The Best Way to Lose Weight and Keep It Off Long Term, According to Experts

A woman running next to a hand holding a phone with a dieting app on it
·7 min read

There are many indicators of health, and weight is just one of them. That said, weight loss is a popular goal for many people trying to improve their health. There are several benefits associated with losing a few pounds through healthy methods, like better blood sugar control, healthier blood pressure and lower chronic disease risk. And even though you've probably heard that good nutrition and physical activity can lead to weight loss, it's easier said than done. 

Your whole lifestyle plays a part in getting to and maintaining a healthy weight. When it comes to diet and exercise, you can't really have one without the other. But they might be more valuable at different times in your weight loss journey. So what's the best formula to lose weight and keep it off? We took a look at the research and spoke with weight loss dietitian, Lainey Younkin, M.S., RD, LDN (follow her at Lainey Younkin Nutrition) to find out.

Related: 7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Trying to Lose Weight  

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How Is Weight Loss Different Than Weight Maintenance?

Weight loss is often thought of as "calories in, calories out", but it's not quite that simple. How many calories you need in a day is influenced by many factors, including age, activity level, body composition, illness, injury and more. The amount of energy (aka calories) our body uses each day is also known as our metabolism. Aside from calories we burn during exercise, there are three ways our body burns calories: basal metabolic rate (how much energy is needed to keep your heart pumping and lungs breathing), thermic effect of food (the energy it takes to digest what we eat) and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (think of walking to work or going up stairs). The vast majority of our body's energy is spent on our basal metabolic rate. 

Losing weight can actually slow down our metabolism a bit (think: a smaller body requires less energy to heat than a larger one). That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean you might need to be a little more strategic when trying to lose weight. Let's break down what your primary focus should be for weight loss and weight maintenance, and how they differ.  

The Most Important Thing for Weight Loss

There are many ways to lose weight, but one of the most common ways is by establishing a calorie deficit. This means consuming fewer calories than your body burns per day. "Research shows that exercise is not the way to lose weight. A calorie deficit is required for weight loss, but studies show it is easier to create and maintain a calorie deficit through changing your diet rather than exercising," advises Younkin. So, when you're first starting out, try to focus on what's on your plate rather than constantly hitting the gym. Lucky for you, we have a variety of weight-loss meal plans that please any palate.

However, going on a restrictive diet is not a way to lose weight for good. "Going on a diet is not the way to sustainably lose weight. Instead of drastically cutting calories and dropping a bunch of weight quickly, you want to create a small calorie deficit that you can keep up with over time," shares Younkin. "This can be done by eating smaller portions, increasing vegetable and protein intake and reducing intake of simple carbohydrates, sugar and alcohol."

The Most Important Thing for Weight Maintenance

"After you've lost five to 10 percent of your body weight, research suggests maintaining that weight for six months before trying to lose again (that is, if you still have weight to lose). This is how you can permanently move your set point—the weight range your body likes to stay in—down over time," says Younkin. But maintaining weight loss is notoriously challenging. In fact, a study in BioPsychoSocial Medicine found that nearly 70 percent of people were unsuccessful in maintaining a 10 percent weight loss for two years. This might make it seem like the odds are stacked against you, but actually weight maintenance can be successful with a change in focus from weight loss habits. 

Research has found that exercise might be more important than diet when trying to maintain weight loss. The number one thing that people have in common who have lost weight and kept it off is daily moderate to vigorous exercise. In fact, a study in the journal Obesity found that people who lost an average of 58 pounds and kept it off, exercised for around 40 minutes per day. This exercise didn't have to be consecutive, and could include 10-minute bouts throughout the day, too. 

But why is exercise more important than diet if diet helped you lose weight in the first place? It all comes down to a balance of calories. While weight loss requires a calorie deficit, weight maintenance requires a calories balance—no deficit but also no excess. Daily exercise allowed people to burn more calories throughout the day and, in turn, eat more without having an excess of calories.

"If you can't keep eating a certain way forever, then you won't see the results forever. So you will have to keep up whatever changes you made to your diet in order to maintain weight loss," suggests Younkin. This explains why restrictive dieters tend to gain the weight they lost back (and then some). It's just too hard to maintain those restrictive eating habits. On the other hand, healthy habits like the ones Younkin outlined above—eating smaller portions, increasing vegetable and protein intake and reducing intake of simple carbohydrates, sugar and alcohol—are much more realistic to maintain. "Once those changes are habitual, focusing on exercise can help you continue to get results." 

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Weight 

"Often, people have unrealistic weight loss goals. If you are restricting food intake, over-exercising or thinking about food and your body all the time in order to maintain a certain number on the scale, then that is not the healthiest weight for you," says Younkin. Any changes you make in an effort to lose weight should be habits you can keep up for the long haul. Luckily for us, little changes that you enjoy can add up to big accomplishments over time. 

Younkin has specific tips for those trying to eat in a way that aligns with their weight loss goals: "Aim to eat every 3-4 hours to keep blood sugar balanced, plan healthy snacks and don't feel guilty when you eat something you feel like you shouldn't. Aim to follow the healthy plate method about 80% of the time throughout the week and don't worry about the rest." The healthy plate method refers to filling half your plate veggies, a quarter with whole grains and the last quarter with lean protein. This strategy makes portion control easy, without the need to tediously measure everything. And, adds Younkin, "Be conscious of sugar and alcohol intake can help too, as those 'empty' calories can add up over time". 

When it comes to exercising, find something you actually enjoy. It will make it easier to be consistent. "Start small though and don't be all or nothing with exercise. Something is better than nothing," encourages Younkin. If you don't have 45 minutes for a long workout, do 20 minutes or even a 10 minute walk and try to build in more active time later. If you feel stuck or at a plateau, try mixing up what you're doing or try something new. 

Lastly, accountability can be a big help when sticking to your healthy lifestyle changes. Younkin suggests including a friend, hiring a dietitian or working with a personal trainer, so you don't have to do it all on your own. 

Bottom Line

Weight loss can be hard, but small lifestyle changes that you can keep up with will help you find success. "Dieting is not only unsustainable because it's too hard to keep up with restrictions over time, but also it wreaks havoc on your metabolism and your mental health," says Younkin. "Don't get caught up in daily and weekly fluctuations on the scale. Even if you only lose one pound per month, that's 12 pounds down at the end of the year!" Losing weight and keeping it off is a long term journey, but a little know-how and support can help set you up for success.

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