Mix and Match to Find the Best Weight-Loss Plan for You

Ever wonder why one person can succeed at losing weight with a low-carb diet, while someone else banishes bread and doesn't drop a single pound? Maybe your cousin only needs to exercise three times a week to meet her goals, but you only notice a change with at least five days of sweat. From body chemistry to genetics to prior weight loss, there are countless factors that can make a strategy successful for one person, but not another. We all gain and lose at our own pace, which is why one weight-loss plan does not fit all.
Instead of implementing the identical strategy of your friend, co-worker or fitness buddy and expecting the same results, the key is to create a unique plan that's custom-tailored to your body, your needs and your goals.

Finding Success through Trial and Error

Each of us are likely to have different responses to different weight loss plans—but how long should you follow a strategy before deciding it's not working and moving onto something else?

According to the 2013 AHA/ACC/TOS Guideline for the Management of Overweight and Obesity in Adults, a program that includes lifestyle change, dietary modification and exercise should be followed for at least three months or 12 weeks to generate a weight loss averaging one to two pounds per week. If you haven't lost at least five pounds at the end of that time period, you might want to consider another strategy.
Dr. Apovian uses a "trial and error" approach with her clients—when they discover that something doesn't work, they work together to make adjustments instead of starting from scratch. "For example, if some weight is coming off due to a dietary strategy, such as following a low-carb diet, but the patient then gets stuck at a plateau, we might add a medication or start some resistance training," she says. "Adding and subtracting to an approach that is working, but not producing vigorous results, can be very effective."

She also points out that plateaus are a natural part of the weight-loss process, and not always an indicator of a failed approach. Over the course of several years, many of her patients have experienced a sequence of weight loss, followed by a plateau, followed by weight gain, then weight loss again, then another plateau—but the end result is usually significant weight loss with combinations of different strategies. "Those strategies may include diet, exercise, medications and sometimes surgery," says Dr. Apovian. "The journey is long, but successful."

7 Ingredients for a Successful Weight- Loss Plan

Although every weight-loss plan is different, Dr. Caroline Apovian, director of the nutrition and weight management at the Boston Medical Center, says there are some core ingredients you can "mix and match" when creating your strategy.
1. Pack in the protein

Thanks to a process called sarcopenia, adults begin to lose muscle mass around age 30 at a rate of one percent per year, and even faster after age 40. Because our basal metabolic rate is primarily determined by how much lean muscle mass we have, our metabolisms naturally slow down as our muscles shrink, which can result in weight gain during middle age.

To counteract this effect, Dr. Apovian recommends planning meals around a lean protein source, such as salmon, chicken or turkey, and then supplementing with fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains. "Protein rebuilds lean muscle mass, which keeps you toned, strong and trim," says Dr. Apovian. If it's a challenge to get enough protein from whole foods without exceeding your target calorie count for weight loss, smoothies are a convenient, low-calorie way to make up that deficit.

2. Lift weight to lose weight

When it comes to burning calories and torching fat, cardio always seems like a good idea—but is it possible to spin, run or stair-step your way to a weight-loss plateau? Although aerobic exercise has a slew of benefits—including improved heart health, lung capacity, energy and stress management—Dr. Apovian cautions that it's a mistake to focus only on cardio.

"To lose weight and keep it off, muscle mass must be built up and maintained, especially as we age," she says. To achieve this, Dr. Apovian recommends working out with weights a couple of times per week. As an added bonus, strength training has also been shown to lower stress levels, improve cognitive abilities, protect against bone loss and reduce risks for Type 2 diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease.

If you've been anxious about venturing into the weight room, your experience may surprise you. Check out these seven stubborn myths.

3. Get enough sleep

It may seem like hitting the gym is more important than hitting the sack, but sleep is vital for all the body's functions, including balancing hormones, repairing muscles and keeping obesity at bay.

Studies have shown that getting less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep increases the chances of obesity. "A chronic lack of sleep increases levels of the stress hormone (cortisol) and the hunger hormone (ghrelin), while also slowing the metabolism and decreasing leptin, a satiety hormone,” says Dr. Apovian.

This is why you might feel ravenous after a sleepless night, no matter what you eat. To stay on track toward your weight-loss goals, make it a priority to get at least eight hours of shuteye. Also, try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, even on weekends.

