Let me start by sharing a little story with you, and then we’ll talk about why focusing on weight loss is often detrimental to making real lasting lifestyle changes. Don’t worry, I’m also going to give you my advice for what to focus on instead of the number on the scale!
As a Dietitian and Personal Trainer the majority of the clients I work with seek me out because they are unhappy with their weight. And I can totally appreciate the feeling of being uncomfortable in your body and knowing you could be making healthier lifestyle choices. There have been times in my life when I’ve been overweight and unfit, so I know the struggle of getting in shape and improving my diet choices. But this story isn’t about me…it’s about one client in particular that I worked with that got stuck in the weight loss trap and it completely got in the way of her lifestyle change. She came to me with one goal: losing 30 pounds. She recalled always struggling with her weight as an adult, and years of having a sedentary job, eating past the point of fullness, and using food as a coping mechanism for stress had just continued to add to the number on the scale. Over the years she had also gained weight with each weight loss attempt she had made. It’s honestly pretty rare that I work with a client (particularly women) who has not tried Weight Watchers, Herbal Magic, The 21 Day Fix etc, etc, etc. Each time they make an attempt at losing weight using some fad diet they might be successful for awhile, but after they’ve ‘fallen off the wagon’, they wind up heavier than they were before. (This is called The Cycle of Dieting…you can read more about it here). So this client and I discussed her current lifestyle habits. Was she currently exercising? No. Was her diet including a lot of highly processed foods and restaurant meals? Yes. Did she feel that she often ate past the point of fullness, or ate for non-hunger reasons like stress? Yes, on almost a daily basis. Does she sleep well? No.
It doesn’t take a Nutrition expert to see that there is clearly a lot of room in this person’s life for some healthy behaviour changes. Overweight or not this is not a healthy lifestyle is it? The trouble with this client was, she wanted to lose the weight and lose it fast. She felt that working with a “nutrition expert” meant she should see results even quicker than some of the fad diets she had tried *cringe*. Unfortunately in University I was given a diploma, not a magic wand. A week into working with me she was upset that her weight had ‘only’ dropped by 2lbs. I tried to dissuade her from checking her weight at all, instead to focus on exercising consistently, and eating more unprocessed foods, but she was convinced that checking her weight would “keep her on track”.
Guess what? It didn’t.
Rather than focusing on the progress in her fitness level, or giving herself props for packing a lunch for work instead of buying takeout she would just beat herself up that the weight wasn’t going anywhere. After a “bad week of eating” that showed no weight loss at all, she gave up and stopped coming to see me, much to my disappointment…in myself. I’ll always remember this as a professional failure, and a learning opportunity to improve my game when working with clients who can’t seem to break up with their scale.
So, why is being weight-focused while making a lifestyle change such a bad idea?
There are a lot of really unhealthy ways to lose weight
If your #1 priority is getting the number on the scale to drop, there are a myriad of ways to get you there. Crash diet with only 1000 calories per day? Yup! Juice fast? Yup! Eating nothing but cabbage soup? Yup! Taking a bunch of ‘fat burning’ stimulant pills or laxatives? Yup!
Trouble is, each of these options is a short-term fix for a long-term problem, a band-aid solution for a broken relationship with food. What happens when you can no longer afford the insanely over-priced supplements, or have a work lunch that clashes with that juice fast? If you are trying to maintain a 1000-calorie per day diet for the rest of your life, good luck going out for dinner, enjoying a glass of wine on the weekends, going on vacation, having a piece of birthday cake, or doing ANYTHING fun! There is always an expiry date on the quick weight loss methods. Perhaps at first you feel great because you’re ‘finally getting your shit together’ (we call this the ‘new diet high’), but at the end of the day your relationship with food is still in a bad place. Many diet plans repeat the age-old “It’s not a diet it’s a lifestyle change” line, but to me, that’s BS. None of those programs can truly be maintained forever (while still living life in an enjoyable way), and none of them do anything but make you feel like shit when you wind up back where you started.
So, next time you hear of some new diet and you feel intrigued, REALLY think about having to keep it up FOREVER. Still sound appealing? Even if it does work in the short-term, remember that when you stop following the diet, or taking the pill, or skipping all but one meal per day, you will quickly find that weight you lost (and probably more)
Healthy behaviours do not result in quick weight loss
We all see stories every day all over social media and news sites, telling the AMAZING tale of some individual who was extremely overweight, and by making some lifestyle changes lost a huge amount of weight and is now a happy, healthy person. But what these tales are often missing is a time frame. We see a ten second video clip on the internet, but that kind of change does not happen overnight. Do you know how long it probably took that person to lose 150lbs? Probably YEARS. Which is a good thing, because if you are truly losing weight in a healthy, sustainable way, it takes time. A long time. More time than you ever thought it would, but trust me, every day that you do the healthy things, your body will be thanking you well into old age. Focusing on ‘healthy behaviours’ for the sake of fast weight loss inevitably drives us toward calorie and food restriction. Engaging in physical activity for the sole purpose of burning calories to pay for our food sins is only going to lead to burnout. In reality, nourishing our bodies with healthy food (and enough of it!), and finding activity that we actually enjoy and look forward to, is the key for keeping those behaviours long enough to see the changes in our bodies (if that’s even what we want!)
