9 Tips to Help You Actually Enjoy Your Weight-Loss Journey

This article is the second installment in a two-part series. Read Part One here. 

The implied start and end, the frustration that goes along with weeks or months of restriction, agitation from days spent calorie counting or skipping out on social events to stick to your specific eating plan—the word "diet" has become synonymous with a lot of negativity over time. While it's been established that dieting does in fact make it more difficult to lose weight and keep it off, all hope is not lost. With the right mindset and a little determination, you can achieve your food and fitness goals, maintain those goals and even enjoy yourself along the way.

At first glance, this might seem pretty foolhardy. With eating, at least, isn't part of the problem that we enjoy food a little too much?

Not exactly. When I look at my own experience with chronic overeating and yo-yo dieting, two things seem clear to me now. One is that much of the pleasure I got from eating wasn't really from the food itself, but rather from the way eating distracted me from a lot of feelings and thoughts that were definitely not pleasurable. I was an "emotional eater."

The second is that I was mostly eating foods designed to stimulate appetite and the desire for more. Food scientists call them "hyper-palatable" foods, or those engineered to taste much better than any food could naturally taste. These foods contain added ingredients that appeal to all our innate preferences: salt, fat, sugar and, often, a number of artificial flavorings and additives. Many of the prepared foods and convenience foods found in stores and restaurants fall into this category of hyper-palatable foods. (For complete information on the phenomenon, check out the book "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite" by Dr. David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration.) If you've been eating many of these "too tasty" foods, don't assume that your appetite is the problem. You may be able to eat less—without feeling so deprived that you can't stick to your long-term plan—with some simple dietary changes.

Once you have a handle on these two problems, focusing on how to enjoy your food and exercise is a great way to avoid those issues commonly associated with "going on a diet."

Life's Simple Pleasures, Decoded

To get started, it's important to understand where pleasure originates. Recognizing these four basic sources of the pleasure we can get from our food choices and physical activity will make it easier to find satisfaction in the weight-loss journey.
  • Biological sources: For our purposes, these would include happy taste buds, "feel good" endorphins that come with exercise and relief from hunger.
  • Psychological sources: For example, the self-esteem and confidence that comes with attempting something challenging and accomplishing the goal. Also, the self-respect that grows out of taking good care of yourself.
  • Social sources: The satisfaction of contributing to goals and outcomes shared with others. For example, healthy family meals, team sports, exercise classes, teaming up with an exercise partner or sharing healthy recipes with others.
  • Value-based sources: The added satisfaction possible when personal choices are connected to larger issues and values. For example, buying local, minimizing excess consumption and waste, modelling desirable behaviors to others, or walking and biking instead of driving.
As a general rule, the more sources of pleasure you can tap into, the easier it will be to actually want to do what you need to do to lose weight. It's important to understand that simply wanting to lose weight isn't likely to provide all the motivation you need to do what's necessary.  
How Do I Enjoy What I Eat?

Eat real foods. If you see a bunch of ingredients you don't use at home listed on the food label, chances are high that some of them will make you want to eat more than you need. If you've been eating a lot of these too-tasty foods, you may need to give yourself some time for your taste buds to adjust to real food before the latter starts tasting good again. The adjusting will happen, though, with some patience.

Eat meals you enjoy. Choose your foods and plan your meals as if you were offering them to someone you really want to please. Modify your favorite meals with smart substitutions, reduce your portion size to keep the calorie count down or make your meals more nutritionally balanced. Just don't replace them with rabbit food or you'll be setting yourself up for hangry times.

Enjoy the meals you eat. Eat slowly and savor your foods. Give your taste buds a chance to enjoy themselves, and give your body a chance to send out those "I've had enough" signals before you've already wolfed down more than your body needs.

Use a small plate. The same amount of food will look like more when it's on a smaller plate. According to research, you can "trick" yourself into feeling satisfied on less food this way, even if you know it's the same amount of food.

When you run across temptations, take a short time-out before you decide what to do. Ask yourself how you think you're going to feel after you eat whatever it is that you're craving. Then, ask yourself how you think you'll feel after you decide not to eat it. Choose the feeling you most want to have.

Proactively manage the temptations in your own house. Keep the snack foods you want to be eating in sight and within reach. Keep the ones you're trying to avoid out of sight and make them hard to grab. Try keeping a bowl of fresh fruit on the kitchen table, and the chips and high-calorie snacks in the cupboard where you can't see them. This simple trick makes it easier to manage that evolutionary "see food, eat it" impulse.
How Do I Enjoy Activity?

Finding exercises that are both effective and enjoyable can be a little trickier than finding good foods, especially if you're not used to regular exercise. The reward your taste buds supply when you eat something you like is immediate and powerful. Similarly, your body will also reward challenging physical activity by releasing endorphins in your brain that make you feel good. But that doesn't happen the minute you get up off the couch—you've got to get yourself going before those endorphins really kick in. To get started, focus on how to make that decision to get up and get moving more rewarding and enjoyable.

Forget "exercise" and think "accomplishment." I've always felt that the word "exercise" is one of the things that makes it hard to do. The word itself sounds boring and repetitive. I find it more motivating to think in terms of what I want to accomplish each day. That could be any number of things, from lasting a minute longer than I did yesterday or lifting a bit more weight, to exploring a new route on my bike or burning a few more calories. Anything that gets your mind out of "Do I really want to do this?" mode and into "Let's see what I can do today" mode should work, even if you're just getting started. Just make sure your daily accomplishment goal is realistic for where you are in your fitness journey.

Reward yourself for each accomplishment. If you manage to do what you set out to accomplish that day, give yourself a non-food reward. I keep a jar on my dresser, and each day that I accomplish my exercise goal, I deposit a dollar. Then, at the end of the month, I spend that money on anything I want. This strategy can also give you something pleasant to think about when you're in the middle of your exercise session. What will all your accomplishment dollars buy you?

Pick the types of exercise that make your life easier and better. In my case, for example, this means riding a bike. I can visit my grandchildren or run errands, plus it saves me lots of money on bus fare and I don't have to talk myself into going to the gym for 30 minutes on the "dreadmill." Examine your own lifestyle and determine if there are ways you can find exercises that fit your schedule and your personality. You're more likely to keep coming back if it's not a hassle that makes you miserable.

Losing weight isn't something you can simply will yourself to do, like getting out of bed in the morning. Rather, it's something that happens when you do other things, such as eating less and moving more, consistently over a period of time. The best way to help yourself lose weight permanently is to put your willpower into finding meals to eat and activities to do that you enjoy for their own sake. It's the pleasure and rewards you'll find in those foods and activities that will get you to do them consistently now and continue doing long after you hit your goal weight.