Stick to weight loss programs better with small diet changes.
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Stick to weight loss programs better with small diet changes.

January's jam-packed gyms and sold-out racquetball courts make one thing clear: It's everyone and his brother's New Year's resolution to lose weight. But give it a month or two, and a good shake of those folks will have already abandoned their new workout routines and gone back to eating all the unhealthy foods they'd sworn off.

The plain truth is that such wide-sweeping diet and lifestyle overhauls often just don't work. "Most end up being too dramatic and too traumatic," says Brian Wansink, author of 'Mindless Eating' (Bantam, 2007) and the forthcoming book 'Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Home, School, Grocery Stores, Restaurants, and More (HarperCollins, 2013). "People get really excited about changing their life, so they'll join a gym and drop certain foods from their diet all at once. But those changes are so unnatural for them and take so much willpower and effort to continue beyond a few days that they end up giving up altogether."

Wansink says the real ticket to trimming pounds is making one or two small, not-so-drastic eating or behavioral changes at a time – and sticking to them long enough so they become second nature. He and his research team at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab tested this theory by enrolling more than 2,000 people in its National Mindless Eating Challenge. (True to failed-resolutions form, just 504 enrollees continued beyond the initial intake survey – but those who soldiered through saw results.)

The premise was pretty simple. Participants filled out online questionnaires about their eating habits, and then the program suggested personalized changes they could make, such as always eating dinner off of smaller plates, sitting at a table whenever snacking, or clearing all unhealthy foods from kitchen counters. They were given tools to track their progress throughout several months and emailed reminders to stick to their plan. Of those who kept with the challenge, 42 percent lost weight and 27 percent maintained their weight.

"Making one or two small changes like these doesn't take too much effort," Wansink says. "They don't require willpower; rather, they become something you just do every day."

That "every day" piece is also significant, because the end goal is to turn your diet tweak into a habit, part of your normal routine that you no longer think about. The study participants who followed the rules at least 25 days out of a month had the greatest pound-shedding success. "If you stick to your plan on fewer than 25 days, even in the 20 to 24 range, you can cherry-pick which days you'll do it, so it doesn't really become habit," Wansink says.

The start-small, stick-to-it rule also applies to exercise. "Guys who want to get in shape will begin a really rigorous weight-training program and then injure themselves within two weeks," Wansink says. "Or they'll think, 'Hey, I used to run five miles every day, so I'll start out by running four.' Not a good idea. Too painful. Start with more reasonable workouts, like running one mile or walking four. That way you'll have motivation to improve and be less likely to find excuses to skip a day – which will soon become two, three, and more days, until you've quit."

Wansink says the first step is identifying one or two eating or exercise habits you want to ditch or instill (any more at once is too many). Then set a goal of one month, which should seem achievable, and track your progress. He suggests pasting a calendar on a wall and crossing out every day that you've stuck to your guns. That way, you'll see the progress you're making and be encouraged to keep going. Once these actions have become habit – and you're on a better weight-loss path – toss a few more changes into the mix.