Using your smartest parenting skills can help you maintain your happy weight and will keep you in shape for life.
Mom running with children
Credit: Cheyenne Ellis

The hardest part about losing weight is making sure you don't gain it back. Studies have shown that about 80 percent of people who have shed pounds will eventually regain them. Ugh, right? It has happened to me more than once.

There may be psychological reasons for this slippery slope: Having deprived yourself of certain foods, you're ready to indulge a little. But there are real physical reasons: Once you're thinner, your body needs fewer calories for energy, and your metabolism is slower–so you need to eat less than you used to, says David Levenson, M.D., author of Maintaining Your Weight Loss: A Mindfulness-Based Guide to the Adventure of a Lifetime. That's a bummer of a trade-off for being able to fit into your favorite jeans again.

Fortunately, you have the secret sauce. As a physician who has helped patients manage their weight for almost 30 years, Dr. Levenson believes that one of the most effective strategies for long-term success is to act like a good parent –to yourself.

How does parenthood relate to weight? Look at what research has found about the effectiveness of different parenting styles. Kids do best when they have authoritative parents, who are loving and understanding but who also set limits. Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, enforce strict rules and often exact harsh punishments, while permissive parents basically let their kids do whatever they want. You can probably see where I'm going here. So channel your wise-Mommy mind-set and take charge of your weight by following these double-duty guidelines.

Don't criticize. Moms who start gaining weight often have an inner critic. "You may say brutal things to yourself that you'd never say to anyone else," says Dr. Levenson. Criticizing your child when he's struggling with a challenge won't "toughen him up" or get him to work harder. It'll just make him feel worse and want to give up. Instead, you can motivate him by encouraging him and brainstorming about how he might improve. Beating yourself up about how big your butt looks will only leave you guilt-ridden, anxious, and reaching for fries.

Make reasonable rules. Kids need limits so they know how to behave. It makes them feel safe. Once you've lost the weight you want to lose, you can't just go back to your old eating habits but you also want to be able to have a piece of birthday cake. You need new rules. Here's Dr. Levenson's plan: Stick to your weight-loss routine six days a week and sensibly increase your calories on one day. Weigh yourself at least three times a week. After 14 days, if you haven't gained weight, you can then have two "sensible eating days." If you gain 2 pounds, add a weight-loss day. Any time you've gained 3 pounds, resume your weight-loss diet every day until you lose all 3 pounds. "Our patients find this system easy to follow, more effective, and significantly less stressful than trying to eat sensibly seven days each week," he says.

Have realistic expectations. When you're trying to lose weight, don't focus on a number on the scale or a clothing size. Set a small goal (5 pounds at a time), and once you get there, congratulate yourself and see how you feel. If you needed a lot of willpower to reach that weight, see if you can maintain it for three weeks before deciding to try to lose more. "If you can't lose as much as you wanted or keep it off, you need to accept the fact that that's not what your body wants to do now," says Dr. Levenson. After all, you can deal with the fact that your child isn't the fastest swimmer on the team or won't always get straight A's.

Be an exercise role model. You wouldn't let your kid spend endless hours in front of the TV. "It's so easy for a mom to put herself on the back burner, but it's essential to prioritize yourself and fit in fitness," says Parents advisor Elisa Zied, R.D.N., author of Younger Next Week. You should get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five times a week and do strength training–which may be particularly important for boosting your metabolism–twice a week. (The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that overweight people do at least 250 minutes of activity per week to lose weight or avoid regaining it.) That doesn't mean you always need to go to the gym or do a formal workout, says Zied. "Playing outside with your kids and doing errands on foot instead of driving can all count."

Create a safe environment. Just like you childproof your home to prevent accidents, set up your kitchen to avoid temptation. If you have a trigger food (one of mine is pretzels) and you can't eat just one, try to keep it out of your house. When you buy your kids a box of cookies, choose a kind you don't like. Similarly, make healthy food easy to find.

