Although January 1 may seem like an arbitrary date to start self-improvement, most of us make the same New Year’s weight loss resolutions year after year, in the hopes of becoming our best selves shortly after the ball drops in Times Square. Inevitably, these good intentions end up in disappointment. By Super Bowl Sunday, our hands are right back in the chip-and-dip bowl.
The reason? We keep setting unrealistic goals. And according to the experts, this definitely isn’t the right approach to take if you want to lose weight and keep it off. Or to be better in so many other ways. “To be honest, I think the reason New Year’s is such a big day is that it’s only one day,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes M.P.H. ’07, Ph.D. ’13, a cardiac transplant dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “It’s such a powerful day, in the sense that a new year can mean a new you. There’s this idea of ‘Let me start fresh this year and be a better version of myself.’”
The catch, of course, is that most people set lofty targets for themselves, only to give up when they’re not rewarded quickly enough by notable change. “These goals are often not realistic,” says Hunnes. “I think when people are making goals to drop 50 pounds in three months, they’re not doing it in a healthy, sustainable kind of manner. It’s not setting them up for long-term success.”
Most people don’t start the New Year with a lifelong vision. Instead, many will splurge on a gym membership, sign up for a meal delivery service, or loudly embark on some suddenly fashionable self-denial regime, only to see their dreams abandoned before the end of January.
There are some peaks too steep to tackle, warns Suzette Glasner-Edwards ’98, principal investigator at the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Program and an expert in psychological motivations. Overly ambitious resolutions can trap us in a spiral of anxiety and depression. This cycle erodes our “behavioral persistence” — our ability to pick ourselves up and start again, hopefully in a more realistic fashion.
Glasner-Edwards says that during COVID, when we all seemed to develop bad eating habits, there was a rise in the number of people quitting tobacco — possibly because cutting the smoke was welcomed by homebound family and peers. “People find it easier to reach goals when supported within their families,” she says. But, she adds, isolated people — particularly those who can’t afford diet clubs or subscription apps, or who work long hours and have lengthy commutes — are more liable to fail in their diet resolutions. There are clearly powerful social divisions within the common pledge of New Year’s resolutions. Glasner-Edwards’ advice: Don’t try to do it alone. It takes a village to diet.
According to Deviny Mo, general manager of UCLA Health Sports Performance — a fitness center shared with Los Angeles Lakers basketball personnel in El Segundo — short-term plans are a trap. “[Many making resolutions] have this lofty goal they want to meet in a short period of time, where you have to turn your lifestyle around 180 degrees. Some people do that — but once they reach that number, none of it is going to stick, because they’ve cut too many things out of their life. So they go back to their old routine and start gaining weight again.”
The key, Mo says, is to make little tweaks to your lifestyle along the way in order to see big changes long term. Small modifications are easier to implement. Here, our experts share their top tips to turn your New Year’s weight loss resolutions into a long-term reality.
Don’t Deprive Yourself
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be all or nothing, so stop beating yourself up if you want to enjoy a slice of pizza with your kids. “Food is what brings people together,” says Mo. “Make small improvements to the composition of your meals and snacks, or make better choices regarding the portion sizes. If you love eating candy bars, go for the fun size candy bar instead of the king size. Just have a smaller amount of the same type of thing. Absolutely nothing is off limits!”
Bigger isn’t always better — at least not in the world of health and wellness. “Outline little targets that are achievable,” says Hunnes. “Say you want to lose 30 pounds by the end of this year. Instead of 30 pounds in three months, aim for one pound a week. Make some healthy swaps and changes. It’s really good to make small, detailed goals instead of one, big, overarching goal.”
Losing weight isn’t just about looking red-carpet ready. It’s about feeling good, both inside and out. “It’s not just about looking great for one event,” says Hunnes. “This is about feeling your best for the duration of your life. I think having a mindset change is what’s really important. Don’t just focus on your outward appearance. When we’re healthier on the inside, we also tend to appear healthier on the outside. They really do go hand in hand.”
Get More Sleep
It may sound counterintuitive, but getting more sleep could be the key to losing more weight. “Sleep is probably the most potent performance enhancer,” says Mo. “It increases your physical performance, and your cognitive and emotional performance. When it comes to getting on a new weight loss journey, you’ve got to get enough sleep so you can commit to your new exercise routine. Sleep is also the time when your body repairs its tissue. It’s the time when your brain releases growth hormones. This is also the time you adapt to changes when you’re changing your routine.”
Remember: It’s Never Too Late to Change
Just because you were raised with unhealthy habits doesn’t mean you can’t change them. “Maybe you grew up in an inactive household,” says Mo. “What’s going to shape you is being open-minded. Most people are looking for a quick fix, but a lot of times your lifestyle factors come into play. Maybe your baseline of knowledge is low, and there’s some toxicity and guilty feelings there because that’s what you’ve known all your life. But you can reflect on that, make a game plan and take action from there.”
And if your resolution fades, says Glasner-Edwards, remember the advice of the serenity prayer — accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and develop the wisdom to know the difference. That will make all the difference come January 1, 2024.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.