tribole, R.D., coauthor of Intuitive Eating. In fact, research shows that women who fixate on counting calories and restricting their food intake report more stress and have higher levels of cortisol, which is linked to overeating. (FYI, that's just one of 6 Sneaky Reasons You're Not Losing Weight.) "Instead of obsessing about every morsel, think about how eating right and exercising make you feel," Tribole says. "Do you have more energy? Are you able to keep up with your kids?" If you take the time to notice the positive effects of each healthy behavior—whether it's pushing away from the table before you clean your plate or biking for 30 minutes a day—it's easier to motivate yourself to stay on track.
Join a Digital Weight Loss Community
Studies show that tracking what you eat every day can help you lose up to twice as much weight as people who wing it. (See: Why Food Journals Are the Weight-Loss Tool That Still Works) But having others along for the ride can keep you accountable. In fact, joining an online support group could help you finally meet your goals. Your online squad will provide you with the support you need to stay on track.
Exercise Harder on the Days You Want to Quit
Instead of skipping your workout when you're feeling less than inspired, get over the hump by intensifying your efforts. "Pushing yourself a bit harder than usual shows that you can take on and tackle tough challenges, which boosts your confidence," says Christina R. Johnson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology at Cornell College in Iowa. The more pumped you are, the easier it is to bounce back from inevitable setbacks and plateaus. The next time you're dragging, partner with a faster friend for your usual four-mile run or opt for the advanced yoga class rather than the intermediate one.
Turn to a Mentor
Teaming up with someone who has already met their health goals can be useful, says Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., author of The Beck Diet Solution. "A mentor can empathize, help you navigate potential pitfalls, and remind you of how good it feels to be in control of your body," Beck says. Find a friend who fits the bill, follow hashtags to connect with others on social media, or join a group IRL.
Clean Up Your Kitchen
It might sound surprising but a messy house can interfere with your efforts to make healthy choices, says Peter Walsh, an organizational expert and author of It's All Too Much. Plus, "an overflowing pantry or fridge makes it more likely that at mealtime you'll opt for takeout or packaged food instead of digging around to see if you have healthy ingredients to cook," Walsh explains. So clear the counters (so you have no excuse not to meal prep!) or clean out and restock your pantry and fridge with good-for-you picks—fruits, vegetables, lean meats, soups, and whole grains. It's simple to whip up a quick, satisfying dinner when you know you've got tasty foods on hand. (Related: I Tried Marie Kondo's Tidying Up Method—and It Had a Serious Impact On My Happiness)
Consider a New ‘Healthy’
Find yourself stuck at a certain weight for more than a month? It could be that you're fighting an unnecessary battle. "You may want to be 130 pounds, but if you're doing everything you can—watching portions and exercising—it may not be right for your body," Gans says. Check in with other measures of health: Do you feel stronger? Happier? Are you sleeping more soundly? All of these can be good indicators that you’re right where you should be. (Read: How You'll Know When You've Reached Your Goal Weight)