Weight loss should only occur if your body has excess weight to lose
Another reason I never focus on weight loss with my clients is that some of them may not ever lose weight. Each of our bodies is unique, we do not all have the ability to be a size 2, even with all the diets and workouts in the world.
Instead, focus on getting more fit, getting stronger, and continue to make healthy eating choices not because you want the number on the scale to change, but because these are just simply healthy things to do. Think about how much better you sleep, or how much better you cope with stress when you’re exercising, or how much better your digestive system feels when you eat enough fibre. If prior to making these lifestyle changes your body was carrying extra weight maybe you’ll lose it, but some of us were just meant to have larger bodies. Embrace whatever body you have and treat it like gold, don’t battle with it trying to fit into a size you just weren’t meant for.
Weight loss is often touted as the key to disease prevention as we get older, but in reality, it’s the healthy behaviours that prevent disease, regardless of the actual number on the scale. If we simply changed our focus to creating and maintaining healthy a healthy, balanced lifestyle that we are happy with, our weight will be what it should be.
So, put the scale away, and shift your attention to these 3 things instead:
1. Work on fixing your relationship with food and breaking the diet mindset
Eat mindfully and make nutritious food choices. This means finding a way of eating that makes you feel good, balanced, and happy. This means recognizing unhealthy food behaviours like binge-eating, or using food as a coping mechanism for stress. This means using the hunger scale to gauge portion sizes vs weighing or measuring everything on your plate, and picking foods that offer you a variety of nutrients rather than only ones that are low in carbs, or fat-free, or whatever. Choose foods that give you energy and nourishment, and practice cooking with those foods to create tasty, exciting dishes you look forward to eating. There is nothing more sad to me than when I hear someone say that healthy eating is boring, or healthy food tastes bad. There are so many DELICIOUS healthy meals out there we just need to learn how to make them! Whatever you decide healthy eating means to you, make sure you take the time to slow down and enjoy each bite!
2. Find joy in movement
Maybe it’s a dance class, maybe it’s yoga, or maybe it’s hiring a trainer to teach you how to weight lift. Whatever activity you do- love it! Regular activity is so much more than a weight loss tool. We should all be active every day whether regardless of our body size. From memory and cognition, to mood and stress relief the benefits of activity extend far beyond our waistline. Find a trainer or group class, or a gym that embodies these principles, not one that has images of scantily-class models on the walls and goofy quotes about working so hard you puke. Remember to exercise for the fitness level you’re at, not the level you want to be at. Keeping exercise fun and manageable is so critical to creating lasting habits. If you rush into a program that is just too extreme for your current fitness level you’re likely to burnout, or wind up injured.
3. Distance yourself from weight loss triggers
Unfollow the insta-models on social media, delete the nutrition supplement sales people from your Facebook. Stop buying magazines with girls in bikinis with impossible abs on the cover (did you know those are all photoshopped anyway?) Disengage with the diet industry and stop giving it the power to make you feel like shit because you might not fit into their idea of perfect. Instead, find communities of people that embrace body positivity and encourage healthy lifestyles regardless of body size.
Should you still set goals for yourself? Absolutely! However, set goals that focus on healthy behaviours that you can control, not weight loss.
- I will start bringing a lunch to work with me instead of buying takeout 3 times per week
- I will do 30 minutes of either walking, weightlifting, or yoga each day
- I will create a meal plan for dinners each week and try one new vegetable recipe
- I will use the hunger scale at dinner to improve my mind-body awareness and allow my body to guide my food intake.
But Steph, how will I know if it’s working?!
I often hear get this question from clients when I am encouraging them to stop checking their weight all the damn time. How can you tell if whats working? The scale won’t tell you if you can do more push-ups than you could last month. The scale won’t tell you if you ate enough fruits and vegetables today. The scale won’t tell you if you chose to go to a yoga class or phone a friend instead of eating to cope with stress last night. The scale won’t tell you if you’re a good person, or a good parent, or a hard worker, or any of those things, so stop putting so much clout on something that means so little in real life.
Tuck the scale far far away in the back corner of a closet (or have someone else hide it for you, or just throw it away if that’s what it really takes!) and ditch the diet mentality. Shift your focus to being kind to yourself, and treating your body well, no matter your jean size. This kind of mental change takes time and practice, but trust the process and at the end I guarantee you’ll be a happier, healthier person than you ever were while dieting.
Need help getting out of the cycle of dieting? Looking for a trainer who doesn’t focus on weight loss? Contact me today!