As the month of May is upon us and the summer is just around the corner, many of you are trying to figure out easy but effective ways to lose weight. As a personal trainer and the co-director of a weight loss center, I deal with this issue every day. Changing behavior is difficult, and for people who are overweight, changing your habits and the way you think about food, activity, and exercise can be the hardest work of all. But it can be done.

Excess weight and obesity are the major causes of many commonplace illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, many cancers, and a host of other problems. According the Center for Disease Control, excess weight and obesity, along with inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle, are a close second to cigarette smoking as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

Keeping your weight in check – and consequently your health in balance – is thus included in the Torah commandment, “You shall be exceedingly careful to take care of your soul” (Devarim 4:15), which our tradition interprets as an obligation to maintain one’s physical health.

Changing Bad Habits

An extra 50 calories a day will give you a five-pound gain per year.

For most people, weight gain happens over a long period of time. It’s not difficult to consume 50 calories a day more than you need or use. That will give you a five-pound gain per year. Keep that up for a number of years, and you’ll become obese. So how do we take it off and keep it off?

Each person has his or her own individual tendencies regarding weight loss, but the general rule to follow is this: fewer calories taken in and more calories expended.

In order to lose weight and keep it off, we need to change our bad habits. Most people who are overweight and out of shape share two common habits: they eat whatever they want whenever they want, and they lead a sedentary lifestyle. And like most bad habits, they have been going on for many, many years and have thus been entrenched within their daily conduct.

Reading about a proper diet or consulting an exercise specialist about a balanced and productive exercise program is the easy part. Executing these plans is a different story. It takes real work and commitment to break habits that may have been a part of your life for 30, 40 years. Yet, these changes can change the quality of your life.

In a recent interview with the mental health editor of Medscape, Judith S. Beck, PhD, Director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research and Clinical Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, gave some solid tools for behavior modification for the purpose of weight loss. “Dieters need a great deal of education about dieting, food, eating, and maintenance. They have to choose a highly nutritious diet program and learn to plan and self-monitor their intake. They need help in solving problems that would otherwise derail them. They need to find someone to keep them accountable and to support them. Behavioral experiments are important to decrease their fear of hunger and cravings and increase their tolerance for these uncomfortable states. Finally, they need to learn how to identify and respond to dysfunctional thoughts that get in the way of their consistently implementing their diet and exercise programs.”

Real weight loss does not happen overnight.

One of the first things Dr. Beck says that people have to realize is that real weight loss does not happen overnight. It takes time, and one must lose slowly. Losing two pounds per week is a realistic and healthy goal. Rapid weight loss is not an option. It will only result in gaining back the lost weight down the road.

At the beginning of your weight reduction program, make a list of all the advantages of a healthy weight, and keep that list with you at all times as a reminder. Each time you face temptation, look at your list.

Plan your food intake and plan your meals and snacks. Don’t rely on hunger to tell you when to eat. Also, eat foods that minimize hunger. And remember that hunger comes and goes. At some point on Yom Kippur morning, for example, you may get hungry, but as the day progresses the hunger goes away. Hunger is not a life-threatening problem. Learn to ignore it.

“It’s Impossible to Have it Both Ways”

Dr. Beck also states, “Dieters give themselves permission to stray from their diet for any number of reasons. They’re upset, happy, tired, stressed, celebrating, traveling, busy, at a party…the list is endless. They think, ‘It’s okay to eat because…. everyone else is; it’s only a small piece; no one is watching; the food is free; I rarely get a chance to eat this kind of food.’ They need to learn the same skills to avoid straying from their plan, no matter what the reason. They have to grasp the fact that they can either eat what they want, when they want, for whatever reason they want (including being upset) — or they can be thinner. But it’s impossible to have it both ways.”

Dieters need to be accountable to someone. Very few people are good at being accountable to themselves. A nutritionist, a personal trainer that understands basic weight loss techniques and nutrition, or a weight loss coach, are good choices. If you need to report in weekly, weigh yourself, or track your food intake, you are more likely to change your old behaviors.

A study done in Sweden by Hallstrom Stahre showed that obese subjects who underwent a 10-week cognitive therapy program lost weight, and most also continued to lose weight during an 18-month follow-up.

Yes, it is important to be educated about nutrition, portion control, and a balanced exercise program, but without basic behavioral changes, much of the time and effort going into the program will not be internalized and will not have the long-lasting effects that bring good health.

Tips for Getting Control

Here are a few tips to help you get your eating habits in check:

Portion Control:Portions over the last few decades have tripled in size. It is very easy to allow excess calories to accumulate. Identify what portion sizes are and reduce them. Use smaller plates and bowls; it helps!

Don’t Let Eating be Part of an Activity: We tend to eat while driving, watching television, reading or doing household tasks. When engaged in other activities, you aren’t aware of the amount of food you are eating. Eating needs to be its own activity.

Stay Away from Negative Stimuli: If having nosh and junk food in your house is a stimulus to eating it, keep it out of your house. Don’t bring things into your home that aren’t good for you or that you tend to eat a lot of, like salty or sugary snacks. If reading ads about food or watching them on TV encourages you to raid the food pantry, eliminate that stimulus. Limit your eating to the kitchen and dining room. Replace negative food cues (a dish of candy) with a positive cue (a bowl of fruit). And if you have a cookie jar or junk food cabinet, get rid of it.

Eating Out:Eating out is an inevitable part of our social lives, but there are ways to keep it under control. Either order half portions or share your meal. Order an appetizer or soup instead of a full meal. Only order things that are broiled or baked – not fried – and have sauces and dressings served on the side so you can control how much you use, if at all. Finally, just as you should do at home, put your fork down in between bites and stay aware of how much you are eating.

Write it down:If there is one thing all of us in the weight loss field agree upon, it is that writing down you daily intake is a must for successfully controlling weight. Review your charts every few days and show them to a qualified professional. It will create awareness of your food intake and eating habits.

Incorporate physical activity into your routine: Not everyone will become an avid exerciser, but incorporating some exercise and activity into your life will only change your health for the better.

If you can make the effort and implement these permanent lifestyle changes, your chances for maximum success will be increased manifold. And success in this case means a better quality of life, longer life, better health, and increased all-around wellbeing.

Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 15 years of professional experience. He is the Co-Director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress management center Lose It!.