A study released last week made fewer headlines than I hoped it would. Conducted by University College London, it concluded that discrimination against overweight and obese people, or “fat shaming” as it’s often referred to, leads to weight gain, not weight loss. The lead researcher stated, and I agree, that there is no justification for discrimination against people because of their weight, which may include being treated disrespectfully, or being harassed.
Trouble is, many of my clients fat shame themselves, and talk to themselves silently in ways that they’re often too embarrassed to share with me out loud. If you find yourself doing this, I hope you can stop, because in my 15+ years of helping clients lose weight, I’ve seen this pattern only lead to discouragement, or depression, and abandonment of health and weight loss goals.
If you really want to motivate yourself to slim down and healthy up, especially in ways that will last, consider these five dos and don’ts.
Don’t: Beat Yourself Up
In my experience, one of the main triggers of throwing in the towel is negative self-talk. Coming down hard on yourself for small indiscretions, like sneaking an extra square of dark chocolate, or taking a bite off your partner’s plate, can have damaging consequences, including emotional eating, or engaging in risky purging behaviors (e.g. compensating by undereating, overexercising, taking laxatives or diet pills, vomiting…). One exercise I often carry out with my clients is to compare how they talk to themselves to what they would say to their best friend if he or she were in the same circumstances.
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The comparisons are eye opening, and the objective is to consciously work on adopting the same kind of nurturing, caring, and encouraging dialogue you use with the people you respect and love with yourself. I’ve seen just this one change result in major shifts in motivation, as well as transitions from on again/off again yo-yoing to steady, sustainable strides. In other words, just committing to being nice to yourself has the power to transform your relationship with food, your body, and your health.
Do: Celebrate Every Success
Most of my clients want to reward themselves when they hit their weight goal, perhaps with new clothes, a trip, or a spa service. But I encourage them not to wait. When you’re working on changing your lifestyle, there are numerous victories along the way, and each one should be honored. One client recently told me that it dawned on her that she automatically reaches for water over diet soda, and no longer misses her former daily fix—that’s a huge win! Another shared that her kids are now asking for fruits and veggies. A third remarked that everyone’s been commenting on how radiant her skin looks.
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Even if you’re still pounds away from your weight goal, revel in these achievements, and commemorate them, even if just in small ways, like buying flowers for your office or home, doing a happy dance in your living room, or taking a silly selfie to share with a friend. Recognizing these moments will keep you going, and it’s important to recognize that they’re really the foundation of your long-term success.
Don’t: Focus Solely on Your Weight
One of the reasons the “do” above is so important is that it creates a shift in perspective. When I’ve worked with clients who remain laser focused on weight, they’re often willing to compromise health for the sake of weight loss. For example, I’ve had really smart clients tell me they took up smoking, fully knowing the risks, as a means of losing weight. As a health professional that makes me very sad, and it’s one of the reasons why I talk to clients about things like mood, sleep quality, energy, immunity, digestive health, strength, endurance, and help them monitor health indicators like blood pressure, cholesterol, and liver values. I generally find that over time, all of these factors that contribute to wellness, become much stronger motivators than weight or size, because they so strongly influence day to day quality of life. When this happens, you may even decide to banish the scale altogether, which is incredibly freeing, because you’ll have far better—and less fickle—ways of gauging your progress.
Do: Find Positive Support
I hate to say it, but most of my clients have at least one person in their lives who either consciously or unconsciously sabotages their healthy efforts. It may be a significant other who doesn’t want to lose his or her partner in crime, so in turn brings home a box of donuts or a piping hot pizza. Sometimes it’s a competitive co-worker who becomes critical, or a family member who says things like, “You don’t need to lose weight.” A lack of support, even from those you’re close to, is a common conundrum for most people who’ve adopted healthier habits.
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You may not be able to change this, but you can counterbalance it by finding positive support. Even if your cheerleader or confidant is online or long-distance, just having at least one person in your corner who really gets what you’re trying to do and is on the same page can help you stay on track. Spending a little time each day on social media can also help as long as it’s empowering, so find ways to connect that make you feel like you’re not in this alone.
Don’t: Set Unrealistic Expectations
One of the biggest pitfalls I see is setting unrealistic expectations, either results-wise (e.g. I’m going to lose 30 pounds in 30 days), or behavior wise, such as vowing to work out seven days a week, or cut out all carbs. On the flip side, the lasting transformations I see—that is, people who lose weight healthfully and keep it off for good—come from focusing on progress and consistency, not strictness or perfection. You know yourself better than anyone else. If you can’t realistically see yourself maintaining a goal you’ve set for yourself one, three, or six months from now, modify it. When I ask my clients about their weight history, most tell me they’ve lost and gained back the same 20 or so pounds over and over again. And what finally allows them to shed it for good is ditching any approach they know that can’t stick with!
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Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.
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