Stages of change in weight loss

Disclaimer: before we start, I want to make it clear that these stages apply to any health goal, but in this post I will focus specifically on fat loss.

You’ve been through this before, you go on a diet, or if you’ve done enough of those you’ve been sold a “lifestyle change” instead of a diet, and it’s all working well, you get to maintenance and then… you gain weight again!

Damn that’s frustrating!! Now, I’ve talked about starvation mode, and I’ve talked about how your body fights fat loss, but this post is less sciency and more behavioral. Today I’m going to talk to you about why this happens, not from a biological point of view, but from a emotional and behavioral point of view.

You may have heard of the 6 stages of change, namely:

Stages of Change: Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance and Relapse.

When it comes to weight loss, this is a pattern we see all the time, and no wonder… it’s a pattern for most change in our life. As you can see in the picture, it’s an upward spiral, meaning that after every relapse, there will be a return to a previous phase (more on this later). There is a repetition that goes in to behavioral change before it becomes ingrained.

Let’s see this in action when it comes to fat loss.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation
“I don’t need to change.”
In this stage there is no intention to take action towards weight loss. Maybe you’ve tried it before and failed, and you feel demoralized, and don’t believe it is possible for you. This is where while we may know there is an issue, we are not willing to change, or do not believe we are able.

This may come as a wake up call at a doctor’s office, or seeing how high your weight has gone, or feeling that your body is no longer performing well, however this happens, there is a recognition that there is a need to reduce body fat, however, there is no drive to take action, and there is no belief that it can be done.

Stage 2: Contemplation
“I might change.”
In this stage you want to lose weight… eventually. This is where the starting Monday, or next month, or in January arguments come in. Here you are very aware of why making change is important, but the hardships feel too hard.

Balancing the work it will take with the future benefits often leaves people stuck in this phase for quite a while.

Stage 3: Preparation
“I will change. Really!”
In this stage there is a firm intention to change, and a willingness to develop an action plan. This is where having a coach makes a huge difference because working together we can find the best strategies to reach your goal in the healthiest way possible, while decreasing your chances of a relapse.

Here you intend to move to the action stage soon, and usually begin putting actions in place, for example, hiring a coach, choosing a diet, organizing your schedule, etc.

Stage 4: Action
“I have started to change”.
Here you have a plan, you are taking steps, and forming new behavior patterns. This is usually the longest of the first 4 stages, and it normally lasts at least 6 months. The length of time in this stage depends on how much weight there is to lose, your consistency, and what strategies are in place to reach your goal.

This is a very particular stage, because each person has different variables:
– how much weight needs to be lost
– type of diet (flexible, plate method, hand method, etc)
– diet breaks being used or not
– reverse dieting necessary or not
– vacations taken during this time
– etc

In this stage, after about 6 months, you have made good progress, you have modified your lifestyle and your progress is observable by other people.

Stage 5: Maintenance
“I have changed.”
Maintenance is so amazing! Here a new pattern of behavior, as well as the fat loss acquired in the action phase, has been sustained for a reasonable amount of time, and by reasonable we are talking at least 1 year. The goal is to sustain this fat loss for the long term.

In this stage you progressively become confident that you can continue with the lifestyle you have, and the behaviors are embedded into your life. How you eat, your exercise routine, your quality of sleep, your hydration, your relationship with food, your mindset work, all these things are embedded into your life. You eat well, exercise, sleep well, manage stress, and hydrate no matter how busy or free you are, no matter what is going on in your life. These behaviors are a priority, and non negotiable.

Based on current data, maintenance lasts anywhere from 6 months to 5 years.

Stage 6: Relapse
“I’ve returned to my old ways.”
A relapse isn’t actually a stage, it’s a return to an earlier stage. For this reason it’s gray in the graphics. The relapse doesn’t necessarily restart the entire cycle.

Relapse is a failure to maintain the existing fat loss, either due to inaction (going back to previous eating patterns, not moving your body enough, etc) or to wrong activity (using food as a coping mechanism, for example).

Relapse, or fat regain, is typical, but it is not inevitable. The biggest reason why fat regain happens is a lack of an exit strategy, and that is why our work together is so important during maintenance for a prolonged time.

So does that mean that you are doomed to forever lose and gain weight????? NOPE!!
Here’s the good news:

There is a 7th stage, it’s called Termination.

This is the stage where the temptation to return to old eating patterns and life behaviors is no longer present.

I know, it sounds like the unicorn of fat loss, but it’s possible. That being said, only 5% of people who lose weight reach this stage (considered to be reached after 3 years of maintaining the weight lost), and that is a sadly low number. In Termination, behavioral change is part of who you are, there is success, you don’t have the temptations you used to have, and your self efficacy is 100%.

The eating, exercising, sleeping, hydration, and stress management actions are no longer simply a priority, they are done without conscious effort, they are ingrained in your being, in who you are.

In fat loss this means “Maintenance”. When you’re finally done with losing weight and can have a different focus in life. You won’t go back to overeating, or only eating highly palatable, ultra processed foods as a coping strategy – be it due to an argument with your partner, a vacation, a life situation that seems to implode your world, unhappiness at work, or a dent in your car.

You have found healthier ways to cope with life, and the new behavior is no longer a struggle, it’s part of your identity and lifestyle and has persisted for a long time (at least a year, ideally 3+ years when it comes to fat loss).

But how do we get there?

This is the million dollar question, not because the answer is complex, but because it’s so deceptively simple. The way to reach the Termination stage is to practice. Not for 21 days, not for a year, not for a vacation. Just to keep doing the right thing day in and day out year after year.

I wish I could say it’s fast. There are so many numbers out there saying that a habit is formed in 14 days, or 21 days, or 60 days, and I’m not here to dispute that. The thing is… a habit is different from a trait of being. Having these behaviors and choices be second nature takes time, a lot of time. Some will become engrained super quick, some will take years, some may take a lifetime.

The point is that you CAN get there. It just takes the opposite of what this insipid diet culture would have you believe: it takes time and patience. This level of behavioral change does not happen overnight.

So here’s my suggestion to you: make the investment. Choose to do the small things day in and day out that will yield the biggest results.

Sleep enough hours (7-9h per night is a great aim)
Eat 80% minimally processed foods
Make those mostly plants and protein
Drink water
Exercise (push yourself)
Have fun (find things that bring you pleasure and make time for them)
Lower stress (do whatever it takes to learn to manage your stressors)

Easy? Nope, not even a little bit. Simple? Much, MUCH simpler than you would expect.

Don’t major in the minors, as Layne Norton likes to say, meaning, don’t give your time and attention to fads and tiny details. Major in the majors. Master the seemingly little things that have massive impact.

You’ve got this.

For more support in reaching your goals, check out my coaching options here.