Mind and Body

These 6 “micro-behaviors” can help your diet stick

Even tiny tricks make a big difference, according to a new study.

Female bare feet with weight scale, top view

As hard is it is to start dieting, sticking to a weight loss plan can feel even more difficult. But by studying the "micro-behaviors" of successful dieters, scientists have hit on six tricks that could help more of us lose weight and develop healthier habits that last.

The six tips are described in a paper published Thursday in the journal Obesity (the paper was funded in part by Weight Watchers, a weight-loss program). The study looked at the habits of 4,786 "WW" (formerly known as Weight Watchers) participants who were able to shed at least 20 pounds, (they actually shed about 54 pounds on average) since they began their programs. The successful dieters had also maintained their weight loss for an average of 3.3 years. To hit on what the successful dieters did differently, their behavior was compared to a control group of over 500 people who did not manage to lose or maintain so much weight.

Here are the six behaviors that made the difference:

  1. Making low-calorie foods accessible
  2. Setting daily goals like food intake
  3. Recording their intake each day
  4. Measuring foods
  5. Recalling their past successes
  6. Keeping a good attitude even when they regained a bit of weight

The study doesn't reveal how large a role each of these individual tricks play in dieting success, but it does hint at a weight-loss roadmap that anyone could follow.

"Focus on building these skills first. The more these skills are practiced, the more they become habitual," Suzanne Phelan, the study's first author and professor at the California Polytechnic State University, tells Inverse.

Diet and exercise "micro-habits"

The results emphasize the role that habit-building plays in successful weight loss — especially when it comes to healthy eating.

Those who kept their weight down reported significantly higher "habit strength scores," which were rated on a scale of 1 (not a habit at all) to 7 (something done routinely, or automatically). For healthy eating, those who kept weight off had habit strength scores of 5.3 on average, whereas those who didn't keep weight off had habit-strength scores of 3.2.

Several factors seemed to underpin a healthy eating habit: one of them was a higher level of automaticity compared to the control group. Automaticity is the idea that you don't even have to think about something, you just do it naturally.

That begs the question: How do you make healthy eating something you just do? Some of the strategies participants in this study used include things like leaving healthy foods around, opting for low-calorie foods to start with, and eating more servings of fruits and vegetables.

"This is a hopeful message," Phelan says. "Over time, healthy eating behaviors may become progressively easier, requiring less intentional effort."

The successful dieters also had higher habit-strength scores for physical activity. An easily adoptable micro habit identified in the paper that may help inspire you to exercise is just leaving exercise clothes in a visible place. Other research suggests that setting solid times when you're committed to exercising (for instance "in the morning" or "after work") can help a fledgling habit become second nature.

Micro-habits aside, past research suggests that there's no substitute for time when it comes to building a habit — one study on habit formation found that it took some people as little as 18 days to build a habit, while others took as many as 254 days.

Psychological micro-habits

Psychology alone won't help you lose weight, but there are ways to make weight loss easier on the brain.

Another strategy for success is to focus on past successes — for the study participants, this was especially true in the face of a setback. They also encouraged themselves to think positively. This kind of positive self-talk may help people achieve both emotional and physical goals.

Those who kept the weight off also practiced greater self-compassion, acceptance, and mindfulness strategies than those who didn't. But the statistical analysis suggests that the effects of these techniques alone can't explain the difference between the two groups. This may be because the variables may not have been well-captured in the study's survey questions to begin with, the researchers say.

Ultimately, compassion, acceptance, and mindfulness, while helpful, are unlikely to be as effective as the other weight-loss strategies employed by study participants, like healthy eating habits.

"Findings overall suggested that other strategies were more important in distinguishing WLMs from weight-stable individuals with obesity," they write.

"My message to people who are beginning a weight loss program would be to set up your environment to support health eating and focus on self-monitoring and coping skills," Phelan says. "Know that if you stick with it, things will get easier over time."

Partial Abstract:
Objective: The study’s purpose was to use validated questionnaires to identify novel behavioral and psychological strategies among weight loss maintainers (WLMs) in a commercial weight management program.
Methods: Participants were 4,786 WLMs in WW (formerly Weight Watchers, New York, New York) who had maintained weight loss ≥ 9.1 kg (24.7 kg/23.8% weight loss on average) for 3.3 years and had a current mean BMI of 27.6 kg/m2. A control group of 528 weight-stable individuals with obesity had a mean BMI of 38.9 kg/m2 and weight change <2.3 kg over the previous 5 years.
Results: WLMs versus Controls practiced more frequent healthy dietary choices (3.3 vs. 1.9; 𝜂2 = 0.37), self-monitoring (2.6 vs. 0.7; 𝜂2 = 0.30), and psychological coping (2.5 vs. 1.1; 𝜂p2 = 0.25) strategies. WLMs also reported more willingness to ignore food cravings (4.4 vs. 3.5; 𝜂p2 = 0.16) and had greater habit strength for healthy eating (5.3 vs. 3.2; 𝜂p2 = 0.21). Standard canonical coefficients indicated that dietary (0.52), self-monitoring (0.40), and psychological (0.14) strategies as well as habit strength for healthy eating (0.15) contributed independently and most (49.5% of variance) to discriminating groups.
Conclusions: In a widely available weight management program, more frequent practice of healthy dietary, self-monitoring, and psychological coping strategies as well as development of greater habit strength for healthy eating differentiated long-term WLMs from weight-stable indi- viduals with obesity.
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