Lessons from Losing Weight
Losing weight is a goal held by many of us, often for years, and the mental and emotional effects of achieving it can be more difficult than we anticipate. However, we are also presented with valuable learning opportunities which can be applied to other goals and aspects of life.
In January 2018, I decided I was ready to improve my physical health by losing a significant amount of weight. I had prioritised increasing my strength and fitness for a couple of years, but this had minimal impact on my body fat percentage because I was overeating. Emotional eating has been a huge issue for me throughout my life. Even as a healthy, slightly skinny, child I associated food with feeling better. By the time I was experiencing serious mental health problems as a teenager, overeating and bingeing had become major coping strategies.
I know some people will be interested in the numbers, so let’s get them out of the way. I weighed 244lb (17st 6 or 110.7kg) in January 2018. My highest weight, in the summer of 2011, was approximately 300lb (21st 6 or 136kg). I lost weight between those dates in a couple of stages, simply through changing a few of my worst eating habits (including buying multiple chocolate bars whenever I passed a shop) and walking more. As of June 2019, I weigh between 154lb (11st or 69.9kg) and 160lb (11st 6 or 72.6kg). In case you’re wondering, I’m 5’5” (165cm) and went from a UK size 26 at my highest weight, to a size 18 in January 2018 and currently fit into size 10 clothes. My current goals are to lose more fat while building/maintaining muscle, which will be a slow process and my goal weight, which was originally 130lb (9st 4 or 60kg), seems less relevant than how I feel and look.
My main motivation to lose weight is to reduce my risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. My dad has both of these conditions and I decided that I already have enough problems in my life, so I would like to do everything I can to improve my health. I’m aware that many unhealthy people have a “healthy” weight, while some people whose BMI is “overweight” or “obese” can be healthy. I’m not saying that we should apply black-and-white thinking to everyone, when their personal circumstances may mean it’s healthier for them to maintain a higher weight than BMI guidelines recommend. In fact, I was healthier at my highest weight than I was when I weighed 140lb (10st or 63.5kg) in early adulthood, did no exercise whatsoever and developed bulimia. However, I decided that in my personal circumstances, losing weight was the single best thing I can do to try and avoid the most prominent health problems in my family history.
I’m not going to share details of my dietary changes, because I’m not a professional and I want to focus on the mental and emotional aspects of my journey. Suffice to say that I eat less, try to avoid processed foods and aim for a low sugar intake. I don’t follow this perfectly and there are days when I overeat (including days when I make a conscious decision to eat more), but emotional bingeing is no longer a frequent occurrence. I happen to follow a vegan diet, but this hasn’t directly helped me lose weight – I like baking and vegan chocolate cakes are amazing! If you want to understand more about weight loss and how to navigate the contradictory advice on the subject, I recommend reading The Obesity Code by Dr Jason Fung.
Lesson One: Being consistent and persistent is the key to achieving goals.
I lost weight slowly. There were weeks and months where I felt like I was getting short-changed for the effort I put in, but I got results because I stuck to my plan. Sure, there were times when I overate, but after each deviation I went back to the plan. One day or week of overeating won’t derail weight loss. Setbacks may delay the realisation of your goals, but they don’t negate the progress you have already made. You have a choice: return to the plan or abandon the plan.
Returning to the plan might mean changing the plan. I reassess my situation on a regular basis and adjust my plan accordingly, because when you make progress towards any goal your situation is shifts. Often, ensuring your effort is consistent and persistent involves making more changes than you originally planned – especially when you adapt to changes and they become habits, your new “normal”. Walking my dog is no longer a huge physical effort, compared to several years ago, so maintaining effort in my fitness routine nowadays means incorporating longer walks and running. People talk about “stepping up” your efforts as you work towards a goal so you counteract the effects of adaptation, whether it’s physical or mental adaptation, and it’s important to recognise this as part of the process.
Losing weight has given me tangible evidence that what I do every single day has more impact on my life than what I do infrequently. Putting effort into taking positive action towards your goals every day is more effective than making a huge effort for a week, then returning to old habits. It also means the occasional day of doing something which counteracts the behaviours you want to cultivate won’t destroy all your progress.
Lesson Two: Strong routines make all the difference.
Creating strong routines – and sticking to them – promotes consistence and persistence. If your goal is important to you, treat each action you take towards achieving it as a priority. Most goals involve repeated actions, such as saving a specific amount of money each week or spending a certain number of hours working on a project, and it’s especially important to treat these repeated actions as priorities. The reason for this is twofold. First, these repeated actions form the core of your goal and need to be applied consistently and persistently in order to achieve the goal. Second, repeated actions are particularly vulnerable to procrastination.
