There's just one problem with being a behavior change scientist.
We don't have any laws.
And there's a good reason for that.
People are complex, inconsistent and highly unpredictable. That's especially true in the area of weight loss. We have theories about how to best help people eat less and move more, but no laws.
The closest we get is what I call Bennett's Law of the Probably Obvious: Weight loss requires motivation.
And here's the second postulate of my "law." It doesn't take a little bit of motivation, it takes a lot. More than most of us think. And by motivation, I don't mean interest in losing weight. Most of us have that. No, you need enough motivation to track everything you're eating in detail, be physically active every day, portion out your food, practice behavioral weight-loss skills, set goals, problem solve, engage your supporters (while ignoring the haters), and get back on track when you slip off.
And you have to do this for the many months required to lose weight and keep it off.
Anything less, and you'll lose less.
Depressing? It doesn't have to be. The fact is that many people successfully achieve long-term weight loss by adopting these research-tested strategies. But, the science of weight loss is built on hundreds of research trials that are designed for highly motivated people.
And then there's the rest of us. Many of us are not motivated to do all that's necessary to lose weight. Some of us want to lose weight, but are completely unmotivated. Still others have enough motivation to knock a few items off the list, but not all of them. Many of us have enough motivation to do a lot, for a little bit of time (like until Feb. 2, when that budget-busting gym membership starts looking ill-advised).
There are some who give up when they don't lose enough weight. And then there are the misperceived -- the one-quarter of Americans (http://www.ijbnpa.org/content/8/1/20) who are obese, but don't know it.
For the unmotivated among us, there is something you can do: Maintain, don't gain.
Sounds simple, and it is. Look, there's no question that weight loss is the best approach to improve your health over both the short- and long-term. Losing as little as 5 percent of your weight can be great for your health. But if you're not motivated to do what's necessary to reach that 5 percent target, your goal is a simple one: Maintain, don't gain.
Staying "weight stable" might not do much to improve your health, but it might help to prevent the numerous health risks that inevitably occur as we gain weight.
And here's the good news: It's (way) easier to maintain than to lose. Want to lose a pound each week? Find a way to drop 500 calories each day of the week (all seven -- not just the work week). Want to maintain? Put down that cookie, soda, third helping or caramel machi-thing. Watch less TV and walk briskly. Replace those high-calorie snacks with some fruit. Eating salad? Go with oil and vinegar. Stop drinking the sugary beverages (including the after-lunch energy drinks).
You just need to drop about 100-200 calories each day to stabilize the weight gains that are all too common as we age. A study we recently finished (http://media.jamanetwork.com/news-item/intervention-appears-effective-to-prevent-weight-gain-among-black-women/) shows that simple behavior changes like these can help women who didn't want to lose weight prevent weight gain for up to 18 months. And our newest work shows that these women wind up keeping their weight stable for a lot longer.
So, if you're one of the unmotivated among us: Maintain, don't gain. Probably not enough for a cool-sounding scientific law, but it's more than enough to keep your weight under control until you're motivated to do more.
Follow Gary G. Bennett on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drgarybennett