Losing Weight in Spite of Yourself
First Things First: Talk to Your Doctor
If you have a large amount of weight to lose, or have recently experienced a significant weight gain, there may be an underlying medical cause. You can avoid a lot of frustration by asking your doctor to rule out some of the more common medical causes for weight gain such as:
Your doctor should also look at any drugs that you are taking, because some medications can interfere with weight-loss. Your doctor can also tell you if there are certain types of exercise that you should avoid.
Note: Unfortunately, some doctors take a very negative and punitive attitude toward overweight patients, and will refuse to order tests that might prove (or eliminate) medical reasons for obesity. If your doctor has such an attitude, find another doctor.
Remember: A Diet is not a Vacation
Most people will go on a diet the same way they go on vacation: They expect a short change in their daily routine, but they also plan to go back to their "normal" lifestyle once it is over. But your "normal lifestyle" is what has caused you to be overweight, so you can't "go back" and expect to maintain your weight loss.
The Problem with "Normal"
Unfortunately, when it comes to eating, few people truly understand what "normal" is. It becomes easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we are consuming fewer calories than we actually are. It is also easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we are burning more calories via exercise than we really are.
The truth is that most people have a very distorted notion of what normal portion size is, perceive foods to be lower in calories than they actually are, and think that they burn far more calories via exercise than they actually do.
Losing weight requires that we challenge our notion of "normal" so that we can change those habits and beliefs that prevent weight loss.The only way to do this is by honestly observing our behaviors.
Tools and Tips for Getting Started
While it is tempting to just jump right into a diet/eating plan, unless you need to lose weight for an upcoming surgery or suchlike, give yourself a week or two of learning about your behaviors before trying to change them.
1. Record everything you eat and drink, including portion sizes and calories. There are free calorie calculators available online, or you can buy a calorie calculator that you can carry with you. If you can't weigh your food all the time, learn to "eyeball" portions using a guide like this one.
Caution: It is easy to fall into self-loathing when you see how much you are eating. Resist this. You need an accurate picture of your eating habits and self-loathing is only going to encourage you to either fudge your records, begin modifying your eating habits right away, or even drop the project altogether.
Remember: Our eating habits are not entirely intentional or conscious: This is why you are keeping the diary to begin with.
2. Record each meal/snack as well as the time of day when you ate that meal/snack.
3. Get a pedometer and wear it all the time. It can help you to understand how many calories you are buring in your daily routine as well as any walking that you do specifically for exercise.
Remember: During this time of observation, do NOT make any changes in your eating and/or exercise habits!
Assessing Your Behaviors
Once you have recorded your eating and physical activity for a week or two, take a look at what you have recorded. The first thing that you will probably notice is the total number of calories you consume in a day. You want to look at where these calories are coming from:
- Are you taking in a large number of calories from condiments (i.e. salad dressings, dips, etc)?
- Or are you drinking a lot of your calories (i.e soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, juices, etc)?
- Are the bulk of your calories coming from snacks?
- Is there a certain meal of the day during which you consume the bulk of your calories?
- Are you eating a lot at night?
Have a look and see if there are any binge/trigger foods. These are foods that you either eat a whole lot of at one sitting OR that seem to increase your appetite so that you eat a lot more than normal after eating them.
Check out that pedometer, too. How many calories are you burning by walking through your day? Are you doing any additional exercise? Check out an exercise calculator to determine how many calories you are really burning each day (it may be less than you think).
After examining your diet and physical activity level to see if you can identify unhealthy eating patterns and habits, you will then be able to make the changes necessary for losing weight.
Learning What You Need To Do
(If you only have a small amount of weight to lose, you may not need to make the gradual changes that I suggest below. Decide for yourself what will work best.)
As I stated earlier in this article, it is your current "normal" lifestyle that has caused you to gain weight. You need to redefine "normal" and make permanent changes to the way you live (not just the way you eat). The trouble with this is that you probably have been living the same way for a very long time, and have developed a lot of unconscious habits that will be hard to break. But now that you have tracked and analyzed your eating and physical activity, you should have a better idea of where you need to make changes.
In my experience, it is easier to make one change at a time, working it into your daily life slowly, than it is to make a lot of radical changes all at once. Once you have fully integrated one change into your life, then go on to the next one.
If this all sounds very slow and tedious (and let's face it, most of us want to lose all our excess weight "yesterday") keep in mind that unless you gained your weight very quickly (usually for a medical or pharmaceutical reason), your weight gain was probably slow as well. By successfully adopting permanent lifestyle changes, you can not only reverse the weight gain, but prevent it from ever happening again.
