It is that time of year again. After a busy holiday season filled with food and festivity, many of us come to January wanting to “cleanse” and recreate ourselves into a better and healthier version. It is naturally a time for us to desire a fresh start and want to reflect and consider changes or things we would like to improve in regard to our health and well-being.
Having a desire to make changes and improve our health is a good thing. While there are so many possibilities and important things to consider, weight loss is often at the top of the list of goals and intentions. It is just the culturally expected thing to do. It is a given and if we aren’t focusing on it, then we feel, and we are often told, we “should” be.
To give us a hand, the diet and fitness industries pull out all the stops with gimmicks and enticements to lure us in while raking in a few hundred billion dollars in the meantime. Out of desperation, we tend to turn to extreme quick fixes to achieve our goals. These typically very restrictive, unsustainable diets or wellness plans (I see you keto, Noom and WW) may “work”, but only temporarily, leading to weight cycling, or yo-yo dieting, for the vast majority of people.
The simple truth is that attempting to alter your body through intentional weight loss, aka dieting, often results in the exact opposite of our intended goal: weight gain. This isn’t just at an individual level but is supported by research at a population level.
An ever-growing body of research suggests that losing and regaining weight over and over correlates with negative health repercussions including higher levels of heart disease, impaired immune function, cardiometabolic risk, insulin resistance, increased triglycerides, and hypertension. We also know that weight cycling and going on and off diets can have a negative impact on our mental health, including decreased self-esteem, increased sense of failure, increased preoccupation with weight, disordered eating and increased incidence of diagnosed eating disorders, such as anorexia or binge eating disorder. In fact, eating disorders are often triggered by the start of a seemingly innocent diet.
Ultimately the extreme diets and plans this time of year do not deliver what they promise and instead of making us healthier, they actually do the exact opposite. I think we are all getting wiser on this front and realizing that diets don’t work, but yet we keep going back to them time after time. We do this out of desperation and a lack of knowledge that there is a far better way to care for ourselves that doesn’t involve punishment and deprivation.
Here are some things to help you approach this time of year a little differently and to help you set goals and intentions that are more meaningful and lasting.
1. Think Self-Care, Not Self-Control
When we make resolutions or set goals around food and movement or other habits, they often come from a place of self-control, often involving restriction. I hear from clients all the time that they want to lose weight because they don’t feel good in their body. This place of dissatisfaction with our bodies leads us to feel a need to control our food intake and attempt to exhibit control over our weight, shape, or size. Afterall, diet culture tells us that to feel good, control (and weight loss) is the answer.
The thing is that neither our bodies or our minds like to be controlled and as a result they rebel and work against us. When we try to exert control our bodies and minds instinctively rev up all sorts of compensatory mechanisms to try to maintain homeostasis and keep us alive. Your body simply shifts into primal survival mode. It does this in multiple ways: slowing down your metabolism, increasing fat stores, increasing hormones that make you feel hungrier, and increasing thoughts about and cravings for food. All of these are ways your body is working against efforts at control.
Biologically, your body experiences diets and restriction as a form of starvation. With each attempt at control through dieting, the body learns and adapts, resulting in rebound weight gain. As a result, many people feel like they are a failure—but it is dieting that has failed them, and contributed to the yo-yo, lose weight-gain it back process. There are many factors that contribute to our weight, shape, and size, like our genes, hormones, and natural changes that happen with age that are completely out of our control. Ultimately dieting disconnects us from our innate hunger and satiety cues, and it becomes easier to eat in the absence of hunger and to develop a mistrust of our bodies and the messages they send us.
What to do instead:
Think self-care, not self-control. The alternative to control is care. Coming from a place of taking care of our bodies and meeting their needs versus control is far more beneficial and sustainable. Think about ways in which you can care for yourself better in this New Year. That could mean:
- moving more in ways that you enjoy
- putting more effort and planning into your meals and snacks
- cooking at home more often
- cutting down on screen time
- getting more sleep
- becoming more mindful
Need more tips and pointers on self-care? Read more about that here: Self-care: What it Means and How to Put it Into Practice – Anna Jones, RD (annajonesrd.com)
2. Focus on Behaviors and Adding in Versus Taking Away
I work with clients to change and improve behaviors, helping them set actionable intentions and goals that make them feel good in their bodies and improve their overall health. Research reveals that most health indicators can be improved through a focus on health behaviors, regardless of whether weight is lost. Behavior changes alone have been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower blood lipids- such as triglycerides and cholesterol, and improve insulin sensitivity, independent of changes in body weight. In a culture obsessed with our weight and the scale this can be hard to fully comprehend, but it’s true.
