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How to lose weight and keep it off

Robbie Puddick
Written by

Robbie Puddick

Medically reviewed by

Fiona Moncrieff

13 min read
Last updated July 2024

Jump to: How to approach weight loss | Healthy eating | Mindset | Movement | Take home message

Losing weight is often determined by an individual’s ability to maintain a way of eating that enables them to sustain a calorie deficit until they reach their desired weight.

Keeping the weight off is often the more challenging part of a weight loss journey. Research has shown that the following factors are associated with successful weight loss maintenance:

  • A self-determined weight loss goal
  • A regular meal pattern (breakfast, lunch, and dinner)
  • A healthy dietary pattern based on whole foods
  • A physically active lifestyle
  • Self-monitoring of behaviours
  • An internal (intrinsic) motivation to lose weight
  • Social support
  • Coping strategies for setbacks
  • Ability to handle stress
  • Self-efficacy
  • Autonomy
  • Assuming responsibility in life
  • Overall, more psychological strength and stability
  • A self-perceived shift in identity away from someone who feels restrained and one who feels liberated

This is quite a substantial list, and while it may feel overwhelming, we have a message of optimism for you: these are all factors that can happen without you even realising during the process of weight loss; if you approach it in the right way.

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Just ‘eat less, move more’

You’ve likely been told in the past that to lose weight, you need to restrict yourself, count your calories, manage macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein) and maintain a calorie deficit and you’ll lose weight,

While this approach does work in the short term, it more often than not leads to a rebound effect where you eventually regain all of the weight you’ve lost.

We’ve got a complete guide on why strict dieting doesn’t work here. But here’s a quick summary of why this restrictive approach often fails:

  • Strict dieting triggers a starvation response by the brain, encouraging you to eat more.
  • Strict diets often only tell you what to do without focusing on your psychology, your mindset, and how you think.
  • Strict diets don’t discuss what to do when you’ve lost weight. How will you handle being this new person? What does this new person value? How can I translate points and syns into holidays and everyday life?

You might blame yourself for being unable to keep the weight off and feel it’s your fault. The truth is strict diets don’t set you up for success.

Fortunately, there’s a different approach to weight loss that doesn’t leave you feeling restricted, lethargic, and preoccupied with food all the time.

How to approach weight loss

In 2022, the NHS published research in the British Medical Journal from the National Weight Management and Diabetes Prevention programme, where five providers delivered weight loss services in the UK.

The results showed that after 12 months, Second Nature was more than twice as effective as the four other providers.

How does Second Nature’s approach work?

We approach nutrition, dieting, and healthy eating differently. We don’t count calories, track macros, weigh food, or assign strict daily calorie targets.

We provide you with evidence-based guidance on a balanced diet and teach you to understand what your physical and emotional drivers for eating are to reach your weight loss goals.

We also provide tools, such as our hunger scale and mindful eating techniques, that help you tune into your physical hunger cues and manage your food choices.

Alongside this, we help you build healthy habits that you can enjoy for a lifetime to help you maintain a healthy weight.

This is how you lose weight sustainably without counting calories.

Our feedback inbox is filled with people like Jo, who lost over eight stone to achieve a healthy body weight on Second Nature after following our nutrition guidelines and receiving the support of our app and health coaches.

The difference is that members of Second Nature learn to love food again. They’re no longer restricted. They’re liberated.

If you’d like to join over 150,000 others who’ve joined Second Nature, lost weight and kept it off, then click here to take our health quiz.

Otherwise, keep reading as we dig into three essential areas to help you lose weight and keep it off.

1) Healthy eating

A healthy diet seems simple in theory, but putting it into practice is more challenging.

The modern Western environment is constantly pushing us to consume more. Ultra-processed foods are easily accessible and delicious and are engineered in a way to make us eat more.

The Second Nature approach is based on human clinical trials that have shown specific dietary patterns can help to lower your hunger and desire for ultra-processed foods and sugar.

Lower-carbohydrate diets based on whole foods are high in protein, fibre from many plant foods, and healthy fats.

The balance of lower-carb diets naturally suppresses our body’s hunger hormone, which we call ghrelin, and increases our body’s appetite-suppressing hormones (known as satiety hormones).

From Second Nature’s perspective, a balanced healthy diet encourages the consumption of:

  • High-quality protein sources: Fish, meat, eggs, tofu, tempeh, yoghurt, cheese, and seafood.
  • Fat from whole foods: Meat, fish, eggs, dairy products (rich in calcium), nuts, seeds, avocado, and extra virgin olive oil.
  • High-fibre carbohydrates: Whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, sweet potato, white potatoes, pumpkin, legumes like lentils, chickpeas, beans, and butternut squash.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Take your pick!

While we recommend lowering your consumption of:

  • Refined carbohydrates: White rice, breakfast cereals, supermarket bread.
  • Added sugar: Fruit juice or added into drinks or meals.
  • Refined oils: Vegetable and sunflower.
  • Ultra-processed foods: Pastries, low-calorie/low-fat products, microwave meals, fast food, breakfast cereals, frozen pizzas, and frozen desserts.
  • Trans fats: fast food.