Be prepared. I never regret taking time to get my family organized because it makes me feel less stressed. "Moms are the best planners, so focus on your assets," says Lauren Slayton, R.D., author of The Little Book of Thin. Devote part of your Sundays to making healthy eating easier all week: Grill or poach chicken and salmon, roast some vegetables, and cook a batch of quinoa. (Get ideas for fast dinners at Also think ahead about budgeting your treats. If you go out to dinner, decide whether you'll have either a piece of bread, a glass of wine, or a few bites of dessert, says Slayton. For at-home portion control, Zied suggests having ice cream in a Dixie cup.

Find a support system. Just as you might depend on your mom, a Saturday-night babysitter, and your partner to make parenthood manageable, you need help to stay on track with eating smart and exercising. You might go for walks with a friend or train together for a 10K or a triathlon. Investing in an activity tracker such as a Fitbit can make you more aware of how much you're moving, but you can also record your food and fitness with an app or good old pen and paper.

Anticipate your own "witching hour." You know by heart when your baby can't stop crying or your toddler clings to your leg while you're trying to get dinner on the table. Slayton says we all have our own witching hour–the time when we're most likely to overeat. Mine is when I get home from work. But just as you can keep your child occupied with a kitchen cabinet full of plastic containers to play with, you can keep your mouth busy by munching on red-pepper sticks or drinking herbal tea. If you're most vulnerable after your kids go to bed, make a no-food-after-dinner rule, and text a friend to say, "The kitchen is closed," suggests Slayton.

Avoid the praise trap. Although we want to encourage our kids, constantly saying "Good job!" can make them dependent on our approval. It's ideal for them to be self-motivated and feel proud of their own efforts. When you first lose weight, everyone tells you how great you look, but as those compliments stop coming, it's discouraging. Ultimately, you're the one who needs to inspire yourself. Dr. Levenson suggests writing the reasons why you want to maintain your weight loss (having more energy, wearing shorter dresses) on an index card (or a note on your smartphone) that you can look at every day.

Fend off ugly hunger episodes. Your kid can get super moody if he's famished, so you keep emergency snacks for him in your purse. When your own stomach is growling, you're also likely to be irritable–and to eat impulsively. (My husband has been known to say, "We don't want Mommy to get hangry.") Make time for breakfast and stash smart snacks for yourself such as fruit or small packs of almonds. Eat a low-cal meal before going to a special event, so you won't be starving and dig into the fried hors d'oeuvres.

Manage transitions. Wrapping up a playdate or leaving the park is much easier when you give your kid a five-minute warning. Create a distinct end to meals by brushing your teeth, putting on lipstick, or popping a strong mint, advises Zied.

Stick to bedtime. Getting enough sleep is crucial for kids and the same is true for you. Research has found that adults who sleep less than 7 to 8 hours per night are more likely to gain weight and be obese. Sleep deprivation is also associated with lower levels of the hormone leptin that keeps you feeling full and higher levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Of course, it's difficult when you have young children who wake up during the night, but you can still commit to hitting the hay earlier. Take your partner with you, and perhaps do a little something together that will help you both fall asleep faster (wink, wink).

Remember that tomorrow is another day. When you yell at your kids, you can apologize and vow to stay calm next time. So if you have a weight setback (or a bagel), forgive yourself. "You're not cheating; you're just eating," says Dr. Levenson. After all, you wouldn't want your child to think that you won't love him as much if he messes up.

Embrace your lifestyle. Becoming a parent is a game changer. Your children's health and happiness is always top of mind. Although you now have chores and choices that aren't easy or fun, you hope to do what's best most of the time. Staying fit is also a way of life: You have to be dedicated to preserving your own health and your happy weight–at which you feel comfortable in your clothes and confident enough to throw on a pair of shorts. "Weight maintenance is not a phase–it's a full-time job," says Dr. Levenson. "There are no previous attempts or next attempts. There is no this time or next time. There is just now."

5 Habits of Winning Long-Term Losers

According to the National Weight Control Registry, which has tracked more than 10,000 people who've lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off for at least a year, these were their key factors for success:

  1. Eating breakfast daily
  2. Exercising, on average, for an hour per day
  3. Checking their weight once a week or more
  4. Watching fewer than ten hours of TV per week
  5. Maintaining similar eating habits on weekdays and weekends

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