When you know an action needs to be repeated multiple times as you work on your goal, it’s easy to convince yourself that skipping one doesn’t matter. You think, I’ll be doing it again tomorrow/next week, so missing it once is no big deal. There is a lot of truth in this: when your goal consists of many small actions, skipping one single action probably won’t have a significant effect. However, habits are easier to break than they are to make – especially at the beginning – and if you start looking for excuses, you will always find them. When you let yourself make excuses, you weaken your resolve and it’s more likely that you will keep skipping the steps which will help you achieve your goal.
I learnt this the hard way. I started exercising for my mental health and the core repeated actions I use to improve my fitness are walking the dog every day and attending strength-based gym classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I sometimes add weight training at home and running, but these are my core actions and I treat them as priorities. I will only skip a session if it’s absolutely necessary and even then, I try to replace it with another workout. Some people think this is an extreme approach, but every time I skip a walk or gym class there is a negative impact on my mental health. In addition, missing a workout makes it harder to show up the next time, because my depression and anxiety get a little worse. I can cope with missing one or two sessions, but when I let excuses creep in and find myself missing exercise for a week or more, my mood plummets. Exercise is the most important strategy I use to manage my mental health, so skipping workouts is analogous to skipping antidepressants – prioritising each workout is essential for me, not extreme.
Sticking to my exercise routine is relatively easy because I know the risks of letting excuses become a habit. I still have days when I don’t feel like going to gym classes, but I force myself to go because I know the alternative is far worse. I might spend 45 minutes feeling very uncomfortable and hating every second, but I will still benefit from a slight boost in mood. If I stay at home, I tend to spend the whole evening feeling awful. Reminding yourself of the benefits of sticking to your routine and the costs of skipping repeated actions can help you tackle procrastination. You might need to tweak your routine until it works for you, but having a strong framework in place helps you stick to the actions which will propel you towards your goal.
Lesson Three: Fluctuations happen – overall trends are what counts.
Progress towards any goal is rarely linear and losing weight illustrates how much your progress can seem to fluctuate even if you get the results you want. There are many factors which influence your bodyweight (fluid retention is particularly variable), so the weight you read on the scale each day or week doesn’t necessarily reflect either the effort you have been putting in or changes in your body composition. Sometimes your weight will fluctuate for no apparent reason; other times, you know your weight is fluctuating because you’re not being as consistent or persistent as you could be in sticking to your plan. Fluctuations only matter insofar as you can use them to assess your current position. If you aren’t getting the results you expected, consider whether you have been sticking to your plan or if it needs adjusting. Also check that your expectations are realistic.
Use fluctuations as short term feedback, but remember what really counts: the overall trend of progress (or lack thereof) towards your goal. You can only determine overall trends if you stick to your plan for a sufficient period of time, which will vary depending on your goal. I find it helpful to remind myself that fluctuations happen across all aspects of life: sometimes things feel good and are going really well, but other times they seem stagnant. It’s rare for every single project, relationship and activity in your life to be fantastic for a long period of time. Changes and fluctuations are facts of life. Now, when I feel like I’m failing in any area, from my career to friendships, I tell myself it’s just the equivalent of bloating and assess the situation to ascertain the overall trend and whether I need to change my approach.
Lesson Four: Rigid timeframes don’t work when you can’t control everything.
Time-based goals are helpful, especially for goals which relate to processes rather than results, but incorporating a degree of flexibility can help you deal with setbacks without letting them throw you off course. Being flexible is especially important when you can’t control every aspect of your goal, such as aiming to lose a certain amount of weight. Online weight loss calculators can help you determine your goals, but actually losing the weight is not going to adhere to a strict timetable. Setting timelines for goals is a balancing act: you need to challenge yourself enough to feel excited and motivated, but keep your expectations realistic so you don’t feel disappointed and discouraged if you can’t meet your goal within the desired timeframe. Building in some flexibility from the start can help you measure your progress without feeling like you’ve failed.
All the SMART goal advocates tell you to base your goals on actions for a reason: you can control actions, but not results. Results can only be predicted as a consequence of a particular action or set of actions. It’s a great idea – I fully recommend you make all your goals SMART – but in practice, a lot of us like results-based goals. There’s something seductive about them. Luckily, this isn’t an either-or situation. We can create results-based goals alongside our SMART goals and they often complement each other. For example, one of my major goals in the past was to have a short story published. I achieved this through creating SMART goals, including writing a lot (I forget the specifics!) and submitting stories. The same applies to weight loss: I have daily and weekly targets for diet and exercise, but I also have a weight loss target for each month.
