New Year’s Resolutions and Weight: Tips for Success (if you really gotta do this)

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It takes a lot of tries to finally grasp that rubber ducky!

I don’t do them. Making  New Year’s Resolutions that is. I don’t like setting myself up for failure. That doesn’t mean I don’t reflect on things at the end of the year….. it just may take me more than the month of January to figure things out. But, tonight is New Year’s Eve and having listened to the “new year’s resolution” chatter already, I am pretty confident there will be lots of people living it up like there’s no tomorrow (as my mom likes to say) until New Year’s Day is over and it’s time to face the music.

Yes, people make resolutions about all kinds of behaviors they don’t like about themselves, usually focused on some health behavior change. Things like quitting smoking (yay), exercising more, eating healthier, losing weight. Sometimes people vow to spend less, save more, get a new job, go back to school, get organized, experience new things, etc. Of course, most new year’s resolutions I tend to hear about are related to wanting to change one’s body. You know, lose weight. It’s not just me, if you google “New Year Resolutions” there are lots of top-10 lists, and right at the top of most of them is “lose weight”.

I am not a fan of dieting and here’s why: As my friends and family know, I have spent much of my career trying to help people focus on health instead of dieting and weight loss. They are surely tired of me saying “listen to your body”, and they joke about it (especially my husband who loves to tell me his body is telling him to eat another cookie). What most of them will never truly understand is the struggle, pain, loss and often tragedy of those struggling with disordered eating. I have been forever affected by the lives I was blessed to share with some true heroes. Young and old men and women, girls and boys, mothers and daughters, who have fought this terrible disease and manage to keep going, and even to thrive despite its grip on their lives. I can’t forget them. And so, that is why when people tell me they want to lose weight, I struggle. Also, I believe in the “Health at Every Size” philosophy, and that someone’s body size, BMI or weight is absolutely no indicator of health despite our obsession with BMI and numbers. However, there are individuals who have been in their natural weight ranges most of their lives but then, due to some gradual but detrimental changes in their lifestyles gain weight that is NOT normal for them….and may affect their health because of that reason, NOT because of the number on the scale. I totally understand why those people would want to lose weight, and although reverting back to their original lifestyles that promoted their normal weight sounds easy, it is not.

So, despite my passion to prevent eating issues, I realize I really should not discount the feelings of others. If there is something that is important to you and you are determined to do it, it is not fun to hear someone else tell you it is a dumb thing to do. Plus, it doesn’t change things. It really doesn’t help.  People are going to diet, period. I have learned to keep my mouth (kind of) shut and let others learn on their own what works for them. Inevitably, life goes on. People lose weight, they may regain it over time (we all know people who say “such and such diet works! I lost 30 pounds on it last year!”). So they do it again, it is comfortable for them. Maybe some people (the lucky ones who don’t fall into a disordered eating pattern) may learn something good (like how to make healthier meals, smarter ways to shop, meal prep ideas, etc).  Do I wish they would avoid giving the diet industry even one more penny…..yes. But that is because I believe the diet industry all too often seems to prey on the insecurity and desperation of people striving to lose weight, and that bothers me. They make money off of the reality that most people are repeat customers due to the simple fact that by design, you start and then end the diet. Unless someone really becomes self-aware and uses the lessons learned in the right way, letting go of the rest of the ridiculousness all too often results in weight regain. For example, counting points (or calories, or carbs) for life just is not normal eating and not possible. I have NEVER seen someone adopt that as a forever lifestyle. So, you pay again. And again. And again. But back to what I said initially, I am not going to try to talk anyone out of anything. Not any diet (unless I know for a fact it is dangerous to that person), not any lifestyle, not any food. I am not an expert on anyone’s life, they are, so they know what is best for them, and they need to travel and learn in their own way, even if it takes a few rounds of it. What I do want to do, however is share what I hope might prevent disordered eating and what might truly help someone adopt a healthier way of looking at dieting, food and weight.

So, if you are one of those people with “lose weight” at the top of your New Year’s Resolution list, here are my tips for you:

