We’ve been going about it all wrong.

If you’ve been on and off diets your whole life or even just on a single failed diet, I’d like you to watch this Ted Talk on dieting, it really lays out how very wrong we’ve been about obesity, and it’s crucial to understand what your body and brain are doing if you are going to be successful with maintaining weight loss. One thing though, you need to, and this is very important, watch it without making it personal. Just watch and listen and don’t start speculating on what this means for you. I’m saying this because there’s an easy interpretation of this that could make someone with weight to lose feel hopeless. And it’s not hopeless. Ok, watch it now, it’s only about 12 minutes.

Did you watch it? I hope so, because I’m going to proceed assuming you did.

Ok, you watched it and now you’re depressed. She said diets were pointless, a waste of time. She said that your brain has decided on a weight for you, and if that weight is high, tough luck, you can’t change it. I’m going to say, although I’m not a neuroscientist, everything I’ve experienced both before and after my weight loss tells me what she’s saying is true. Diets don’t work, they never really have. But what that really means is you have to find a way to eat less without traditional dieting. It’s hard, but it’s possible.

Let me explain, traditional dieting, what we’ve all been trained to do, involves radically cutting calories, and generally radically altering the food you eat, all while radically increasing your exercise levels. This is designed to get you to lose the most amount of weight as quickly as possible. Traditional dieting is designed to be finite, you’re encouraged to make all these radical changes so that you can quickly get to the time when you can stop dieting, and somehow then, without dieting, maintain this new lower weight. Gee, how could that fail, right?

This quick and extreme idea of dieting has evolved partly because we humans don’t do delay of gratification very well, but mostly because it sells. When you are miserable, maybe sick, and taught to hate your body, the idea that you could change it all in just a few short weeks or months is very tempting. I’ve been there. I’ve shelled out cash for stupid stuff, most of it I never used at all.

Traditional dieting fails because radically cutting calories almost inevitably leads to bingeing and extreme hunger. Losing weight very quickly doesn’t give the conscious parts of your brain time to develop coping mechanisms to deal with being a lower weight than your brain is comfortable with being. And, finally, it teaches us that diets are awful things to dread, when the reality is eating less is something anyone who successfully loses weight will have to do for the rest of their lives. You will never be able to do something long-term if you have been trained to hate it. Unless you’re a masochist. I’m assuming you are not.

In the talk she suggests two fixes for being overweight, and one tip for simply being healthier:

  1. Don’t get overweight in the first place. Great to know for your kids and if you happen to not have had a weight issue yet. Sucks for those of us for whom the ship has already sailed.
  2. Mindful eating. This is a really good thing, and I definitely have incorporated it into my life, but I can’t rely on it. My set point, as far as I can tell, is about 230lbs, and it might be higher (my heaviest was at least 250lbs, but I wasn’t there for very long). My current weight, 150lbs, is 80lbs less than that, and my brain must but apoplectic with panic over how very starving and about to die I am. After almost nine years, I still feel more hungry than I should, which makes relying purely on mindful eating a treacherous path for me.
  3. Adopt a healthier life style without worrying about your weight. I love this point, not because I think you should give up trying to weigh less, especially if you are very overweight, but because it’s not only doable for everyone, but the perfect place to start losing weight.

Here’s where I’m going to add my two cents to this talk. The big thing I get out of this is that our bodies love to maintain, yet we’re rarely encouraged to do that. We throw ourselves from overeating to starving, gaining to losing, one extreme to another without ever learning moderation. Is it any wonder we fail?

Maintenance is a topic for my next post, but if you’re looking to start your first or yet another diet, stop. Try starting with her point #3. Stop making this solely about a number on the scale and take a step back and look at your lifestyle. I’m not saying you should give up on losing any weight, I’m saying that losing weight, as strange as it sounds, isn’t the place to start when you want to lose weight.

What’s your diet like? Not calories, but content. Do you get regular veg? Good, whole foods? Do you drink lots of soda and juice, and not enough water? Do you eat a lot of empty processed foods? Do you smoke? Are you very sedentary?

Really examine your lifestyle, and before you even start thinking about cutting calories, make sure you’re eating and living reasonably healthfully. Make small changes and go slowly, trade some of those bagels and muffins for some eggs or veg, swap fizzy water for soda, go for walks, walk past the treat table at work more often than you stop at it. Do this over a period of weeks or months. I know, slow change is maddening, but remember, you’re playing a long game here. No more quickly losing and gaining weight, that’s never worked. If your lifestyle isn’t healthy, slamming yourself into some totally foreign to you new diet, that starves you to boot, in never going to work. Never.

Diets fail. And forcing yourself adhere to a drastic and unsustainable change is the recipe for that failure, and stress, and eating disorders.* I used to wonder why I always felt anxious when I was starting a new diet, now I know, I was stressing myself out with all the sudden change. It was horrible.

Take a step back, take a deep breath, let the scale go in the beginning, and just ease yourself onto a healthier track. As she showed in the talk, just adopting some healthier habits really improved things for even obese patients. So don’t think that because the scale isn’t moving that you are not improving. Think of it as building a strong foundation for long-term weight loss success. Start living healthier and you are on your way.

*This advice applies to those who are generally in good health. If you have a health issue, and your doctor has prescribed for you a certain diet and/or lifestyle, you should follow it. Do not endanger your health by ignoring your doctor’s orders.

Resources for living healthier:

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