The weight loss target is variable and I adjust it each month because weight loss is hard to predict and my priorities can change from month to month. For example, if I have a month full of deadlines and work or study commitments, weight loss is forced to take a back seat. I started losing weight with high hopes of losing a specific average each month, but I soon realised it wasn’t going to work. Some months, you can do everything “right” and lose nothing; other months, you don’t stick to your plan and lose a lot. My approach is to use my monthly target to motivate myself, choosing an amount which is achievable but challenging. If I don’t hit the target, I try not to stress about it and set a new one. Sometimes I need to reassess my plan, or check that I’m sticking to my plan, but as long as I’m making some progress, I’m satisfied. Having multiple targets also helps me manage my expectations, for example, a challenging target alongside a more realistic target, but I don’t get too hung up on it.
Timeframe targets have as much power as you give them. If you find them motivating and take it in your stride if you don’t meet a target, they can be very useful. On the other hand, if you use them as an excuse to pile pressure on yourself and feel awful if you miss a target, you might benefit from a more flexible approach. Remember to celebrate your progress regardless of whether you meet your targets – it may be slower than you had hoped or intended, but making progress towards your goal is better than giving up.
Lesson Five: Working towards goals is more effective (and enjoyable) if you have a positive, supportive attitude.
Many people talk about weight loss in punitive terms and admonish themselves for encountering setbacks: they try to follow a restrictive diet which makes them miserable and beat themselves up when they eat something “forbidden”. This is a lose-lose situation. If they stick to the diet, they’re miserable; if they slip up, they’re miserable. It’s no way to set yourself up for success. Working towards your goals is never 100% fun, sunshine and unicorns, but neither should it be a horrible experience all of the time. Think about how you can have fun as you work towards your goals and support yourself, instead of trying to stick to a plan which has all the appeal of hard labour in a Victorian prison.
Choosing to adopt a positive attitude towards your goals helps you connect with your motivation. Why do you want to achieve your goal? What are you looking forward to? Get excited and think of how you can bring that excitement and enjoyment into your daily routines. For example, I love strength-based gym classes because I like feeling strong. I don’t love every session, but I get a sense of satisfaction when I finish most workouts. I enjoy pushing myself and making progress – it’s a way of creating mini-goals which I can achieve in a relatively short time period, which motivates me. Also think about fun challenges and rewards you can give yourself as you work towards your goal. I have wanted to do a tandem skydive for years, but was above the weight limit – so I booked it for May 2018, giving myself just over 4 months to get under 210lbs, and it was awesome!
Saying “enjoy the journey” is a cliché, but it’s more fun than self-flagellation – which means you’re more likely to stick to your plan and achieve your goal. Consider how you could approach your goal with positivity and support yourself, as opposed to setting yourself up for failure with unrealistic expectations. I set out to achieve my weight loss goal in a healthy way, which includes looking after my mental health. A huge degree of flexibility was important, so that I could eat takeaway with my family every few months and have a birthday cake. I could have lost the weight faster, but it would have come at too great a cost. Having a healthy attitude has become even more important as I get closer to my goal, because I’m laying the foundations for a healthy lifestyle which enables me to maintain my weight without obsessing over food (as I did in the past). Being negative and unsupportive is never going to encourage you to make progress, so why not try the alternative approach?
Lesson Six: Other people will project their issues onto you.
I think this happens a lot with weight loss because it’s an emotive subject: many of us have issues with eating and body image. It’s very common for people to use judgemental language when talking about food and bodies, whether their own or other people’s. How often have you heard someone talk about being “naughty” for eating a slice of cake? My tally must be over one thousand by now and it has become a bit of a bugbear… Let’s get this straight: foods and bodies are not “good” or “bad”. Foods vary according to nutritional content and how they make you feel. Bodies vary in what they can do, how different parts look and how they feel. None of these elements are discrete – they are all on a spectrum and it’s unhelpful to categorise food or bodies according to black-and-white thinking. Unfortunately, some people are entrenched in an unhealthy approach to food and bodies, and some of these people will project their own insecurities and prejudices onto you.
The most frequent manifestations of these projections are ignorant, critical, judgemental and/or hurtful comments. Sometimes, the person commenting isn’t aware they are projecting their issues onto you – they think they’re just chatting. A few people convince themselves that they are being “helpful” by making critical comments. In many cases, the comments themselves aren’t as significant as the context in which they occur. For example, when my weight loss became apparent to other people, I started noticing people talking about losing weight, exercising, dieting, etc. a lot more than they did before I lost weight. This usually takes the form of either justifying why they haven’t or don’t want to lose weight, or saying they plan to lose weight soon. I think they assume I’m judging them for not losing weight.