We also encourage some healthy habits to support a balanced diet:

  • Eat three meals a day: This will help keep your hunger pangs at bay to help you achieve a healthy weight.
  • Eat until you’re comfortably full: You’ll know when you’ve had enough by tuning into your physical hunger cues to avoid weight gain.
  • Enjoy healthy snacks when needed: Sometimes, you’ll have more extended periods between meals. A healthy snack, such as an apple and peanut butter, can tie you over until your next main meal.
  • Don’t count calories or track macros: We don’t believe you need to count and track what you’re eating to maintain a healthy balance. It’s not just tedious, but good evidence suggests other approaches are as effective at supporting weight management and health.
  • Stay hydrated: 1-2l of water a day will keep your body functioning well and the hunger pangs at bay.
  • Eat mindfully: By paying attention to your food and being free from distraction, you’re more likely to eat until you’re comfortably full.
  • Home-baking: While we don’t actively encourage the excess consumption of sweet foods, we feel that by making them yourself, you’re more likely to develop a healthy relationship with those ingredients and enjoy it mindfully.

Nutrition can be essential in managing our psychological desire for ultra-processed foods rich in sugar.

Your body will function much better with improved nutrition, and you’ll start to crave junk foods less; you may also notice a change in your taste.

However, nutrition is only one piece of a giant puzzle and to sustain these changes – you also need to focus on your mindset.

Key points:

  • Our modern Western environment makes it challenging to adhere to a healthy diet.
  • Research has shown that lower-carb diets based on whole foods can help reduce cravings for junk food and help you lose weight.
  • A lower-carb diet is rich in protein, fibre, healthy fats, and high-fibre complex carbohydrates and limits the consumption of ultra-processed foods and added sugars.
  • Habits like eating three meals a day, staying hydrated, and eating mindfully can support you in maintaining a healthy diet.
  • Over time, your body will start to crave junk food less, and your taste will also change.

2) Mindset

The primary psychological factors determining weight loss maintenance are complex.

As you may have gathered from the list in our introduction, there’s a long list of psychological changes observed in individuals who lose weight and keep it off.

Underlying all psychological barriers to weight loss is the setting within the brain that is biassed toward negative thinking.

Psychologists believe we’re wired to think and focus on the negatives as a protective mechanism.

If you imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the wild, not being top of the food chain living in a very dangerous world – our brain’s ability to hone in on the potential negatives of every situation added caution to increase survival chances.

Now you know this; you can use it to your advantage as you train your brain to respond to these negative thoughts more constructively and extract more from difficult situations.

The goal is not to eliminate negative thoughts; this is impossible. The goal is to learn how to respond to them in a way, so they don’t own you and dictate your mood and emotions.

You might be thinking: ‘how will all of this help me lose weight?’. We’ve spent the last decade researching and supporting people to lose weight and keep it off, so you can trust us: your psychology will determine your weight loss success.

So, let’s look at three areas of psychology that will help you lose weight and keep it off.

1 – Acceptance

As we’ve discussed with negative thoughts above, the goal of improving your mindset isn’t to eliminate negative thoughts.

You need to be comfortable knowing that negative thoughts will always be there. Your inner critic will always have a voice telling you you’re not good enough and that you can’t achieve anything.

But it’s about learning to respond to these thoughts in a way that allows you to take ownership of your emotional state and mood.

We’ll cover some techniques to do this in the next section, but be reassured that it’s completely normal to experience negative thoughts.

We’re often told to just ‘think positive’. The problem is that it sets an expectation that we should never experience negative thoughts or emotions.

Learning to accept difficult emotions

It’s normal to experience sadness, loneliness, boredom, and stress; we don’t always have to try and suppress and escape those emotions.

Imagine you’ve gone through a breakup or lost someone close to you, and you feel sad about this. Should we try to suppress this emotion? Or should we accept that these emotions are normal and part of the grieving process?

So, the next time you feel sad, low, angry, or lonely – understand that this is entirely normal, and it’s OK to sit with it.

This doesn’t mean you need to be dictated by these emotions and let them determine your behaviour – but it adds a layer of self-compassion to your thought processes. It might allow more capacity for healthy habits like cooking or exercising.

2 – Responding to your thought biases

Thought biases are the immediate negative thoughts that often come to mind when you’re in a difficult situation.

A typical example of a thought bias is all-or-nothing thinking. Also known as black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing thinking can have a negative impact on your ability to reach your goals in life, particularly your weight loss goals.

Here are a few common examples of the all-or-nothing mindset you might have experienced during a weight loss attempt:

  • ‘I’ve had one chocolate; I might as well have the whole box’
  • ‘I’ve had one “bad” food, the whole day’s ruined’
  • ‘I’ve fallen off the wagon; I might as well give up’

Remember, these thoughts are normal. It’s how we respond to them that matters, and we can respond proactively in two steps:

  1. Labelling a thought bias
  2. Reframing it

Let’s use an example. You’ve gone out for dinner with your friends and didn’t want to have a pudding, but you had a chocolate brownie.

Because you’ve labelled chocolate a ‘bad’ food, your immediate reaction is to think, ‘I’m a complete failure, I shouldn’t have had that dessert, and I might as well give up’.

