Keeping the Weight Off: An Interview with Ellen Granberg, PhD

Ellen Granberg is an obesity sociologist who studies the processes that people go through when they lose weight and keep it off. As she says, “If the problem were that we don’t know what people should eat to lose weight, that would be one thing, but we don’t have that problem. There are a hundred weight loss plans out there that are perfectly good. We understand all about the physiology of weight loss maintenance and the metabolic impacts, but nothing about the social and emotional impacts. People who sustain weight loss over time move through a lot of different challenges.”

Dr. Granberg lost 120 pounds 15 years ago. She says, “To this day, I weigh pretty much everything that goes into my mouth. It took me a while to make up my mind that it was worth it. Our cultural lore encourages the idea that losing weight is the most important thing you can do to bring about the life that you want. But people who successfully lose weight are motivated by rewards that are very specific and concrete–like lowering their blood pressure or being able to lower their insulin. It’s all about coming down to earth and being motivated by something that could actually happen.”

“It is a real learning process. You lose, you gain, you lose, you gain, you lose, and through that process, people who eventually do keep it off learn a little bit each time. Letting go of the idea that your life will be perfect if you lose weight is not easy. For the people who make it, that idea basically gets beaten out of them, until they are willing to trade ‘I’m going to be a movie star’ for ‘I can walk up stairs more easily.'”

For people struggling to lose weight and keep it off, Dr. Granberg suggests “asking yourself if there are smaller, more manageable goals that losing weight could help you attain. Ask ‘Are there things going on in my life today that it would be really nice if they were easier? Maybe I could get in and out of the car easily, or could go up the stairs without difficulty.’ Often we look at those kinds of goals and say ‘Well, that’s just not enough to give up eating what I want.’ It’s important to keep in mind that people who do sustain weight loss over time take fulfillment from those small victories. In fact, those small victories are a big deal.”

Dr. Granberg says, “You need to be motivated by immediate things, the near-term, pragmatic benefits that will sustain you in the end. The people who sustain weight loss talk about how happy it makes them that they can cross their legs.” She adds, “People who are diabetic experience some important benefits right away. Many are able to reduce the amount of medication that they use. Don’t focus on the distant future, long-term dangers of diabetes, but think about the immediate payoffs of losing weight. There are a lot of them.”

Dr. Granberg also notes that if you feel disappointed at the results of your weight loss, remember that those feelings are normal and to be expected. In fact, they’re just a predictable phase in the process. For people who have been heavy for years, it takes two or three years before they feel normal at their new weight. “It’s really ‘slow and steady wins the race,'” says Dr. Granberg. “We are so conditioned to expect that it’s going to be the hare and not the tortoise who wins the race. If it’s not the hare, we immediately think that something’s wrong, but weight loss is a tortoise thing.”

“If you can just wait it out, hold on and not get frustrated, just live in the thinner body and hang on for a while, you will start to find things to appreciate about it, the small rewards.”

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