You know what to do to lose weight: Eat a little less, move a little more, and figure out what works for your body. “No more chocolate,” you declare. “I’ll take up Cross Fit,” you promise. “I can live without chips for a while,” you vow. But then one day you’re tired. Or grumpy. Or that lethal combo: hangry. So you figure you deserve the raspberry truffle ball, dammit. And before you’ve polished off that leftover holiday candy, you’ve begun spiraling down a slippery slope that ends with ice cream on the couch at midnight.
All the science in the world won’t help you lose weight if your heart isn’t in the game. It’s not enough to know what to do—the secret is understanding how to make yourself do it. Experts have discovered that shifting your mind-set can give you an edge. “Dieting books focus almost exclusively on what and what not to eat, with the assumption that this is just a mechanical process,” says clinical psychologist Edward Abramson, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University in Chico and the author of Emotional Eating.“It’s like, ‘If you know you shouldn’t eat bacon, then you just shouldn’t eat bacon.’” That’s why people fail at diets: They forget to account for moments of boredom, weakness, or sadness, or for any other perfectly normal situation that could get in the way.
Lifestyle shifts like joining a gym and stocking the fridge with fresh produce are good, but to really move the needle on the scale, you need to delve deeper, says Holly Lofton, assistant professor of medicine and surgery and director of the medical weight-management program at NYU Lang one Medical Center. “Take a hard look at your past weight loss attempts,” she advises. “Think about what got in your way, then find solutions to those issues now.”
To help, here are a few common pitfalls. See which ones ring familiar—and learn to sidestep them once and for all.
If losing weight is kind of an abstract goal…
Identify your specific reason for wanting to drop pounds.
It’s no news flash that maintaining a healthy weight is good for you. Even a small loss can improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. And a large, sustained weight loss can boost energy, mood, and self-confidence. The trick is closing the gap between the knowledge and the plan—especially when there are french fries between the two. To find your motivation, create a list of reasons why you want to lose the weight, says Robin Frutchey, a counselor and behavioral therapist for the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore. The more specific, the better: “Rather than saying, ‘I want to be healthy,’ write down, ‘I want to lose weight so I don’t have a heart attack like Dad,’” she says. “It’s a bit more salient.” This can help motivate you now and a few pounds down the line, when you lose steam. “Refresh your memory about why this is so important to you,” says Frutchey. “Seeing the reasons on paper is helpful.”
Not a list maker? Create a visual cue. Post the “before” picture of yourself in a bathing suit or at a family gathering and look at it when you’re tempted to stay in for another Netflix marathon instead of heading to the gym, says Lofton. If your reason is more internal (“I want to have energy for my kids”) than external (“I want to fit into my old jeans again”), you can still find ways to make it visual—a photo of your children running and playing, say, or of the ride they want you to take them on at Six Flags.
If you swear off your favorite foods until you just can’t resist…
Adopt a diet plan that includes your cravings.
If you ban doughnuts forever, eventually everything starts to look (and maybe even smell) like a doughnut. “That’s one of the problems with dieting,” says Abramson. “It frequently presents an all-or-nothing mentality.” But deprivation can set you up for a binge: The moment your resolve is weakened, you’ll reach for the entire box of doughnuts. So instead of never eating your favorite food again, Abramson suggests thinking of it as a dessert (yes, even if your trigger food is barbecue potato chips). Follow these rules for dessert: Eat it only after a meal, when you’re already pretty full. Eat a small portion, on a plate. Don’t sneak it. And enjoy it: “Eat it slowly,” says Abramson. “Prolong the pleasure.” Beyond the happiness that comes with keeping these treats in your life, having a sense of agency over what you eat can actually help you eat less. Knowing you could eat that cookie if you wanted to, you’re more likely to weigh the pros and cons—and maybe decide it’s not worth it. “When you don’t feel like somebody else is restricting you, you tend to make better decisions,” says Frutchey.
Read More: 4 Little-Known Habits of Slim People
If you find yourself eating without even realizing it…
Set up your environment to make it easier to follow your plan.
The average person makes about 200 food-related decisions a day, says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, New York, and author of Slim by Design. It’s not “Should I eat cereal for breakfast?” It’s “Cereal A or cereal B? How much should I pour? How much milk do I need?” “Because we’re unaware of many of these decisions, the environment can push us to eat more,” says Wansink. Faced with sugary cereal or bran flakes, you might choose the sugary cereal. Wansink’s radical idea: “Change your environment to help you mindlessly eat better.” One strategy is to straighten up your kitchen. His research found that people in cluttered surroundings (dirty dishes, mail piles) ate 44 percent more snacks than those in a clean environment. “That out-of-control environment primes you to say, ‘If the rest of the world is out of control, why try to control what I eat?’” he says. Clutter also raises stress levels, and that can lead to overeating. Another idea: Hide junk food. Research revealed that people who kept fruit on their counters weighed 13 pounds less than their snack-displaying peers.
If you snack when you’re bored (or stressed, or lonely)…
Eat only when you’re actually hungry.
We eat for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with being hungry. Weight loss comes easier when you understand your motivation. Start by spending a week or two writing down everything you eat and how you were feeling when you ate it, suggests Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. Her tip: Pay special attention to the evening hours, which she notes are particularly difficult for many of her clients. “People think they’ve been ‘good’ all day, so they allow themselves to indulge—which could lead to overindulging,” she says. “Or someone may have had a stressful day and come home to take comfort in food.” Then there’s the modern classic: eating mindlessly in front of the TV.
Next time you find yourself absentmindedly poking around the kitchen for a snack, stop and ask whether your body really needs food, suggests Goldman. If it happens often, she recommends tacking a sticky note that reads, “Why am I doing this?” or “Am I hungry?” to the cupboard door or the fridge to stop you in your tracks. Or ask yourself, “Am I so hungry that I’d eat steamed broccoli?” Emotional hunger is usually for something specific, such as a carbohydrate or a sweet. “When you’re physiologically hungry, you’ll eat anything,” says Goldman.
Maybe you’ve identified that you’re feeling, well, a feeling and not physical hunger. In that case, come up with a list of three to five substitute behaviors for eating (brainstorm them now, when you aren’t hankering for a cookie). Find alternatives that will remove you from the situation, distract you, and hopefully make you feel good or productive, says Goldman. Call a friend, take a walk, do a load of laundry, or work on a craft project with your kid.
Read More: 8 Things Healthy People Do Every Day
If you start out with great intentions but, in the moment, really want the darn cupcake…
Free yourself from the idea of willpower.
Willpower is an unreliable tool. “It’s a finite resource,” says Abramson. And that means you run out of it as the day progresses. It’s easier to say yes to exercise or no to a hunk of cheese when you’re well rested than after you’ve turned down dozens of temptations all day (you got out of bed, you stopped a Gilmore Girls binge—the list goes on).
You don’t need willpower; you need a new thinking pattern that you can put on autopilot. Cognitive behavioral therapy suggests that we can train our brains to make better decisions. When it comes to weight loss, CBT explains that there’s a thought between “I’m tired” and “Give me all the pizza.” It’s the self-sabotaging rationale: “I’m too tired to cook” or “Everyone else is eating pizza. Why can’t I?” The key is to catch that thought and replace it, explains Deborah Beck Busis, a licensed clinical social worker and coauthor of The Diet Trap Solution.“In-the-moment decisions are hard,” she says. “Plan in advance.”
So right now—before you find yourself facing mushroom-and-pepperoni deliciousness—ask yourself what you were thinking the last time you ate something you later regretted. What would you like to tell yourself before it happens again? Maybe it’s “That extra slice will make you feel sick” or “You’re so close to your goals, and you don’t really like mushrooms—it’s not worth it.” Then write down your reasons on paper or in your phone and read them daily. It’s about building a skill, says Beck Busis, not about some magical “power” you either have or don’t.
If you stick to your diet—except when you’re out with friends…
Strategize before you leave the house.
You don’t have to cancel all social events to see progress on the scale; you just need to plan ahead. “Take the thinking out of the equation to make it easy for yourself when you’re in these situations,” says Goldman. Look at menus and decide what to order before you meet at the restaurant—since by then, you’ll be hungry and possibly influenced by what others are ordering. In his research at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Wansink found that placing your order first can help, too. You’ll be less likely to cave when your friend orders a bacon double cheeseburger. He also suggests limiting yourself to two “extras” (like a beverage, sides, or complimentary bread) over the course of the meal. This way, you’re not depriving yourself; you’re making choices.
If you’re prone to post-workout binges…
Focus on what fitness can do for your body rather than what it will allow you to eat later.
You might assume that a gym session gives you a free eating pass for the rest of the day. In fact, one study published in the journal Appetitesuggests that just thinking about exercising prompted participants to reach for more snacks. But here’s a reality check: The average 155-pound person will burn about 300 calories during a half hour of running—and a post-gym milkshake cancels that out fast. Weight loss, after all, is about creating a calorie deficit.
One way to rewire your brain out of expecting a post-sweat binge? Reframe your workout as a break. Cornell Food and Brand Lab research showed that when participants thought of an activity as a “scenic walk” instead of an “exercise walk,” they ate half as many snacks afterward. “Call it a personal break, meditation time, or time away from the kids,” says Wansink. “Thinking of it as a positive indulgence makes you less likely to compensate by eating more later.”
If you abandon your diet as soon as you “mess up”…
Determine feel-good milestones that aren’t about the number on the scale.
A lot of factors go into weight—medication, hormones, genetics, and water retention, to name a few. At times, despite your best intentions, the scale might not budge (and it might even go up a pound or two). Don’t let it get you crazy—or make you quit trying. “I encourage my clients not to have purely weight-related goals,” says Frutchey. Instead, perhaps you want to feel confident in a sleeveless top or do all the “push yourself” variations in kickboxing class. Ultimately, “if you’re meeting your daily calorie and fitness goals, your weight will likely follow,” she says. Accept, too, that sometimes you might eat a cheeseburger. The experts agree: Stop beating yourself up about it. Think of it as just one of the 200 food decisions you’ve made today—then move on. Frutchey tells her clients to keep a list of their small victories, like choosing the apple over the chips. “People focus on the one thing they did wrong this week and forget the 80 things they did well,” says Frutchey. But it’s those 80 positive things that really make the difference over time.