The sweet spot is 66 days of consistent, daily achievement of small habits to reach your goal.
Whether you’re avoiding added sugar, fat or salt, that goal is supported by many habits: more sleep, water, reading labels, intermittent fasting, waiting for 30 minutes before deciding on dessert, etc. To achieve your goal, you need to adopt many small habits over time and stick to them.
“All diets work to some extent even if they make you sick. Keeping the weight off, you need to have habits and consistent action to stay on the trajectory you want,” said Dr. Rosane Oliveira at the 2021 Truth about Weight Loss Summit.
Oliveira was a vegetarian veterinarian who wanted to help the dairy industry produce more milk, until her research led her to switch to veganism. Unlike her, all the women in her family had weight problems, even her identical twin.
She compared the results of her vegan diet and her twin’s omnivorous choices and found that even on diets when her sister would lose weight, her twin’s biomarkers like cholesterol were high. Once her twin adopted the same low-fat, whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet she was eating, her sister’s biomarkers stabilized.
Now the founding director of Integrative Medicine at the University of California Davis, Oliveira teaches people how food and lifestyle can turn their genes on and off to promote health or disease.
“To create a habit that sticks for a lifetime, you need time, daily and consistent effort and action, and emotion because we only learn through emotion,” she said.
However, Oliveira cautioned against how women typically call themselves “emotional eaters.”
“All humans are emotional, because we all like to gain pleasure and avoid pain,” she said.
Also, don’t ask why you eat because it’s disempowering. “Where there’s blame, there’s shame. Be aware of this and shift to ‘what’ questions instead,” she said.
So, instead of “Why did I eat all the chips?,” ask yourself, “What can I do next time that will help me not get the chips? What can I learn from the situation?”
According to Oliveira, diminishing portions, calorie counting or ramping up exercise are all faulty assumptions, because they don’t work on habits that are sustainable over a lifetime.
She recommended instead to eat more and weigh less by applying the concepts of calorie density and volumetrics, as water and fiber bound to fruits and veggies automatically make you full longer on fewer calories.
Exercise shouldn’t be used as a weight-loss tool either.
“It is helpful and necessary for overall health, but one shouldn’t be reliant on it as the main tool. Very few people can consistently commit to work out daily for an hour,” said Oliveira.
Instead, she recommended swapping water for soda, juice or alcohol: “Drink one to two glasses of water 30 minutes before you eat so you feel fuller. Going WFPB gives you even more water in your food. Do this for at least 66 days before you tack on another habit. You can do several new habits at once, but the chances of them all sticking after 66 days and beyond is very slim.”
Stacking a new habit with something you already do every day makes it easier to stick. For instance, have two glasses of water before breakfast, two before lunch, two before dinner. If you make tea every morning, put a glass beside your kettle for a visual reminder to drink two glasses of water, too.
Since morning habits tend to stick more than evening habits, Oliveira advised to stack exercise and drinking water first thing in the morning. Or, put on your exercise clothes right before brushing your teeth in the morning so the chances of making time for exercise are higher.
Where to start? Drink more water. Ditch the fat and salt.“Don’t add salt when cooking. Food will be bland, but you’ll adjust,” she said. “If you’re older than 50, drop bread, even if it’s whole wheat or sprouted, because of all the sodium, plus you’ll tend to eat excess fat with bread. Or stop eating dessert.”
Added sugar is in everything, even in condiments like ketchup, so reading food labels is another habit worth adding.
The habit cycle starts with a cue, an action and then a reward. So, for instance, after lunch, instead of having dessert, brush your teeth right away. Keep a dental kit in your purse when you’re out and set a phone alarm to stack this new habit onto your regular routine.