The first thing you can do is label that as a thought bias and try and reframe the thought to be more helpful to you.

So, you could think, ‘that’s a thought bias; I’m not a failure, I’ve been cooking healthy meals all week, and one dessert doesn’t determine my health – I enjoyed having it with my friends’.

Like learning any new skill, responding to your thought biases in a helpful way takes time and practice.

3 – Finding your intrinsic (internal) motivations to lose weight

Motivation can be broadly split into two categories:

  1. Extrinsic (external)
    Intrinsic (internal)

Extrinsic motivations are things like how you look or money. In contrast, intrinsic motivations are your health, family, or independence.

Research has suggested that extrinsic motivation can provide short-term motivation and play a role in weight loss. However, intrinsic motivation plays a much more significant role in determining weight loss success in the long term.

How can you find your intrinsic motivation?

It can help to complete a values activity to define what’s important to you and why. You might think this all sounds fluffy, which is normal.

But we can assure you that this isn’t fluff; it’s psychology and will play a huge role in determining your weight loss success.

Complete the following exercise to help you identify your values:

Step 1) Name a time that you were truly happy…

For example, “When I was hiking in the Lake District with my family.”

Step 2) What was it about that time that made you so happy?

For example, “I was spending time with my family, away from distraction and stress, and being out in nature.”

Step 3) Identify values from step 2

For example, this individual values:

  • Family
  • Balance
  • Nature
  • Adventure

From these values, you can then allow these to guide and motivate your actions.

Let’s say you’re planning a run at lunchtime, but it starts raining. Your motivation dips as you visualise a cold, wet, soggy run through the countryside. An hour in front of the TV sounds more comfortable.

But then you consider your values. You value a sense of adventure, you value being outside in nature, and you value finding balance in your day. So, running in the countryside is the perfect way to align your values.

It’s this that will drive you to keep going.

Key points:

  • Changing your eating habits is probably enough to lose weight in the short term.
  • You need to change your mindset to maintain your weight loss in the long term.
  • Acceptance, responding to your thought biases, and identifying your intrinsic motivations are three key psychological factors determining your weight loss success.

3) Movement

The research on this topic is clear. Individuals who are more physically active tend to have a better chance of keeping off the weight they lose.

There are a few reasons why:

  • Exercise boosts our mood, improves our stress response, and gives us more confidence.
  • Exercise can increase your energy expenditure by a modest amount.
  • Exercise improves your body’s ability to respond to hormones that help you feel fuller for longer; we call these your satiety hormones.
  • Exercise seems to help your body align to a new fat percentage ‘set-point’.

So, there are multiple psychological and physiological reasons why exercise can help you maintain weight loss in the long term.

But maintaining an exercise habit is a highly challenging task for many people, so how can you do it?

Here are our top tips for starting and maintaining an exercise routine:

  1. Find something you enjoy. What physical activity have you done in the past that you’ve enjoyed? Or is there something you’ve always wanted to try?
  2. Start small. You’re not going to go from the sofa to a marathon in a week; take small steps and set realistic goals like: I’m going to go for a walk for 5 minutes every morning when I wake up. This may sound too small to have an effect, but you’re setting yourself up for success, and it will create success momentum.
  3. Link it to your values and intrinsic motivation. There will be days when your motivation to move and exercise will be low, and that’s OK. If you need the inspiration to go on days you don’t feel like it, reflect on your internal values and why exercise and movement are essential.
  4. Make it social. Research suggests that individuals are more likely to maintain an exercise habit if there’s a social element. This could be tennis, badminton, a local 5-a-side football team, a dance class, or your local walking group. Whatever it is, the added social aspect will increase your chances of success and enjoyment.
  5. Sign up for a challenge. Many people find challenges are the perfect way to kickstart their exercise routine. The NHS couch to 5k is a perfect example of this. Once you’ve completed a challenge, it’s essential to reflect on what it’s taught you. If you can achieve that, what else could you achieve?

Key points:

  • Regular physical activity can improve the chances of maintaining weight loss.
  • Exercise can boost mood, improve stress response, and increase confidence.
  • Exercise can increase energy expenditure and improve the body’s response to satiety hormones.
  • Maintaining an exercise habit can be challenging, but there are ways to increase the chances of success:
      • Finding an enjoyable activity
      • Starting small and setting realistic goals
      • Linking exercise to personal values and motivation
      • Making exercise social
      • Signing up for a challenge

Take home message

Losing weight and keeping it off might be one of the most difficult challenges you will ever take on.

The success rate of weight loss maintenance is so low that researchers and public health experts are often at a loss as to what to suggest to help solve the problem.

However, every big challenge starts with small actions and our ability to be present and focus on the here and now.

There’s a theory known as the goal-gradient hypothesis whereby the closer we are to achieving our goals, the more likely we will work harder to obtain them.

Think about runners at the end of a marathon or office workers in the final months of the year pushing for their Christmas bonus.

If you can leverage this and focus on small, realistic daily actions that are health-promoting – you’ll start to feel a sense of accomplishment and build up success momentum.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

– Lao Tzu

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