Ditch the Diet - Lose Weight Through Habits

Jan 15, 2021

Not happy with your weight? Welcome to the club! Few people are. And let’s face it: Weight management is tough; weight loss is even tougher!

And getting older sure doesn’t help. On the contrary: New research at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden has uncovered why that is: Lipid turnover in the fat tissue decreases during aging and makes it easier to gain weight, even if we don't eat more or exercise less than before. According to US News and World Report, as we get older, we experience muscle loss, hormonal changes, and slowed metabolism, all of which affect our weight. Additionally, we tend to be more sedentary and stressed than in our younger years.

Sure, there are all kinds of diets out there and you might have tried of few of them yourself. Unfortunately, there seems to be a common pattern: You try a diet, make changes to how you eat for a while and stick with it, and you see some improvement. At some point, you either achieve your goal weight (or reach a “good enough” point) or simply give up. Then you quickly slide back into your old eating patterns and the weight creeps up again. After a while, you get frustrated enough to start all over again. Sound familiar? It’s a vicious cycle.

So what’s the problem here? In most cases, diets end up being a temporary change to your eating patterns. They don’t stick. They don’t become part of your life, but something you only do for a while. Why? They’re not anchored in your habits.

Instead of focusing on any one particular diet or way of eating, let’s zero in on just the basics: You consume calories through the things you put into your body and you burn calories throughout the day and particularly when you exercise. If you burn more than you consume, you lose weight. If you don’t, you gain weight. It’s that simple! (Yes, there are a lot of nuances to this and it’s somewhat of an over-simplification, but at the most basic level, this is how it works.)

If we apply this basic principle, you can manage and even lose weight, no matter what your diet is. That is not to say that certain types of diets can’t help and don’t have nutritional benefits, but it’s less about any particular diet but more about general calorie budgeting.

I’d like to present a proven approach for how to lose weight and improve your health that’s not specific to a certain diet, but ensures you’re creating new sustainable habits in your life:

The steps are:

  1. Become aware - understand where you are as far as your calories budget and get clear as to why you want to make changes,
  2. Act - take the necessary steps relative to your nutrition, exercise routine, and environment to move in the right direction, and
  3. Measure results - check in on a regular basis as to how you’re progressing and use this as input for where you might need to make further tweaks.

Note that the steps are circular, so they’re repeating as there is no definitive “all done” point.

As you follow this approach, the emphasis will be to anchor new behaviors in habits, which will ensure they become a permanent part of your life.

So let’s dive in and look at this model step-by-step!


1. Awareness

You may not agree, but let’s assume for a second that you are, for the most part, unaware of what’s going on with you, your diet, and your calorie budget. Years ago, I thought I had a pretty good “sense” for how I was doing, but I was dead wrong. Chances are you are, too…

But before we get more clarity, let’s take a brief step back and get clear about our motivation: Why are you going down the road of managing and losing weight and improving your fitness? Getting clear on your motives and motivations is actually quite important. 

  • Do you want to feel better? 
  • Do you want to keep up with your children or grandchildren?
  • Do you want to fit into your old clothes again?
  • Do you lack energy and feel lethargic?
  • Are you afraid of developing disease?
  • Would you look better with 20 lbs less?
  • Etc.

Whatever it is - think about it. Then ask yourself: What’s my default future? In other words, what happens if I don’t make changes now? What will and I and my life look like in 5 or 10 years? If you don’t like what you “see” in your default future, that’s okay, even good, because it will provide motivation for the journey ahead. So put a mental pin into your reason for change, so it’s top of mind as you move ahead.

Now that you’re clear on your why, let’s spend a few days gaining awareness. Get a tracking app for your phone. There are plenty out there and as long as you pick one that tracks your calorie budget (diet & exercise), it’s fine. If you want to cut to the chase, do what I did and use MyFitnessPal. Once you have the app installed, capture your basic info and your weight goal. The app will give you a daily calorie budget. What you eat and drink counts towards your budget; when you exercise it, gives you a calorie credit:

Goal - Food + Exercise = Remaining Calories

Now comes the hard part: For at least 3 days (7 would be better, but I’ll take 3), you need to log everything you eat, drink as well as any exercise. (And don’t forget about those snacks in between.) I know this takes some work, but this is what you need to do to gain awareness.

