Most people inherently know that keeping a healthy weight boils down to three things: eating healthy, eating less, and being active. But actually doing this can be tough.
We make more than 200 food decisions a day, and most of these appear to be automatic or habitual, which means we unconsciously eat without reflection, deliberation or any sense of awareness.
Thus, habitual behaviours often override our best intentions. In fact, most people who diet will regain 50 per cent of the lost weight in the first year after losing it. Many more will regain it in the following three years.
But, as detailed on The Conversation, a new study by Australia's Bond University - published in the Journal of Obesity - has found the key to staying a healthy weight is to reinforce healthy habits.
Imagine each time a person goes home in the evening, they eat a snack. When they first eat the snack, a mental link is formed between the context (getting home) and their response to that context (eating a snack).
Every time they subsequently snack in response to getting home, this link strengthens, to the point that getting home prompts them to eat a snack automatically. This is how a habit forms.
New research has found weight-loss interventions that are founded on habit-change, (forming new habits or breaking old habits) may be effective at helping people lose weight and keep it off.
The study recruited 75 volunteers from the community (aged 18-75) with excess weight or obesity and randomised them into three groups.
One program promoted breaking old habits, one promoted forming new habits, and one group was a control (no intervention).
The habit-breaking group was sent a text message with a different task to perform every day. These tasks were focused on breaking usual routines and included things such as drive a different way to work today, listen to a new genre of music or write a short story.
The habit-forming group was asked to follow a program that focused on forming habits centred around healthy lifestyle changes. The group was encouraged to incorporate ten healthy tips into their daily routine, so they became second-nature.
Unlike usual weight-loss programs, these interventions did not prescribe specific diet plans or exercise regimes, they simply aimed to change small daily habits.
After 12 weeks, the habit-forming and habit-breaking participants had lost an average of 3.1kg. More importantly, after 12 months of no intervention and no contact, they had lost another 2.1kg on average.
Some 67 per cent of participants reduced their total body weight by over 5 per cent, decreasing their overall risk for developing type two diabetes and heart disease.
As well as losing weight, most participants also increased their fruit and vegetable intake and improved their mental health.
Habit-based interventions have the potential to change how we think about weight management and, importantly, how we behave.
THE 10 EFFECTIVE HABITS
The habits in the habit-forming group, developed by Weight Concern (a UK charity) were: