Spoiler alert: While you might initially lose weight on that trendy fad diet you were planning to start on January 1, the sad truth is that you'll likely end up regaining most — if not all — of it back.
The average person gains back about half the weight they lost on a diet after two years, according to a January 2018 report in Medical Clinics of North America, and that number creeps up to 80 percent after five years.
"We know now that significantly restricting calories and obsessing over everything you eat is impossible to sustain long term," Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, a national spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine and author of The Hunger Fix, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Why are we opening an article about losing weight in 2020 with this disheartening information? So that you'll understand why you're not going to see "keto 2.0" or any other trendy diets in the paragraphs that follow.
Because while we could spend the rest of this article listing out the fad diets and nutrition tricks that will be big in the new year, we don't want to. We want you to enter 2020 armed with legitimate, clinically proven techniques for losing and maintaining your weight over time.
Rather than focusing solely on a tricky-to-maintain weight-loss diet, you're better off adopting healthy lifestyle habits that will improve your relationship with food and fitness — and (bonus!) help you lose weight in the process.
Here is the most promising research behind tactics we think you should make a trend in 2020 — and the tools you need to actually do it.
1. Adopt an 'Anti-Diet'
Changing the way you think about hunger can help you choose healthier foods, eat less and feel more appreciative of the food you have, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation.
The key to doing so is a trendy (but solid) concept of its own: mindfulness. "Mindful eating is the complete antidote to dieting," says Susan Albers, PsyD, Cleveland Clinic psychologist and author of Hanger Management: Master Your Hunger and Improve Your Mood, Mind, and Relationships. "It's about listening to your internal hunger cues and responding to them, instead of trying to ignore them and shut them off."
Much like you might focus on your breath in a more traditional mindfulness practice, mindful eaters focus on eating. The goal is to eliminate distractions and notice all the details of the meal in front of you.
Similarly, intuitive eating requires tuning in to your body's natural hunger and satiety signals — and we don't just mean a grumbling stomach.
"Unlike traditional diets, which focus on calorie restriction and foods you can't eat, intuitive eating is all about you — only you know how hungry you are and when you feel satisfied," Evelyn Tribole, RDN, author of Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship With Food, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It's about making peace with food and realizing that all types of foods can fit into a healthy diet."
Intuitive eating (IE) stems from the idea that our bodies are, well, intuitive, meaning that they know what and how much food they need and when they need it to maintain a healthy weight, according to the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
The aim is to establish a healthy, respectful relationship with food that doesn't have anything to do with your weight; listen to your internal feelings of hunger and fullness and cast aside ideas of foods being "right," "wrong" or otherwise. In a nutshell: Eat what sounds good and makes you feel good, and stop when you're full.
Making that kind of peace with your food allows for space to enjoy everything — in moderation. When you eat what you want, you'll be content with less food, as long as you're stopping frequently as you eat to check in with yourself and see if you're sated, Tribole says.
Simple, maybe, but also effective: In a November 2019 meta-analysis in Obesity Reviews, researchers found that just by adopting mindful and intuitive eating strategies, people experienced significant weight loss compared to those who didn't change the way they thought about (or ate) their food.
These mindset shifts are also ripe for NSVs, or non-scale victories. Eating intuitively can help people ditch unhealthy weight-control behaviors, improve their satisfaction with their bodies and reduce emotional distress about weight, according to a May 2014 review in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Albers recommends starting with the "Five Ss" of mindful eating:
- Sit: Don't eat while standing in front of the refrigerator or while you're racing around. When you sit down, you can more easily focus on what you're eating.
- Slow down: Chewing slowly will help you be more aware of your food and how much you're eating.
- Savor: "That first bite is the most flavorful," Albers says. If you really take time to savor your food and focus on its color, smell, temperature and how it feels in your mouth, you'll not only enjoy it more, but you'll eat less because you will feel more satisfied.
- Simplify: Put colorful, beautiful foods like fruit bowls where you can see them — front and center in your fridge or on your kitchen counter — so you're more likely to reach for them when you're hungry.
- Smile: It might feel silly at first, but between each bite, smile. This creates a natural pause in your meal, but the act of smiling itself may also release feel-good brain chemicals that can cut down on emotional overeating, Albers explains.
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2. Trust Your Gut — Literally
Ever feel like you just look at a cookie and gain a pound while a friend can eat an entire box and stay slim? You might want to blame it on your gut microbiome, aka the community of bacteria that live in your GI tract.