As you’re tracking your day’s intakes and “outtakes”, you’ll quickly see how it’s going. Not doing so hot? Shocked at how many calories the foods you’re eating contain and how little those evening walks burn? Yeah, I thought so…

But don’t get discouraged! Consider this newfound awareness in combination with your why motivation to make positive changes. It’s the beginning of your journey.


2. Act

Let’s look at three areas to take action in: your nutrition, exercise, and your environment!


Now that you have awareness of your daily calorie budget, you’ll undoubtedly have to make some tweaks to stay within budget. This will take a little experimentation and iterative improvements, but here is an approach that works:

Identify High-Calorie Foods - Check the calories of what you consume and identify ones that stand out as being very calorie-rich. These are your first targets to do something about. Don’t overlook your snacks or even liquid calories in the process.

Food Swap - Once you know which foods you should focus on, see if you can find lower-calorie equivalents. However, you can also ask yourself: Do I really need to eat this food at all? Maybe it’s okay to skip that  ice cream, coffee mocha, or bacon strips. Or you might be able to forgo that sugar packet in your coffee.

Reduce Portion Sizes - Often, it’s not only about what you eat, but about how much of it you eat. If you filled your plate less, maybe you can reduce that meal’s calories by 20%. Eat slower and more deliberately. It takes your stomach a little time to signal to the brain that it’s full, so if you eat too fast, you may over-eat.

Shop Smart - Since you’re now starting to develop a more fine-tuned sense for your nutrition, you should adjust your shopping habits. Look for lower-calorie versions of what you buy. Keep an eye out for low-fat, low-calorie, less sugar-type foods. Check the labels for ingredients and calories per portion/serving. You’ll find that in many cases you can buy very similar foods, but substitute for more healthy options.

Snack Deliberately - We all get the little hunger in the morning or late afternoon and they’re hard to ignore. But instead of reaching for a bag of chips, find some better options. Try some nuts or hummus. Find a low-sugar nutritional bar, but be careful since many bars can be quite high in calories. Chew on a mozzarella string cheese.

There’s a lot more to revamping your nutrition, so consider these just some starter tips. However, they will enable you to get your calorie intake under control and get closer to your daily calorie goal. You’ll want to experiment and see what works for you. You’ll slowly change your taste, the products you buy, and develop a much better sense for what healthy nutrition looks like. Also, start looking at not only how many calories you consume but at how you’re doing relative to the various food groups. Oh, and did I mention: In this phase, please keep logging things in your tracking app!



Good nutrition will go a long way towards getting you closer to your weight goals, but let’s be honest: It’s not enough. You need to get regular exercise as well. As we get older, we need to be sure to train our cardiovascular system and muscles to offset age-related decline. And of course, there are plenty more benefits of exercise apart from training your body, for example, reduced stress, better sleep, etc. It also ramps up your metabolism even beyond the time you work out, which will aid your overall weight loss. 

As you’re looking to stay within your calorie budget, there is another very practical benefit: You get a calorie credit! So if your budget is 1,800 calories a day, if you go for a run and burn 200 calories, you could consume 200 extra calories and still stay within your budget. Therefore, if you find it challenging to stay within your limit, regular exercise may just be your answer!

There is a lot to be said about how to make exercise a regular and reliable part of your life. One pattern I found helpful is to build a habit around working out right after work. You may also appreciate the free cheat sheet I put together. More on exercise in other posts.


Leverage your Environment

The environment can be a key ally in our ability to make lasting changes in our life - or it can work against us. Designing the right environment can make it easier to follow through on nutrition and exercise. It is an important ally when it comes to designing sustainable habits into your life. Your environment can make desirable activities easier, make it harder to perform actions you don’t want, and serve as a trigger and reminder to start behaviors.

So take a look around yourself and ask: What in my environment helps me with my nutrition and exercise? On the flip side: What distracts me and takes me off course?

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Environment & Nutrition

  • Is your kitchen stocked with unhealthy foods, snacks, and drinks? Think about removing those items. If you only have nutritious items in reach, it’s much harder to go astray.
  • Food within plain view can prompt you to want to eat or snack. Put it in the cupboard.
  • Make it harder to reach for a snack while you work and remove those items from your office.
  • When in the supermarket, use a shopping list, so you can stay focused on what you need and don’t get distracted by whatever the store chooses to promote.
  • Or rather, instead of shopping for groceries, try a meal delivery service where you can select healthy meals and which delivers pre-measured ingredients right to your door.
  • Avoid driving or walking through areas with fast-food restaurants and ice cream parlors to avoid the temptation.
  • Keep a water bottle around and hydrate frequently, which will also keep you fuller.
  • This may sound silly, but use smaller plates for your meals, so you’re less likely to overload your plate with too much food.