In the next section of this article, I will show you my changes, along with commentary, so as to help you decide how you might want to structure your changes.
Redefining Normal: Making Your Changes
When putting together your list of lifestyle changes, keep a few things in mind:
1. Start with "easy" changes first. For many people, this might be something exercise related, such as incorporating a 20 minute walk during their lunch hour.
2. Add one change at a time, every 1-2 weeks. Give yourself at least a week between changes in order to adapt to your new routine/rhythm.
3. This may sound strange, but it worked well for me: Make your earliest changes non-food related. I suggest this because people who are overweight are usually so because they really, really enjoy food and as such, major food changes can often be the hardest. As you begin to make your healthy changes and integrate them permanently into your life, you will likely have developed the confidence and the drive to make more difficult changes.
4. When making food changes, you might want to start with an intermediate "substitution" change first. For example, if you drink a large latte made with whole milk every workday morning, (about 260 calories), consider switching to a nonfat latte (about 160 calories) for a week or two, and then switching to a regular coffee with an ounce of half and half (about 45 calories) for a week, and then making the switch to black coffee or tea. Over this transition period, you will have weaned yourself off 1300 calories per week.
5. If you have identified trigger foods (foods that you gorge on or that seem to make you even hungrier), you will need to eliminate them from your diet. What you may find, however, is that there are foods similar to your "triggers" that you can eat in moderation. For example, I have found that doughnuts, crispy cookies, and candy bars are all trigger foods for me. However, I can eat cake, soft/chewy cookies, and plain chocolate bars (or plain chocolate with nuts) in moderation with no trouble at all. I've eliminated the doughnuts and crispy cookies and candy bars from my diet completely, yet I don't miss them because I have found equally tasty alternatives.
6. Be careful with doing "too much" in the area of exercise. Start off by integrating something like walking into your life (pretty easy to do) and then slowly add other forms of exercise such as weight lifting. Don't set up an overly-ambitious regimen of classes, gym sessions, and walking/running, only to find that you just can't fit it all in to your schedule.
7. If you restaurant food or other prepared foods a lot, you need to be particularly careful in your food choices and portion control. This is because prepared foods can be much higher in calories/carbs than a similar item that you might prepare for yourself at home. Check out my hubs on eating out and my review of Eat This, Not That for more information and tips.
8. Be extremely careful about health club claims as to how many calories you are burning via exercise whilst using their machines. Use a reliable exercise calorie calculator instead.
8. Above all else, if you find that a change isn't working out, DON'T give up. Just because something isn't working doesn't mean that everything isn't working! Step back, take a deep breath, select another change, and try that one out. Just don't lose sight of your main goal.
Measuring Your Progress
When you begin your lifestyle changes, you should start seeing results, and I am not just talking about body size/shape/weight. In fact, while I do think that you should take body measurements and weigh yourself on a scale, you should also measure your progress by how much better you feel.
List 3-5 health problems or physical symptoms that you believe are caused or aggravated by being overweight. Once a week, review the list and see how many of these symptoms are gone or have lessened.
While some people suggest only weighing in once a week (or ignoring the scale altogether) I recommend weighing yourself several times a week, mainly so you can see how your weight fluctuates throughout the month and/or after certain foods and actvities. I also recommend measuring yourself to see how your body is changing in response to your efforts. In addition, I would encourage you to give away your clothes as you become too small for them. A tight waistband or straining buttons can be the best indicator that you may be off track with your eating, and if you don't have any other (larger) clothing, you will be more motivated to take action.
If you hit a plateau (i.e. a period of time where you aren't losing weight) give it a few weeks. If you aren't gaining weight, your body is likely adjusting and the weight loss will continue after a bit. However, if your plateau lasts for more than a month, or the pounds seem to be creeping back on, I would suggest going back to keeping a food diary to see where you might be going wrong.
Avoid the temptation to reward yourself with food for doing well on your diet. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you "deserve" a treat because you lost 5 pounds in a week or have dropped a dress size. Keep thinking like that, and before you know it, your weight loss will slow down and/or you might start gaining again. If you want to enjoy a big meal or a high-calorie food, have it because you want it (and have planned to enjoy it) rather than as a reward.
In Conclusion: This is Not a Race
Keep in mind that this is not a race. It is a change in the way you eat, move, and live. If you sometimes fret that the weight is coming off too slowly (yet it is coming off), keep in mind that you are going to be alive this time next year anyway: Would you rather weigh less than you do now (even if it is not your "ideal weight") or would you rather have no change at all?
I wish you the best in achieving your health goals!