A substantial amount of research now points to a swing in your bacteria balance in the direction of disease-promoting microbes causing trouble on the scale. An off-kilter microbiome might increase how many calories are tucked away from the foods we eat, promote greater fat storage in the body, mess with your hunger signals or spark wide-reaching inflammation, all of which can contribute to obesity, according to a July 2017 review in Hormones.
Read more: 7 Side Effects of an Unhealthy Gut
Maintaining the balance, then, is a smart step. But we still need more answers about exactly how to fight back. In a small August 2018 study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers found links between specific types of gut bugs and weight-loss success — or failure.
But it's not quite as simple as popping a probiotic supplement: The authors of a March 2018 meta-analysis in Genes cautioned that future studies need to pinpoint the right dose and duration before recommending supplementation widely.
Several recent (although small) studies have found that transferring "good" bacteria from slim individuals to the guts of people with obesity leads to weight loss. In one July 2019 clinical trial published in Nature Medicine, people with obesity who took a supplement containing a microbe linked to leanness both lost weight and saw improvements in cholesterol, insulin and inflammation.
In the real world, you're unlikely to get access to a pill full of someone else's gut bugs. But you can start by choosing your foods more wisely to make sure you're getting a good supply of prebiotics, which are the plant fibers that your "good" gut bacteria love, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"Prebiotics help to encourage the growth of good bacteria. Simply put, they serve as food for probiotics," Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, dietitian and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Prebiotic-rich foods include:
- Whole grains
- Vegetables, particularly leeks, onions, legumes, artichokes and garlic
"Fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, pickled veggies and sauerkraut also help to fuel good bacteria by helping to maintain a healthy digestive system," Taub-Dix says.
3. Prioritize Sleep — and Try to Hit the Hay Earlier
You may not think the time you log between the sheets affects the number you see on the scale, but research continues to show us just how important sleep is for weight loss.
When you don't get enough shut-eye, your body produces more of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and less leptin, a hormone that tells your body that it's full, says Michael Breus, PhD, a Los Angeles-based sleep specialist and author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan.
That sends your appetite skyward, and at the same time, sleep deprivation activates parts of the brain associated with motivation and reward, intensifying food cravings, particularly for unhealthy eats, according to a March 2016 study in Sleep.
Your brain produces more cortisol when you're wiped out too, which also increases hunger — and may even warp your metabolism, according to a November 2015 study published in Sleep Science.
And there's more: Our bodies tend to store fat more rapidly when we're not logging the recommended seven to nine hours a night, per a September 2019 study published in the Journal of Lipid Research. Researchers compared blood samples to conclude that people on a sleep-restricted schedule maintained less fat in their bloodstreams after a meal, which means their bodies were quickly shuttling the fat to storage — not ideal if you're aiming to burn off some of those stores.
We know, it's not as easy as hopping into bed earlier and closing your eyes. If you have trouble giving up your night owl ways, try:
- Slowly moving bedtime earlier: Like any other habit, staying up later than we should can be a tough routine to break. Instead of forcing yourself to hit the sheets hours earlier right off the bat (which could lead to lots of tossing and turning), try a gradual change. Bump bedtime by 10 to 15 minutes every night or every few nights to slowly help your body adjust to the new schedule.
- Imposing a nighttime electronic curfew: The blue light from devices like an iPad or Kindle suppress melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep, Breus says. The same goes for overhead lights or comforting bedside lamps: A large June 2019 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that women who slept with the lights on had higher body mass indexes and larger waist circumferences than those who slept with no light. It's possible that even just a little artificial light could disrupt sleep enough to change levels of appetite-regulating hormones or cause daytime sleepiness that makes you skip your workout in favor of the couch, according to the researchers.
- Listening to soothing music: An August 2015 Cochrane review of data from more than 300 people found that those who listened to tunes before nodding off reported improvement in insomnia symptoms, including falling asleep faster and better-quality sleep.
4. Find Healthy Ways to Manage Stress
Research has long shown a connection between stress and weight gain. This was typically done by measuring cortisol in blood, urine or saliva, where levels can fluctuate due to fleeting stressors. But a February 2017 study in Obesity of more than 2,500 people helped researchers detail the long-term link.
In the study, researchers measured stress using cortisol levels in hair samples grown over two months, a better picture of chronically elevated stress than a blood or saliva sample taken on one specific day. The people with higher cortisol levels weighed more, had larger waist circumferences and were more likely to have obesity over a four-year period.
Cortisol, churned out by the body when you're stretched too thin, promotes fat storage, Dr. Peeke says. But a January 2019 report in Annual Review of Psychology identified an alarming nine other pathways via which stress and weight are connected to worry about, including the way stress changes how our brains respond to food and disrupts the microbiome. Stressing less is more important than ever.