4. Try intermittent fasting

Research has revealed that intermittent fasting could help to speed up metabolism, decrease inflammation, reduce blood pressure and decrease the risk of Type 2 diabetes. At her weight-loss clinic, Dr. Apovian uses a variation of intermittent fasting. One day per week, her clients take a temporary break from solid foods and drink high-protein smoothies instead.
"This achieves many of the same health benefits while helping people feel full and protecting their muscles," she says. Although Dr. Apovian uses her own protein powder, any low-calorie, unsweetened powder that contains around 20 grams of protein per serving will suffice.

5. Become a stress ninja

Have you ever noticed it's much tougher to resist that pint of ice cream when you're feeling stressed? It turns out there's a scientific reason for that weakened willpower. According to Dr. Apovian, when we feel stressed, our bodies release cortisol into our systems. The cortisol signals the body to replenish energy, whether or not we’ve engaged in any physical activity to fight off our stressors—which then translates into bigger appetites, driving us to overeat.

"Cortisol prompts our bodies to crave sugars and carbohydrates, encouraging unhealthy food choices," notes Dr. Apovian. "Stress also interferes with getting a sound night’s sleep, which further interrupts weight loss."

In addition to the expected outlets like exercise and meditation, try Coach Jen's 17 productive ways to make life less stressful.

6. Find support

The problem with diets is that they can rely entirely on willpower, which may work for a well-rested, relaxed, supported person, but not so well for the overtired, stressed, isolated person. Dr. Apovian recommends minimizing the likelihood of giving into temptation by establishing a strong support network.

"Find some friends who are also interested in weight loss, join a program that has regular meetings or consider meeting with a therapist," she suggests. "Even finding an online community can be very encouraging and help keep you going when you hit a plateau, become frustrated or experience more stress than usual." Lucky for you, you’re already in the right place!

7. See your doctor
Some people are fortunate enough to reach a healthy weight on their own through diet and exercise. For others, there are biological reasons—such as health conditions or medications—that make weight loss extremely difficult, or even impossible. In these cases, Dr. Apovian says it may be necessary to consult your physician.

What Worked (and Didn't Work) for SparkPeople Members


What worked: Tracking food and exercise. Tracking before I eat it is a big difference for me, so I don't fool myself. Also, having a support group. I post daily on a message board for ladies over 60. We face similar challenges with age, metabolism and health.
What didn't work: I tried intermittent fasting, and while it should work in theory, it threw off my regimen and it took months to get back to the method that works, [which is] just nutritious eating and tracking.


What worked: Tracking food helps me plan what to eat and makes me aware of what I'm eating and how much. It also forces me to practice portion control. Without tracking, I conveniently forget and I find myself overeating. Also, what I eat is as important as how many calories I consume. I do better getting my carbs from veggies and limiting too many fruits. If I do have potatoes, rice or pasta, I make sure to limit the amount and mix in plenty of veggies. When I do crave starches, I find that adding beans to my dishes is the perfect solution.
What didn't work: Having a cheat day. I can undo a week's worth of hard work in a single day.


What worked: Joining a gym with a friend. Not only was it fun to have a buddy to exercise with, but it helped to keep me accountable.


What worked: Portion control and exercise. I started (in 2006) at 236 pounds with 1,600 calories and 20 minutes of "barely" exercising a day. I went down to 145 pounds by gradually reducing calories to 1,250 a day and increasing exercise to, in some cases, two to three hours for marathon training. I am currently maintaining weight loss with 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day and daily exercise where some days are more intense than others.
What didn't work: The myriad of "diets" I had tried before! I'm just not good at being told what I can and cannot eat.


What worked: Weighing my food with an electronic scale, eating whole foods and making sure I receive a balanced diet of protein, fat and carbohydrates. By letting go of the low-carb notion, I allowed myself to eat fruits and vegetables that I was avoiding. I keep lots of colorful vegetables on hand. I can eat a nice volume of healthy foods and feel so much better. I don't eat bread and cereal every day, but I do eat those things occasionally. I exercise three to four times a week and walk quite a bit for my job.
What didn't work: Low carb. I still believe that eating sugary junk triggers mindless eating, and I generally feel bad if I eat junk. I no longer avoid potatoes, but I don't put too much on them and enjoy the taste.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for weight loss, there is an ideal approach for you. With some patience, persistence and some good old-fashioned trial and error, you can find the right combination of strategies to achieve long-term, sustainable results.