CINCINNATI -- Weight loss tops countless New Year's resolution lists each year, and although it's a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S., most experts agree there's no real secret to dropping pounds.
The simple consensus: eat less (unhealthy) food and exercise more.
That's not easy for those struggling with their weight, however, and, unfortunately, many who set weight-loss goals this time of year will fall off the wagon by year's end.
So how do you make that new weight-loss goal stick for 2017 and beyond?
You could scour the internet to find the latest fad diet or buy that expensive new piece of exercise equipment advertisers are pushing and hope for the best. Or you can fully commit to a lifestyle change.
Ann Kearney-Cooke suggests the latter. She is a psychologist, national speaker and best-selling author based in Cincinnati, and she works with patients on a wide range of emotional and behavioral issues, including the treatment of eating disorders.
"Most people already know what they should be doing," Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., said of committing to a healthier lifestyle. "They just can't seem to stick with it."
In other words, if you start out the day making healthy food choices but end up eating junk food (or overeating) later in the day, you're not alone. That's common, she said, and there's a reason for it.
Kearney-Cooke has spent much of her career looking at the psychology behind this common problem and has found that much of it centers on willpower, but not in the way one would think. It's not that people don't have enough overall willpower to resist the temptation of unhealthy (or too much) food, she said. It's that most people don't know how to replenish willpower as it progressively diminishes over the course of a day.
"We know, as the day goes on, willpower decreases," she explained. "It's like a muscle, and it can get fatigued."
As a normal day progresses, she said, willpower in most people gets depleted little by little by a variety of factors, including stress, demanding work or home projects and even resisting the temptation of those fresh, calorie-packed donuts that seem to always be available in the conference room at your job.
When willpower is finally depleted (usually by the evening), Kearney-Cooke said, your capacity to make good decisions decreases and the likelihood that you'll engage in self-destructive behaviors increases.
"It's important to manage your energy throughout the day to increase your willpower," she noted. "That's essential if you want to lose weight or change any behavior."
Ways to replenish your willpower include taking a short break at different times throughout the day to take a quick walk, stretch, meditate or pray, or even just watch a funny video on YouTube at your desk. She also suggests you get enough sleep, stay hydrated and eat three meals each day to help keep your energy and willpower up.
Kearney-Cooke shared the following tips to help us stay on track with our weight-loss goals:
Set a realistic goal
It's important, she said, to set a realistic goal -- and don't beat yourself up on your journey to get there.
You've heard this before, but there's a reason for that. Kearney-Cooke said one of the biggest mistakes people make when striving for a healthier lifestyle is setting unrealistic goals for their weight. When their progress doesn't measure up to their unrealistic expectations, she said, they often give up.
"When it comes to weight, there is a lot of shame and self-hate," she added. "You have to push yourself, but it's also important to be compassionate and kind to yourself. Changing a habit is hard work."
Weight is affected by a variety of factors that go beyond healthy eating, she added. Genetics, age and the medications you're taking all play a role as well. Goal-setters have to keep all of that in mind and plan accordingly.
And, Kearney-Cooke said, falling off the wagon from time to time is normal. You can't dwell on it.
"Overcoming overeating is not about perfection," she explained. "If you go off track, you can quickly get back on track at your next meal."
Put in the time and work
Losing weight doesn't just happen by magic, and those who are serious about adopting healthier eating habits have to make a commitment and make it a priority in their life, Kearney-Cooke said.
"You have to put in the time every day to have success," she said. "I tell my clients to plan on an hour and 15 minutes to an hour-and-a-half each day."
Kearney-Cooke suggests 45 minutes of movement every day and stresses that it doesn't have to be in a gym or on a treadmill. Her motto on movement: Do what makes you happy.
Healthy food prep and planning should take at least 15 minutes each day, she said, and about that same amount of time should be spent on the short breaks, which she said "reset your nervous system" throughout the day to help maintain your energy and willpower levels.
People looking to change their eating habits should also be sure to do at least one pleasurable activity every day, she said. It can be something as simple as burning a favorite candle or watching the sunset.
"We're all working hard and short on time, but we all need a certain amount of pleasure each day," she noted. "You don't want your only source of pleasure in the course of a day to be food."
Adopt these four habits of successful people
Changing a behavior is a different journey for everyone, but Kearney-Cooke said many of her clients who have successfully achieved their goals for weight loss and more share these same habits:
1. They set goals that fit their values.
2. They manage their energy and stress levels all day.
3. They set good boundaries and know how and when to say no.
4. They set up a social support system, and accept help and support when they need it from friends and family.
Kearney-Cooke recommends that goal-setters make a list of their top five values and create a pie chart that shows the breakdown of how they're using their time each day. They should align, and their goal should fit into one of the categories.
"Your pie chart should reflect what you value most in your life," she said. "If it doesn't, you may need to set up some boundaries in certain areas. You can't set good boundaries with food if you don't set boundaries in other areas of your life."