Environment & Exercise

  • Keep equipment (weights, yoga mat, etc.) in view, so they can serve as a prompt and it’s easy to get started without much effort (vs. having to dig them out of a garage every time).
  • Put exercise on your phone calendar and get reminders when it’s time.
  • People are also part of your environment and they will have an influence on you. Keep those friends closer who are already active or are making positive changes. Maybe you can even partner with them and agree on regular runs, etc.
  • Social media and the web are a sort of mental environment. What thoughts do they expose you to? Ones that help you get more active and get moving? Or new recipes for high-calorie desserts? Start becoming conscious of what mental environment you create for yourself and make changes if necessary.
  • Put your running or walking shoes next to the door, in plain view. 
  • Attach a calendar to your fridge and circle or cross out all days when you exercised. This works best when you have a weekly goal. The calendar will remind you how you’re doing every time you walk by or open the fridge.


Build Habits

I’ve been talking about habits a lot and there’s a good reason for it. If you force yourself to follow a certain diet for a few days or weeks, you might get away with using sheer willpower to make it through. The problem is that willpower is expendable and not a reliable way to make sustainable changes. Once your willpower fades or you get close to your weight loss goal, you quickly revert back to your old lifestyle and routines. Why? Because you didn’t anchor the new behaviors into your day-to-day habits. Habits are something you do regularly, without much effort, often-times even automatically, without thinking about them. They’re easy.

A lot has been written about habits and it’s not a topic I can cover comprehensively in this post, but I can give you a summary to at least point you in the right direction. According to the Fogg Behavior Model, there are three things that impact whether we perform an action, like going for a workout or eating healthy food:

Motivation: How motivated are we to do it? How much do we want it?

Ability: How easy or difficult is it to perform the action? How much activation energy is needed, i.e. the initial effort to start. Research has shown that having a lot of choices and decisions to make introduces mental friction, so we’ll want to reduce those!

Prompts: Do we have something that prompts or triggers us to do it?

Think of MAP to help you remember the components. In essence, the model says that you perform an action when Motivation (M), Ability (A), and a Prompt (P) come together at the same moment.

Here are a few things you can do to enable and build habits:

  • Find habits you already have and build upon them. Fill in the blanks: “After I ___, I will ___”. For example: After I come into the kitchen in the morning, I will drink a glass of water. Or: After I turn off my work computer, I will go for a 30 min walk. Your existing habits serve as an anchor point.
  • Create prompts. We talked about the environment already. While motivation and willpower are important, they won’t get you there. Create visible or audible prompts in your environment to initiate your habits. So set that phone alarm and put that sticky on your mirror. Use anchors as prompts.
  • Make what you want to do easier and what you don’t want harder to do. If your running shoes are right in front of your door, you’re more likely to put them on and get out there. If there’s no more ice cream in your freezer, you’re less likely to down a pint of Häagen-Dazs while you watch TV.  
  • Start small, establish consistency, and then expand. It’s important to build a reliable routine first and then expand it. So start with small (tiny) things and then grow your habit. 5 push-ups over a 45 min HIIT class, replacing that glass of sugary morning OJ with water over a strict no-carb diet.
  • Celebrate your success. Research has shown that the feeling of success helps burn in and solidify your habits. It’s the most important part of habit creation. Tune into your feeling of accomplishment. Feel free to clap your hands, pump your fist, exclaim “Awesome!”, pat yourself on the shoulder (literally), or whatever works for you. The key is that your celebration is immediate and authentic to you. Feel good about your emerging habit, no matter how small it may be at the outset.
  • There’s a lot more to be said about habit creation, so these are just starting points. If you’d like to dive deep into the topic, check out Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg as an excellent resource.
  • The main takeaway is this: Don’t rely on willpower and forced discipline. Instead, design sustainable habits into your life, so the changes you make in your life are not temporary but something you always do because it is an automatic part of your day-to-day routine.


