Failure has so many negative connotations — especially in the context of weight loss. If your goal is to shed pounds, any result that doesn’t involve a lower number on the scale can feel like a major setback.
The truth is, a lack of success when it comes to diet and exercise is not the exception; it’s the rule, explains Paul Davidson, PhD, director of behavioral health at the Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. “After 2 million years, our brains have become designed to store fat effectively to enhance survival. Throughout history, weight was great, as it allowed us to survive the droughts, famines and times when the hunt was unsuccessful.”
Biologically, weight loss isn’t easy, and setbacks are inevitable. There are many reasons we fail when trying to slim down, but the key is to learn from — and not feel derailed by — detours. The road to your goal may be windy, but you can still arrive at your desired destination by using any setback to your advantage.
REASONS YOU’RE NOT LOSING WEIGHT
There are plenty of reasons your weight-loss journey might seem nearly impossible, but often, struggles start with simple, incorrect assumptions, explains Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and weight-loss specialist. “People usually think weight loss is a simple product of ‘calories in, calories out.’ Thus, when someone is ‘doing everything right’ in terms of eating less and moving more, it can be incredibly frustrating when you don’t see results.”
But other factors like stress and anxiety, for example, play a big role in weight loss. “Carrying body fat, from an evolutionary perspective, played a protective role for our ancestors,” says Rickel. So if you’re “doing everything right” but your stress levels are sky-high, your body might think it’s in danger and cling to extra fat. A lack of gut microbe diversity, inflammation from processed foods and too little sleep can also be roadblocks to weight loss.
Additionally, people often follow restrictive fad diets, which can backfire big time. For one: “When we restrict too much or overexercise, we actually can end up hurting our metabolism,” explains Lindsay Brancato, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist. You can also wind up resenting the way you’re eating and feel guilty for eating something deemed ‘bad.’ In turn, this “can set up a vicious cycle of restricting and bingeing, leading you to feel even more like a failure,” says Brancato.
What’s more, everyone is different. “We can get easily caught up in thinking that if something works for others, it should work for us, and if it doesn’t, we are somehow failing,” says Brancato. Since we all have different genetics, lifestyles and vary in age and gender, “there’s no one diet that could possibly work for everyone, and we need to figure out what works for each of us individually,” she says.
WAYS TO SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
Fortunately, failures are opportunities to learn about your body, preferences, triggers and patterns and use them to fuel your weight-loss journey. Here are six ways to do that:
REFRAME YOUR MINDSET
If you often feel like you’ve failed, an important first step is to reframe the way you’re thinking, suggests Jaime Coffino, PhD, MPH, a postdoctoral research fellow at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. For example, try telling yourself something like, “I didn’t lose weight this week, but I can still make decisions that are in line with my weight-loss goals.” Showing yourself compassion goes a long way toward reaching and sustaining your goals, she says.
ADDRESS YOUR STRESS
In order for your body to feel safe (and for you to lose weight), it needs to know there will be periods of sufficient nourishment, rest, sleep and recovery, explains Rickel. Take a look at your stress levels, remembering stress can be emotional (work deadlines, toxic relationships) and physical (being in a caloric deficit for too long, exercising intensely without rest, or not getting good sleep). Sometimes, it’s even necessary to have a period of taking in more food and working out less (with a focus on sleep and recovery) to prime your body for weight loss, she says. “This can seem counterintuitive and frustrating, but remember that your body’s resistance to weight loss could be its attempt to keep you alive.”
Drastically slashing calories and jumping on fad diets isn’t sustainable. “Yo-yo dieting is dangerous, as rapid, short-term weight loss is typically followed by weight regain and additional pounds — the brain’s way of building in a safety net, as weight loss is often seen as dangerous, a sign of an inhospitable environment,” says Davidson. Learn from this by making your commitment more long term. Moderate changes in both your eating and exercise habits aren’t overly stressful to your physiology — and are more certain to lead to long-lasting changes, says Rickel.
FIND YOUR WHY
The number on the scale might be your goal, but bigger reasons — including health concerns, the wish to be more capable of engaging in activities, wanting to be around for your children, or feeling less pain in your joints — tend to motivate long-term change better, says Davidson. “Motivation is key, and to internalize it, it’s important to have a vision of what you are striving toward.”
SHOW YOURSELF SOME LOVE
Instead of ruminating over the bad, reward the good. “Our brain will encourage us to do things for which we are rewarded,” says Davidson. Find ways to reinforce the healthy changes you’re making, whether that’s getting new workout gear, pampering yourself with a hot bath, or planning a fun weekend outing. Small rewards along the way make things more enjoyable and also encourage you to keep going.
GIVE YOUR BODY WHAT IT NEEDS
Nothing should be off-limits when it comes to a healthy, well-balanced diet that promotes weight loss. Even dessert can be a secret weight-loss tool. That said, it’s important to focus on hydration, getting high-quality protein (to help rebuild your cells, muscle and organs) and healthy, complex carbohydrates (to provide for your energy needs), says Davidson. In particular, plant-based diets like the Mediterranean diet could be especially helpful for weight loss. “The Mediterranean diet has consistently shown positive results as it’s not about deprivation. Instead, it focuses on more nutrient-dense choices with higher quantities of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats like olive oil, and limited amounts of meat and dairy fats.” If you’re having trouble finding a diet that works for you, don’t be afraid to reach out to a doctor or registered dietitian who can help tailor a plan for your individual needs and lifestyle.
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