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Perhaps the biggest reason that permanent weight loss is so difficult is that it is stressful—for your mind and your body. And when you're stressed out, you just don’t function at your best, mentally, emotionally, or physically. In fact, chronic stress tends to make you into your own worst enemy, impairing your judgment, making you emotionally hyper-reactive, messing up your metabolism, and generally making it more difficult to do the things you need to in order to lose weight.
As far as your brain and body are concerned, persistent calorie restriction is, by definition, a condition of chronic stress. Human beings have automatic biological and psychological responses to calorie restriction that are designed to help us survive this condition without losing too much weight or starving to death. Unfortunately, these responses also kick in when you are trying to lose weight for healthy reasons—and they often get in your way.
The best way to minimize the negative effects of these responses to your weight loss efforts is to minimize the degree to which your diet stresses you out. Less overall stress means a reduced reaction to calorie restriction, and that means much less trouble for you. Anything and everything you can do to make your weight loss efforts less stressful should be at the top of your priority list.
The good news is that much of the stress you normally experience during weight loss comes from factors you can control—your own expectations and attitude about how weight loss works, and your natural ability to focus your attention and thoughts in ways that promote motivation, persistence and success, even under difficult circumstances. When your expectations and attitudes are out of sync with reality, or when you fail to focus your attention where it will actually help you, stress can get the best of you and wreck your weight loss efforts.
5-Point Reality Checkup
The following reality checkup can help you determine whether your expectations and your attention-focusing habits are realistic, or if you need to work on them to stop unnecessary stress from hurting your weight loss efforts.
Write down whether you agree (True) or disagree (False) with each of the following five statements. At the end, you'll find out if you're guilty of the most common (but unrealistic) expectations associated with weight loss stress.
True or False: Weight loss is all about the numbers. You lose weight when you eat fewer calories than you burn.
True or False: Will power is the foundation of weight loss success. You have to force yourself to do the things you don’t like doing until you do like them or until you lose weight, whichever happens first.
True or False: The best motivation for losing weight is being unhappy about your present weight and appearance.
True or False: Being brutally honest with yourself about your problems, bad habits, and character flaws is the best way to overcome these problems.
True or False: Your own body is your worst weight-loss enemy. To lose weight, you have to constantly fight cravings, urges, and desires that are biologically based.
The best response to each of these statements is False. Although there is a grain of truth in each statement, most people who are successful at permanent weight loss succeed because they have taken the opposite viewpoint on each of these issues. Here’s why:
Weight loss does depend on taking in fewer calories than you use up. But figuring out how to do that the right way is incredibly complex. No two bodies burn the same amount of calories doing the exact same activity, and there is no simple way to be certain how many calories you are burning at any given moment. On top of that, many factors affect your metabolism—the quality of your sleep, your mood and feelings, the quality of the foods you eat, the variety of your daily activities, your basic health, and more. The bottom line is that successful weight loss is very much a holistic phenomenon, dependent on harmonious functioning of body, mind, and spirit.
There probably isn’t any such thing as willpower. That’s just the name we give to the experience of getting ourselves to do something that isn’t high on our list of things we think we want to do. What we are really doing in those situations is using memory, anticipation, and an appeal to our most basic values to shift our in-the-moment priorities. There are many ways to accomplish this that are much more pleasant and more productive than simply “willing” yourself to do something unpleasant. It pays to learn them (see Step 9).
Not liking your weight or appearance right now will only get you to the front door. If you want to get into the process of changing things (and stay there), you need a positive vision of your goal (see Step 6) and lots of positive reinforcement along the way.
Harsh self-criticism may be the biggest obstacle to the skill that can actually help you get past recurring problems—the skill of learning from your mistakes and adjusting your behavior accordingly. To do this, you need to adopt a very different kind of attitude and approach to yourself (see Step 10).
You are your body, and your weight loss efforts will succeed exactly to the extent that you mange to do the work on behalf of your embodied self. You’ll do much better when you focus on making positive changes to improve your health and well-being, rather than on fighting your bad habits.
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant.
See all of Dean's articles.
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