3. Measure Results

So now that you’re logging your nutrition and exercise (you’re still doing this, right?), adjusting your nutrition, exercising, leveraging your environment, and creating habits, we need to measure the results of your efforts.

Are you able to stay within your daily budget? If yes, fantastic! If not, keep tweaking your nutrition and exercise until you do, at least most days.

How do you feel? Do you have more energy? Do you feel better? How’s your weight? Is your fitness improving? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment, that you’re moving in the right direction?

I recommend you get on the scales and log your weight in your tracking app, every day or at least most days. Do so at the same time each day, e.g. right before going to bed. (You guessed it: Use an anchor for this new habit as well, e.g. “When I put away my toothbrush, I will step on the scales…” etc.) 

Hopefully, you’ll slowly start to see those pounds coming off. Some days, you’ll see progress. Other days you won’t or your weight might actually go up a little. Keep in mind that your weight will fluctuate, for a number of reasons, for example: how much liquid you’ve consumed that day or when you’ve had your last bowel movement. So if the scales go upward for a day or two, don’t freak out!

What are realistic weight loss goals? Experts agree that the right way to lose weight is to aim for a safe, healthy rate of weight loss of 1 to 1½ pounds per week. Two caveats from my own experience:

  1. While you’re still seeding small habits and expanding on them, your weight loss will start slowly until you build more momentum.
  2. Once you’ve got your groove and are doing more to affect your weight, you’ll likely be able to lose it faster. As you progress in your journey and your body fat percentage drops, weight loss will likely slow down. That is normal.
  3. If you didn’t exercise much before but now are, you might see less weight loss. Why? You may be shedding fat, but at the same time, you’re building muscle mass. So if you lose 1 lb of fat but gain 0.5 lb of muscle, your net weight loss will only be 0.5 lb.

Keep at it! And don’t forget to celebrate and make your lifestyle changes part of your habits with support from your environment.

Use the measurements of calorie intake, calorie burn, and weight as inputs to a feedback loop, so you can optimize further or stay on a course that works! If you’re moving in the right direction, keep doing what you’re doing and acknowledge your success! If you don’t see the results you’re expecting, don’t get discouraged and figure out what you can change to get back on track. This is a journey and trial and error along the way is normal!

Armed with the knowledge of your results, the circle closes and repeats.


So when are you “done” with all of this?

This is actually where the difference between behavior change and traditional diets comes in. With a diet, you may reach your end goal (or tire out and give up) and you stop what you were doing. So you inadvertently go back to what you have been doing before, the weight slowly keeps creeping up again, and the vicious diet cycle starts over.

With sustainable habits anchored into your life, it doesn’t feel like you’re expending a lot of effort doing something out of the ordinary. This is just what you do now, it’s part of who you are. It’s not a “special thing” you’re doing anymore.

That said, once you have…

  • Gained awareness of how to calorie budget, what kinds of foods are good and bad for you,
  • Modified your eating habits,
  • Started habitually burning more calories through a more active lifestyle,
  • Adjusted your environment to be supportive, and
  • Started approaching your goal weight,

… you could stop logging your food and exercise. You have built the skills to do this now intuitively. Once a quarter, I still recommend to resuming your log for 2-3 days, just to make sure your skills and sense for your budget are still sharp.

I also recommend you continue to weigh yourself a few times a week, just as a safety net to ensure you’re still where you want to be and aware of any changes.

At this point, what you’ve learned along the way should stay with you. Your new behaviors shouldn’t be “new” anymore as they’ve become automatic routines requiring little conscious effort. 

Instead of being complacent with where you are now and going stagnant, keep experimenting, optimizing, and expanding your habits. Have you ever tried intermittent fasting? Give it a shot. Not your thing? Try out what healthy shakes you can create with a blender. Never done yoga or HIIT? Get a mat, find a virtual beginner’s class, and give it a go. Not a fan of going for a run in the morning before work? Experiment with getting moving during lunch. There are endless new and different things to try out. Keep it fresh!

When you started your journey of habits, tiny was great to get you going and “grow roots”. Now that you’ve hopefully anchored those habits into your life, you should expand on them and make them even more effective in support of your goals. So slowly start doing more while always making sure to celebrate your successes.


I hope this different approach to weight loss has been educational and productive for you. However, a post like this has limitations in terms of length and level of detail. If you have more specific questions or would like to receive more tailored advice, please consider individual coaching.





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