Research shows that the best weight loss plan is the one you can stick with for the long term (Johnston et al. 2014). For some people, that may be a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. For others, it may be a high-carbohydrate plan that’s low in saturated fat. Yet another group may need a complete macronutrient balance.

But there’s a bigger question: How do some people, driven mostly by a desire for better health, follow eating plans so religiously? And what makes some people unable to maintain even the smallest change?

The science is far from complete, but a growing body of research offers clues you can piece together to make nutritional behavior changes and keep to them. Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, CSSD, FAAP, a pediatrician, award-winning author and obesity medicine specialist in Carlsbad, California, describes strategies you can use to build confidence in your ability to sustain a dietary change and make nutrition a lifestyle.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Try these five suggestions to make lasting changes to your eating habits and create a nutritious lifestyle.

  1. Educate yourself about nutrition. A low level of nutrition knowledge is associated with poor adherence, while increased knowledge is a facilitating factor for adherence (Estrela et al. 2017). Read credible nutrition sources—such as eatright.org or nutrition.gov—or work with a registered dietitian (find one at eatright.org).
  2. Stay flexible and keep it simple. Make sure the nutrition guidelines you decide to follow are flexible enough to incorporate your unique preferences. The lower the complexity, the greater your adherence. A more successful program takes into account your beliefs and customs and your concerns about how food sources are treated (Estrela et al. 2017; Van Horn et al. 2016).
  3. Learn to self-monitor. Self-monitoring is a great way to promote longer-term adherence to nutrition recommendations (Van Horn et al. 2016). Find a sustainable way to track and monitor nutrition intake—through a food log (written or video), for example. Apps such as MyFitnessPal and MealLogger can help, especially when you are in a social setting.
  4. Brainstorm potential challenges. Create a list of factors that will make the nutrition changes easier for you. Then think about things that might make them more difficult. Know that lapses are a normal part of behavior change. Try to identify scenarios that might trigger a lapse, such as a vacation or certain foods in the home, and then problem-solve how to address potential hazards. The key is to troubleshoot these challenges before they happen. You may want to work with a health coach or registered dietitian.
  5. Improve cooking skills. One study looking at adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in fifth-graders and nonrelated adult caregivers, for example, found that one of the biggest barriers for the adults was lack of skills in meal and recipe preparation (Nicklas et al. 2013). Learn simple cooking skills from community resources, streaming content or a friend or family member.