Most Americans want to lose weight, but it’s no simple feat. Just ask someone who’s done it.
That’s exactly what TIME did in a recent cover story looking at new weight loss science. After speaking to people who had successfully lost weight (after failing many times), it became clear that there’s no best way to go about it. Instead, evidence—both scientific and anecdotal—show that it’s possible for anyone to reach a healthy weight through a strategy that works best for them.
Here’s what worked for five people who lost weight and kept it off.
Go slow and steady
“I’ve been overweight my entire life. I’d try different diets, lose a few pounds and then gain it back. When I turned 25, I was 485 lb. and I knew I was fighting for my life. I want to have kids one day and be more active with my husband. I wanted to stop sitting on the sidelines of my own life. At the beginning of 2016, I started tracking my calories, working out and making healthier versions of the foods I loved. Ultimately, I fell in love with taking care of myself. My advice is to focus on each day, not how far you have to go. Weight loss is a journey, not a sprint.”
Lexi Reed, age 26, lost 278 lb. in 16 months
Keep a journal
“Don’t just write down everything you eat. Write down how you feel that day, what is going on in your life and how you feel after eating. After a while, look through your journal for patterns. Chances are you’ll find some. I’m a recovering food addict, and nothing was more freeing than realizing what behaviors or events were triggering my addiction. It wasn’t that I had no willpower; my brain was reacting to certain habits that made it hard for my willpower to do its job. Once I removed those patterns—like keeping cookies around the house—my willpower muscle could finally flex.”
Erika Nicole Kendall, 33, lost 170 lb. over two years
Give yourself a break
“You don’t have to eat salad all the time to lose weight. There are so many ways to tweak ingredients and make food you actually love to eat—even pancakes. (Try almond flour.) That being said, the type of food you eat also defines your lifestyle. You can eat junk food and lose weight, but you will probably be hungry all the time. So give yourself an occasional cheat day or reward for sticking to your plan. In the end, you want to lose weight in a healthy way, without feeling like you’re hurting yourself.”
Nivedith Renga, age 26, lost 65 lb. in nine months
Find something that sticks
“When I graduated college in 2012, I was at my highest weight ever. I was embarrassed about my weight and what I looked like, and I was terrified of being the person in the gym who didn’t know what they were doing. I sat in my doctor’s office and remember deciding that I was going to do whatever it took, however long it took, to change my life. I tried a variety of different diets that worked, but I felt like I was losing my mind not being able to eat certain foods, and I hated that even though I was ‘losing weight’, I still had a really disordered relationship with food. Food is supposed to bring joy and happiness.
I decided to give ‘macro counting’ a whirl. It’s similar to calorie counting, but rather than keeping track of your calories, you keep track of the number of grams of protein, fat, and carbs you eat per day. Following this is what ended up giving me the biggest change overall. I felt like I wasn’t starving myself or depriving myself to lose weight. You have to find something you can stick to. What works for one person may not work for another. Whatever you choose, it has to be for life.”
Kelly Rojek, 27, lost 50 lb. in 18 months
“You have to make slow and steady adjustments, that worked for me. I measured and weighed food to become more aware of portion size. I wrote down what I ate and ate more frequent, smaller meals throughout the day. I try to include protein in each meal to control hunger. I don’t deprive myself, and I’ve gotten rid of ‘all or nothing’ thinking. People could still look at me and consider me overweight. You have to accept you’re never going to be a willowy model, but I am at a very good weight that I can manage.”
Jody Jeans, 52, lost 75 lb. over five years.