Changing anything takes some effort, and weight loss is no exception. It is not surprising that people expect to see results worthy of the effort they are making, and sometimes that effort seems substantial. I hear a lot of frustrated comments. “I know what to do, and I can do it for a while, but then I lose my will power.” “I lost a bunch of weight and then I don’t know what happened. I guess I just got tired of it.”
The way to lose weight is almost always seen as trying to stick with a dramatically different way of eating that is strictly defined, and our job as dieters is to do it the Nike way – JUST DO IT! The greater the perceived effort involved, the quicker we expect to see dramatic results and the more disappointed we are likely to be if our expectations are not met. The focus is directed toward the scale, food, portions, what we should eat, and what foods we should avoid.
I will let you in on the big secret of weight loss, free of charge! The specific eating plan is not the key to long term weight loss and maintenance. Tools and attitudes to make the plan actually happen – that is the crucial part. Any weight loss plan will work if it causes you to take in fewer calories than you are using in activity. This is the simple math of the project, and it is where most plans stop. It is also where most people focus their attention. “I need to lose 25 pounds, so I need to focus on eating less and exercising more.” Sure, that is 100% true, but I look at it as a setup for failure in almost all cases unless the eating plan is coupled with a plan for the human side of eating, how your life is going in general and the role food plays in your life. If we were machines that were programmed to eat a certain number of calories everyday, weight loss would be a breeze. Of course we are not machines and therein lies the challenge.
For almost everyone, maintainable weight loss will take more than knowledge. I think that a complete shift of focus is needed, one that takes the attention and anxiety off of the weight loss, one that asks the question “How is your life going?” in addition to “How well are you eating?” Based on my experience, the biggest obstacle for most people is that they are human, with all the emotions and challenges that go along with that. Because food has the ability to meet other needs besides physical hunger, it is important for many of us to look at how life is going in general and to focus on improving coping skills that are healthier than unnecessary calories. This can be tricky, because food is quick, relatively cheap, and it does work to some degree, at least temporarily.
Balance is the key. There is nothing wrong with choosing to reward ourselves occasionally with food, or to use food to reduce stress or boredom once in a while. We do not need another reason to judge ourselves by condemning occasional use of food for emotional purposes, but we will benefit from expanding the choices to include some other “treats” and “soothers.” Mine include walking on a sunny day, playing piano, petting my dogs, talking to my kids on the phone, and listening to music.
While the obvious goal seems to be weight loss, I think what people really want and need is a feeling of control around food. They want to feel like they are the ones in charge of choices. It is painful when people feel that something outside of themselves is driving their eating, and confidence is eroded by the sense that control is out of reach. Working with a food plan can be helpful, but when out-of-control feelings arise, progress depends on a compassionate self-evaluation of emotional needs. There is no question that it takes lots of practice to find substitutes for food to meet emotional needs, but easier weight management for a lifetime is worth the effort.
When dietary changes are made thoughtfully, with the knowledge that they are maintainable changes, it is easier to relax and settle in for the journey. This allows a focus on coping skills needed to create a better place for food in the bigger picture of life. Ambitious changes that cause dramatic weight loss are tempting, but they usually end in frustration and anxiety. Instead of realizing that the changes were not thoughtfully planned, many people will just feel that they lack will power. “I just need to try harder” is not an attitude that helps in this situation; it just creates more anxiety, which often leads to more emotional eating, which leads to weight gain, which leads to more anxiety . . . you get the picture.
So, how is your life going? How is food incorporated into your life? Most of us can benefit from a good close look at the role food plays in our emotional lives. I like to point out that we are lucky to have such an obvious indicator of when life is off balance. There are reasons why we grab food when we are not physically hungry. When we beat ourselves up for it, we miss an opportunity to learn about ourselves. Be curious. What is going on with me right now? Have I been paying attention to my emotional needs? Is stress getting the best of me? Did someone really upset me today? These are all good, and non-judgmental questions to ask.
The bottom line is that when we are happy and life is in balance, eating is easier. It is not a mystery. It is chemistry. What we used to call “good vibes” is really our brain in chemical balance. Positive thinking, taking care of ourselves, sensory pleasure, beauty – these are all good ways to create good chemistry. Connecting with other people is another way of creating good feelings. Did you know that a smile is recognized by another person’s mirror nuerons (specialized brain cells that help us to feel connected with others)? That is why we like to smile back. A smile makes both people feel better. Creating balanced brain chemistry helps to make sense of will power. You simply will have more will power when you feel good. So, a realistic food plan for weight loss is a great start, but looking at the bigger picture makes lasting results possible. The benefits extend to a happier life in general – BONUS!
In a sense, this blog is my way of connecting with you. I hope that the articles help to give you support for your goals. Please look at it as my way of smiling at you via the computer. I like to imagine that you are smiling back. That’s a win-win situation!