The Diet Detective: Triggering Weight Loss

Believe it or not, a comment such as, "You've gained weight!" could be the best thing that ever happened to you. A study done at the University of Colorado Health Science Center and reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that for a majority of weight-loss maintainers success was usually preceded by a "trigger event or critical incident." This event could be medical (a doctor tells you to lose weight), emotional (someone makes a derogatory comment about your weight) or a life event (a divorce).

Whatever its origin, a trigger event is invariably an "aha" moment that causes you to examine your life from a new perspective so that you gain new insight and see yourself as you really are. It's arriving at a higher level of perception. You know that the course your life has been taking is no longer acceptable and that you need to change.

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However, "The decision to lose weight and the reasons behind the decision do not necessarily differentiate the successful dieter from the unsuccessful dieter. In fact, the decision may only start the process but be insufficient to maintain enthusiasm beyond a few months," says Kristi J. Ferguson, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. So, what are some of the more common trigger events? And do they actually work to sustain weight loss?

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Trigger: Medical Diagnosis

Examples : Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, low-back pain, fatigue.

How it works : You're willing to change your long-standing, ingrained behaviors because you want to avoid their negative health consequences. You want to live longer, and you're afraid your quality of life will be extremely low.

Will it last : Probably. A disturbing medical diagnosis or warning is the number one trigger for long-term weight control. In fact, one study published in Preventive Medicine found that individuals whose weight loss was triggered by a medical event had greater initial weight losses and better long-term maintenance than individuals whose weight loss was triggered by any other life change. "Hearing that you have high blood pressure or that a close friend has just been diagnosed with diabetes can be an extremely powerful, teachable moment for making changes in your eating and exercise behaviors," says Amy Gorin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown Medical School and the Miriam Hospital. However, old habits die hard.

Make it last : Don't think that simply receiving a "death threat" will carry you to the gym every morning. This is a strong motivator, but you still need to come up with a strategy that will last forever. Also, keep in mind that a medical diagnosis can easily be tossed aside--"Well, I'm not going to live forever anyway." Try to keep quality of life in mind: As long as you are alive, you want to live a good life.

Trigger: Special Event or Life Change

Examples : A wedding or divorce, a high school or college reunion, an anniversary, birthday, college graduation or a new job all can trigger a determination to lose weight.

How it works : You're highly motivated with a crystal-clear goal--you'll do almost anything to reach your objective. But, oftentimes this means adopting behaviors that are probably only temporary.

Will it last : A special or life-changing event is a great motivator in the short run, and it can be used to help you get going. However, an overweight woman who wants to lose weight for her wedding day is unlikely to sustain her interest in weight loss beyond the wedding. "The process of weight loss is entered with some specific goal in mind. Once achieved, weight maintenance involves no goal-directed behavior other than 'keeping at it.' Maintenance, therefore, poses the major problem and requires a motivator that will keep people doing what they are unaccustomed to doing long after they have achieved their weight-loss goal," says Ferguson.

Make it last : Use the special event as a kicking-off point, but plan in advance what you're going to use as a motivator beyond the special event to maintain your weight loss. Keep in mind that this motivator needs to be equally as strong as the triggering event itself.

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Trigger: Vanity

Examples : A terrible photo that makes you look heavier than you thought you were; running into an old friend who comments on your weight; seeing yourself in the mirror or on a video and not realizing that it's you; not being able to fit into your "fat" pants.

How it works : Vanity can work in two ways. It can serve as a negative motivator, meaning that you will do whatever you can to move away from the negative stimulus. Or, the desire to look more attractive or be able to fit into different clothes can act as a positive motivator.

Will it last : Probably. According to Ferguson, attractiveness is one of the top motivators for successful dieters. But for it to be successful in the long run, the desire to be attractive must be more important than any distraction. It must be one of the more central themes in your life.

Make it last : It's not a good idea to use that terrible photo just to get you pumped up so that you'll have more willpower to resist tempting foods. Instead, use it as motivation to make a plan for how you will not only lose weight, but keep it off permanently.

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