Whether your goal is to improve health or feel better in your body, the behaviors we do day in and day out are where it’s at. When you solely focus on weight loss, you might resort to using dangerous methods of getting there; starvation, very low-calorie diets, cutting out specific food groups, extreme exercise, pills, supplements, drinks, powders, etc. None of those things are health enhancing or sustainable long-term.
What to do instead:
Change your focus. Shift the focus away from the scale and instead towards adding in behaviors and actions that we know are beneficial to health. Our typical approach is to focus on “can’ts”, “shouldn’ts” and “don’t haves” which put is in an unpleasant state of deprivation. Instead, we can shift to a more abundant and enjoyable state by considering what to add to better care for ourselves. We can focus on making small positive changes in what or the way we eat that can result in big positive changes in overall health. This idea of abundance and care, psychologically, is a better option. The science on this subject is clear, people who follow healthy habits for enjoyment and wellbeing rather than weight loss are more likely to stick to the lifestyle changes.
Changing our focus to the actionable things we can do to improve health, versus trying to control the number on the scale, is empowering. We know that there are certain habits that positively impact our health and mortality. Things like moving our bodies regularly, including fruits and vegetables several times a day, drinking moderately, getting good quality sleep, eating regularly, and reducing stress.
Consider creating a list of actions you can add in:
- Take a 10 minute walk every day
- Start the day with a balanced breakfast – some high fiber carbs, some protein, and maybe a fruit or vegetable
- Take a few minutes each day to take a few deep breaths and notice how you feel
- Stretch for five minutes before going to bed
- Go to bed at 10:00 p.m. (or at a time that allows you 7-8 hours of sleep)
3. Check Your Intentions
Many of us approach our New Year’s goals and intentions from a very self-critical place full of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Coming instead from a place of kindness towards yourself, not a desperate place of self-hatred, is a more effective approach to reaching goals.
Ultimately what we know is that our harsh internal voices aren’t motivating. Study after study has shown that if you are looking to stick to long term goals, you are more likely to succeed if you have a kinder and more self-compassionate approach as opposed to an inner drill sergeant who is constantly tearing you down.
The common theme of this month of January is that we all need fixing and marketers and the diet and fitness industry claim to have all the answers. This idea automatically puts in our minds that we are flawed, making it very difficult to come from a place of kindness. Resisting the messages being thrown at us that we are damaged goods in need of rescue from ourselves can be challenging, but so much more effective in finding sustainable ways to live and be healthy, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
What to do instead:
Shift away from harsh self-criticism towards appreciation. For most of us our self-critical voice is loud and clear. While changing that voice doesn’t happen overnight, it is possible to change it to a kinder more supportive coach that can help you feel better and achieve better health. Here are some ways to do that:
- Be mindful of your self-talk – the language we use toward ourselves matters, it can aid or break you. Start to notice your own critical self-talk and as you notice it reframe it with something more helpful.
- Celebrate and make note of the positive things that you do for yourself and your health – we focus a lot on the “not good enoughs” but celebrating the little wins is important.
- Practice gratitude for your one and only amazing body that does so much for you every single day.
For more help on developing a more kind and compassionate voice with yourself: Self-Compassion Exercises by Dr. Kristin Neff
Despite what we’re told, real change and self-improvement doesn’t happen overnight. My hope for you in this season is that you choose to create goals and intentions that bring positive lasting change, not added suffering. Coming from a place of self-care, instead of self-control; adding in instead of taking away; and shifting away from criticism and toward appreciation can result in more meaningful and lasting changes as we start what hopefully will be a better year for all of us.