I find this very difficult to handle, especially because I have struggled with issues around eating and body image myself. As I mentioned, I had bulimia when I was 19 and it continued for three years before I began to be able to assert some control over it. I have had a lot of counselling and therapy for my various mental health issues in the interim, so listening to people talk about losing weight is no longer as triggering as it was in the past, but it’s still incredibly awkward. I find it bizarre that my desire to avoid type 2 diabetes and heart disease evokes such a strong response in a lot of people. I’m happy to talk about losing weight and delighted when people compliment me on my progress when the subject is approached with directness, but I’m uncomfortable when people start listing the reasons why they can’t lose weight (especially as their challenges are no greater than mine) or make faux-jokey remarks warning me not to “go too far” (particularly weird since my BMI is still just over the “healthy” weight range for my height).
However, I have also realised that people project their issues onto me when I’m pursuing other goals. The big difference is that my weight loss is more visible than my other goals, and apparent to more people. I’ve had people respond with “I can’t run because I have asthma” when I mentioned running myself, as if I expect everyone else in the world to have the same goals and interests as me. One ex-friend used to say “I can’t afford my own car” if I said anything about driving, despite the fact that she could afford to rent her own place while I was living with my parents. She was also happy to accept lifts! I’m not sure whether I will ever be completely comfortable with people using my goals as a reason to bombard me with their own issues, particularly as having borderline personality disorder and anxiety means I’m very sensitive (I refuse to say over-sensitive, because I don’t think it’s a fault – although it’s often an inconvenience), but the past 18 months have highlighted the fact that other people’s responses are more about themselves than me.
I should also point out that many people are supportive and encouraging, including people I don’t know very well. Interestingly, the majority of these are people I know through my writing group, gym classes and trekking to Machu Picchu – all activities which are goal-based. My colleagues at a local youth mental health organisation are also brilliant. My aim is to surround myself with these people and to keep reinforcing my positive approach to my goals. I can’t help if other people have emotional baggage which they want to throw at me, but I don’t need to carry it for them.
Lesson Seven: Life will get in the way, but you can keep going.
In October 2018, I started getting intense abdominal pain, constant nausea, bloating and episodes of vomiting. My exercise routine was disrupted and healthy eating fell by the wayside. It affected my mental health, which always gets worse in the winter, and I struggled with my work and studies. In January 2019, I found out I have gallstones. I’m currently waiting to get my gallbladder removed and have learnt how to handle the pain better (knowing the cause of the symptoms helps a lot!), but experience a baseline level of pain in my upper stomach and back, plus constant nausea. From November to January, I regained 14lb. In the past, I would have viewed this as evidence that my weight loss goal was doomed to failure and used it as an excuse to overeat and give up exercise.
Thankfully, ten months of adopting healthier habits had taught me how much better I feel when I eat nutritious food and stick to my exercise routine. I forced myself into gym classes, after checking with my doctor, despite having to stop and take a break when the pain flared up. I reminded myself of why I want to reach a healthy weight – after spending a few weeks feeling sorry for myself, because I got ill while trying to be healthier – and cut down on the junk food which had crept back into my diet. The fact that these junk foods increased the risk of vomiting episodes helped, though not as much as you would think.
I found it particularly galling (pun absolutely intended) because I lost weight slowly (averaging just over 1lb per week), whereas gallstones are associated with rapid weight loss. However, the extreme bloating I experienced emphasises how weight fluctuations don’t accurately reflect fat gain/loss: I once gained 10lb over 3 days, despite not eating enough to gain more than 1/2lb. The bloating is also frustrating because it looks weird. My upper stomach juts out, which looks like some kind of bizarre alien pregnancy. I would have used the as an excuse to comfort eat in the past, but regaining weight wouldn’t improve my health. In fact, my doctor advised me to keep as fit and healthy as possible so I will recover faster when I have the gallbladder surgery. I got back on track and it was hard, but I’m glad I did.
Life will always get in the way. There will always be problems and stress somewhere along the way, but that doesn’t mean returning to unhealthy habits is inevitable. I made a conscious decision to stick to my plan, to keep working towards my goal. I also kept working towards some of my other goals, including sticking to my part-time Psychology BSc with the Open University when it would have been so easy to quit. Reminding myself of my motivation for working towards my goals and knowing my priorities was essential. It pushed me through my small, repeated actions when I would have been justified in making excuses.