Implementing and sustaining new health behaviours can be the most daunting and challenging aspect of weight management.
But fear not. Since our eating and physical activity behaviours are learned (1), we can learn new ones, too.
Here, I guide you through five key strategies to use when implementing a weight management strategy.
Strategy #1: Self-monitor
Sometimes we may eat not because of physical hunger but because we’re bored, experiencing negative emotions, or watching TV. In these instances, a specific event or cue initiates the behaviour, and when repeated, these behaviours can “become strongly linked”(2).
Part of our work will be to “disconnect” the trigger behaviours by first becoming aware of them. You can do this by monitoring your eating and physical activity patterns, helping you recognize where to focus your attention.
Strategy #2: Set a goal
Now that you’ve identified a key behaviour to focus on, the next step is to break the behaviour into manageable pieces and work on each piece separately. In this way, you don’t feel overwhelmed, and you build on your successes.
For example, say you want to eliminate your habit of eating ice cream every night after dinner while watching TV. Instead of removing ice cream from your life completely, your goal can be to eat a serving of low-fat yogurt four days a week and ice cream three days a week. It’s even better if you specify the days you’ll have yogurt and the days you’ll have ice cream. Then, as you get used to having yogurt, you can increase the number of days you have it until ice cream becomes an occasional treat.
Note: Part of the goal-setting process is to evaluate your progress periodically and modify as necessary. It’s helpful to note what is and isn’t working. Was your goal too ambitious? Do you need to adjust it? Or maybe you crushed your goal, and you’re ready to set a new one.
Strategy #3: Problem solving
Once you’ve set a goal, identify any barriers to achieving it. Create a list of solutions and choose the best one, noting when you’ll implement it. Finally, evaluate whether your plan was successful. If it wasn’t, select another solution and try again (3).
Strategy #4: Cognitive restructuring
Our thoughts and thinking patterns can affect how we feel and how we act.
For example, when we’re trying to manage our weight, we often divide the world into good and bad foods. If we eat a food item we consider “bad,” we often criticize ourselves, feel worthless, and believe our efforts are futile.
With cognitive restructuring, the goal is to identify and modify such dysfunctional thinking patterns. One way to do this is to keep an eating behaviour journal to record any significant thoughts or feelings before and after eating.
As you become aware of destructive thinking patterns, you can begin to explore and challenge their validity. You can ask yourself questions like (4):
- Why is it so terrible that I ate that food?
- Do people learn new behaviours by performing perfectly all the time?
- What good does it do to focus on negative thoughts?
So, what can you do to interrupt destructive thinking patterns? One way is to use a technique called thought-stopping. When a negative thought enters your mind, mentally say stop, pushing it away and substitute it with a constructive one.
Note: It’s best to do this type of therapy with a trained professional.
Strategy #5: Relapse prevention
Having an occasional slip is an expected and natural part of the weight management process. These are called lapses and are generally harmless. In contrast, a relapse is a “series of lapses, loss of control, and a return to previous behaviour” (5).
With relapse prevention, we want to anticipate high-risk situations that may lead to a lapse and have a coping strategy in place so that a lapse doesn’t become a relapse.
Examples of common high-risk situations include (5):
- Negative emotional states: anger, anxiety, depression, frustration, boredom, loneliness
- Positive emotional states: celebrations, parties
- Conflict with others, arguments
- Social gatherings
- Travelling and vacationing
- Eating out
- Lack of coping skills
- Negative self-talk
- Hunger, urges, food cravings
- Lack of social support
Weight loss and weight-loss maintenance can be challenging undertakings, and implementing lifestyle changes can be daunting. But by using some of these strategies, I hope you’ll find maintaining this new, healthier lifestyle to be much easier.
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