Lowering your stress is easier said than done, of course. But it's a worthwhile goal to work toward, especially because chronic stress can also contribute to high blood pressure, hypertension and other factors that can lead to heart disease, per the American Heart Association.
Most of us can't quit our stressful jobs or avoid the everyday anxieties that inevitably pop up. But we can work on changing how we respond to these stressors. Managing stress in active ways is more effective than inactive approaches like turning on the TV, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Get outside: Spending just 20 to 30 minutes a day outdoors in nature can lower stress hormones, according to a small April 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychology.
- Fit in regular exercise: Any kind of workout can act as a stress-reliever, according to the Mayo Clinic, because it distracts you from your worries and releases feel-good endorphins. Bonus: Consistent exercise can also help improve your sleep, another important component of managing your weight.
- Practice meditative techniques: Finding quiet time to meditate or practice deep breathing can help protect your body from the effects of stress, per the Cleveland Clinic.
- Kick unhealthy habits: Feelings of stress may prompt you to reach for a cigarette or alcohol, but try to ditch these habits, since they can actually make stress worse, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
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5. Focus on Functional Fitness and HIIPA to Turn Your Body into a Fat-Burning Machine
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is our fitness trend of the decade, but it can be intimidating if you haven't worked out in a while. Here's the good news: Daily tasks such as washing your car, climbing stairs or even lugging groceries count!
Think of these short bursts of movement — known as "high-intensity incidental physical activity," or HIIPA, according to a September 2019 editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine — as their own mini-HIIT workouts incorporated into your everyday life. After all, you are following short bursts of activity with rest, just like the real deal.
Any chance you get to squeeze in some HIIPA can help your progress, considering high-intensity exercise is more effective for fat loss than continuous cardio or traditional strength training, according to a February 2019 meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
But the deal gets sweeter still: Incidental physical activity often falls squarely within a larger category known as functional fitness, which prioritizes exercises that help you move better in your day-to-day life (that's where the "functional" part comes in). And functional exercise adds another weight-loss-promoting layer: It was shown to lower body fat in an April 2017 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, as well as improve strength, coordination and cholesterol levels.
The major functional exercises — pushing, pulling, hinging and squatting — mimic movements you do all the time to help you avoid injury while also getting seriously fit. "It's important not to compartmentalize exercise strictly to the gym," says Cameron Yuen, CSCS, a senior physical therapist with Bespoke Treatments in New York City. "Walking instead of driving and taking the stairs are great ways of maintaining function and overall health."
"Functional training gives you the strength, stability and mobility you need for everyday life," adds Robert Deutsch, F45 founder and co-CEO. F45 classes mix functional training with circuit training and HIIT and have become a global sensation, exploding from a single Australian facility in 2012 to more than 1,300 locations in 36 countries today.
Together, functional fitness and HIIPA might look like a game of backyard football with your kids or a hike up the stairs in your office building. The easier and safer these types of activities become through practice, the more calories you'll burn throughout the day, according to the Mayo Clinic — and throughout your life.
And if you're willing to commit to more structured high-intensity functional exercise, you just might be more likely to stick with it. According to an August 2014 study in BMC Public Health, people found these workouts more enjoyable and were more likely to plan to keep up the routine than those who did steady-state cardio and a couple of strength-training sessions per week.
Try doing three to five short HIIPA bursts every day for five to 10 minutes total. Some ideas to get you started:
- Ditch online shopping and park farther from the store entrance so you can carry your purchases to and from your car.
- Run up the stairs to tell your partner or roommates something instead of walking (or, let's face it, yelling).
- Dance to your favorite music in your living room and sing at the top of your lungs (sorry, neighbors!) for five minutes.
- Go on a cleaning spree. Pushing around a vacuum and dusting those hard-to-reach corners are surefire ways to get your heart rate up.
- Get outside for some yardwork, whether it's weeding the garden or spreading mulch onto fresh flowerbeds.
- Just got a fresh foot of snow? Shun the snowblower and grab the shovel instead.
- Take "running errands" a little more literally — instead of driving from store to store, jog or briskly walk between stops.
All in all, there are plenty of alternatives to the latest diet fad. So instead of starting 2020 with some drastic changes that aren't likely to last — or, really, do you any good in the long run — commit to making at least a few of these healthy shifts that will slowly but surely change your outlook on food and fitness for the better.
And be patient: The weight might not come off tomorrow, or even next month, but the changes you start making today will help set you up for many healthier years to come.