- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

Dave Abel lost about 30 pounds nearly two years ago, and he has no intention of letting the weight come back.

“My life is as busy and stressful as it’s ever going to be,” Mr. Abel says.

However, the 38-year-old lost about 30 pounds nearly two years ago, and he has no intention of letting the weight come back.

Mr. Abel’s success isn’t typical. Many people trying to lose weight do, in fact, shed some pounds initially. More often than not, however, they gain it all back, and then some.

Only about 20 percent of overweight people lose weight and keep it off, according to a report in the Providence, R.I.-based National Weight Control Registry. Those figures involve people who lost at least 10 percent of their initial body weight and kept it off for at least a year.

What makes Mr. Abel’s story and the tales forged by others like him different from the experiences of those who lose and gain weight in perpetuity? It’s a combination of willpower and planning.

Mr. Abel certainly can’t pin his success on good genes.

“I’m one of those people who are deeply punished for any mistakes in eating,” Mr. Abel says. “I gain weight thinking about food.”

Like many dieters, he says his weight fluctuated throughout college and into his adult years. One day, he says, he had had enough.

“I prioritized my health and fitness on par with other important things in my life, like career and family,” says Mr. Abel, who works out with District-based personal trainer Yaz Boyum.

Planning makes it possible.

“It’s essential I plan what I’m going to eat and where I’m going to eat,” says Mr. Abel, who plots out his diet for the upcoming week on Sundays.

Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says consistency is the unifying element with successful dieters.

“They eat breakfast every day. They have a high level of physical activity, often an hour a day,” Ms. Zied says.

Success-story dieters also keep tabs on their progress by measuring their waist sizes and stepping on scales frequently.

Ms. Zied understands how hard losing weight — and keeping it lost — can be. She used to carry 30 extra pounds around with her.

“I weigh less now than ever. For me, it came down to deciding each bite I take is not the end all, be all. … I care more about the big picture,” she says.

Successful dieting involves some sacrifices, but too many will sink a person’s best efforts.

“When people cut calories too extremely or cut out food groups, it sets you up for failure,” Ms. Zied says. “I don’t think there’s any room for guilt in any diet. It gets you nowhere.” Giving yourself permission to eat some tasty food can sustain a diet in the long run, she adds.

Judith S. Beck, author of “The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person,” says successful dieters permanently change their way of thinking when it comes to lifestyle choices.

“It’s hard for people to accept at first,” says Ms. Beck, an associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. “They say, ‘I don’t know if I can keep this up.’

“It gets easier and easier,” she assures.

Dieters also should make sure not to instigate any changes that only work in the short term. For example, if a person’s schedule lightens suddenly, it’s best not to start cooking elaborate but healthy meals that won’t be easy to replicate once the schedule shifts back to normal.

Ms. Beck can quickly spot two qualities that will tell her if a dieter will be successful in the long run. Steady dieters who make a mistake in their eating will forgive themselves and get back on track the next day, she says.

“If they don’t say, ‘I’ve blown it,’ it’s a really good sign they’ll be successful for the rest of their lives,” she says.

An even better indicator is how that person navigates a temptation-filled party. If the person can leave the party feeling triumphant, not grumpy, that he or she stuck to a healthy diet plan, it points to a brighter future.

The path toward dieting success may not be easy to find the first time around.

Margaret Bell, a 38-year-old territory manager for Weight Watchers’ District region, says she tried to lose weight a number of times before finding the right formula.

“I had been raised in a healthy household but didn’t know about nutrition,” says Ms. Bell, who gained weight in her 20s when her lifestyle grew more sedentary.

It took three tries with the Weight Watchers program before Ms. Bell lost the weight — permanently.

“You have to be ready to really change,” Ms. Bell says. “Every day you have to ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do to make good choices?’ ”

Ms. Bell finally understood that her life would have to change to keep her weight in balance.

“It’s like anything else important in life. You’re going to live a certain way to get to that goal,” she says. “It is livable. You can have a fun life with food and still be healthy.”

Also, as Ms. Beck says, a temporary slip-up shouldn’t be the end.

A confidante with Weight Watchers once told Ms. Bell, “If you were running a race and you fell, you wouldn’t go back to the starting line.”

Mr. Abel doesn’t sugarcoat how hard it is to maintain his current weight.

“It’s a lifelong commitment,” he says.

There is, however, a bright side.

“I enjoy eating more than I did,” he says, adding that he still eats weight-busting foods such as chocolate, but in lesser quantities.

“I’m only going to eat really good chocolate,” he says.

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