  1.  Reflect on your “weight and lifestyle” history. Was there a time in your adult life that your weight was settled in a 5-10 pound range for several years and you didn’t have to pay attention to it? What was your lifestyle like? Sometimes we have even minor changes in lifestyle that eventually affect our health (or weight) such as moving from the city and walking everywhere to moving to the country and driving everywhere. Over time, the decrease in physical activity has an affect on our body. With that said, excessive physical activity isn’t exactly a doable lifestyle either. I have heard people say “in college I only weighed such and such, I want to be that weight again”. Well, in college, if you were on the track team and ran 70 miles a week, or maybe walked across campus day and night, or danced your butt off every weekend, that is not typical! You were probably at an unnatural low weight for you as an adult, and your present weight is more normal and healthy. Instead of thinking you should go back in time and be a certain weight, consider reflecting on your current activity level. Do you get an hour of joyful movement daily? Maybe that should be a focus instead of that number on the scale. So turn up that dance music, join the Y, find a walking buddy, or whatever you need to do to incorporate healthy movement into your life. Or, did your weight always fluctuate? Were you always on a diet, always trying to lose weight? Have you suffered from disordered eating such as binge eating alternating with trying to starve yourself and skip meals? If you have had extreme fluctuations in eating over many years and never got help, I would suggest an evaluation by a therapist who specializes in eating issues (ask your doctor for a recommendation). If, however, you have slipped into some unhealthy lifestyle and/or eating patterns such as eating out every day, drinking lots of soda or alcohol, watching 8 hours of TV a day, staying up way too late then maybe your weight really has been affected by these unhealthy changes and they are worth working on. And yes, although I would be happy because changing these behaviors will make you healthier, they may also help you be at your healthier weight, too (your goal). Bottom line: your weight and dieting history affect everything. Don’t ignore it and don’t compare yourself to others.
  2.  Reconsider your goals. If your diet plan or program makes any suggestions regarding how much weight you should lose (per week or whatever), I would suggest ignoring that. If you think your unique, individual body and metabolism is going to cooperate with anything but its own reality, think again. You will be setting yourself up for disappointment. You will not feel successful if you set yourself up with expectations involving numbers. Our bodies just don’t work that way. Fluid shifts may result in changes in the number on the scale which have absolutely nothing to do with what is happening regarding body composition (muscle vs fat vs water), so why judge yourself on it? The funniest story I can think of is when one of my patients came in after having ice cream the night before, thinking her weight was going to be up. Instead, it was down. “Oh wow, I didn’t know ice cream makes you lose weight!” she said….I had to laugh. The lesson is that your weight is going to fluctuate no matter what. Instead of focusing too much on that, could you consider looking at all the good things you have been accomplishing to be healthier?  Have you been eating more fruits and vegetables? Drinking more water, less alcohol and sugary drinks? Walking more? Sleeping better? Maybe instead of feeling bad because you did not lose weight, stop and think about all the healthy changes you have made. Find something positive. Then move on.
  3.  When your body talks, LISTEN. I was going to word this one “Beware of all-or-nothing thinking”. All too often when people start weight loss regimens they are “on the diet”. This implies something really powerful which many do not understand when they undertake this endeavor. It can be a set-up if you are not careful. I have used the term “diet jail” before. This analogy is pretty easy to understand, and worth repeating. When you start a diet it psychologically places you in “jail” where all the acceptable foods exist. The lean meats, fruits, vegetables and healthy “good” meals that you are going to restrict yourself to are available, and you are expected to eat a certain way as long as you are in there and until you lose the desired amount of weight. Outside of this self-imposed jail is the “bad” food. This is where the chips, ice cream, cookies, chicken wings or whatever else you are trying to avoid are. Unfortunately (or fortunately) our bodies know better than we do regarding what we are missing (again, I’ve talked about this but worth repeating). Since most diets are deprived of adequate fats and carbohydrates, if too restrictive our regulatory systems may send signals to our brains to fix it. This means you just may crave a cookie. Or chocolate. Or chicken wings. Since these are not in the jail (on the diet) where you planned to live for awhile, what is a dieter supposed to do? Often, since it is almost impossible to ignore body signals (have you ever had to REALLY pee on a road trip??) you give in. You break out of jail (or pull over on the highway). That is ok. What is not good is the way you react to this experience. Here is where you can make a change. If like most people, when you do what your regulatory system demands (eat the cookie, satisfy your body’s need for carbohydrates to function properly) you may be inclined to binge or overeat. It is natural to want to hoard something when you are deprived of it. But you don’t live on a deserted island, you are not a contestant on survivor and you really can get a cookie tomorrow if you wanted. Do you feel guilty because you ate the cookie? Guessing the answer for most dieters is “yes”. Well, instead of just accepting your self-judgment, why not try to give yourself some credit for being so intuitive and listening to what your body is trying to tell you? Can you try to eat just the amount of whatever it is to make that nagging thought (need) go away? The reality is that a few cookies (5 chocolate kisses probably satisfies a true chocolate craving) is no big deal. Binge eating IS a big deal because of the way it tends to make people feel (both physically and emotionally). Even then, it truly is a learning experience (“wow, this is harder for me than I thought. Maybe I need to research strategies to prevent this next time). The bottom line, if you are a dieter, this is likely to happen depending on the diet. If you can learn to eat healthier yet still fit in the foods you crave this is a behavior you can take with you for life, long after the diet ends. (Note: this does not apply to those suffering from Binge Eating Disorder, where professional help is needed; this advice is meant for the typical dieter who may overeat just because they broke out of diet jail).
  4.  Don’t give specific foods magical powers. Here’s a news flash: all food are equal when it comes to weight gain. I am not talking “big picture” for surely, if you eat a lopsided diet your appetite may be affected (no protein or no fat or no carbohydrates may affect your appetite and what you crave over time). I am talking day to day, meal to meal, snack to snack differences in food choice. Think of the ice cream girl. The ice cream did not make her lose weight, and if she gained weight it would not have been because of the ice cream. If your diet calls for only fruit for snacks for example, and you have that day when you just can’t look at another apple, having that muffin truly won’t make a difference. Again, it’s that darn smart body wisdom again, telling you what you need. So don’t give food that power. It doesn’t have it. Eating kale everyday or drinking some magic juice also won’t do anything magical. It won’t negate poor sleep or stress or smoking or a sedentary lifestyle. But if you like kale, eat kale : D
  5.  If there is a magic bullet, it is this.  Sleep. If you are staying up past 11 pm or midnight chances are you are going to affect your appetite in ways that won’t make you happy if you are a dieter.  According to one study, ” physiologic evidence suggests short sleep may influence weight gain through effects on appetite, physical activity and/or thermoregulation”- see Sleep Study . In other words, getting less than 6 hours of sleep may put you at risk for feeling hungrier, being too tired to be active and/or affect your metabolism in ways that may promote weight gain that is not normal for you. Clues you may not be getting enough sleep: needing a long nap on a regular basis. Naps longer than 20 minutes or so tend to interfere with falling asleep at night, and so the cycle begins. Do me a favor, do an experiment for a week and don’t nap, don’t take electronics to bed, turn off the TV, avoid caffeinated drinks after noon, avoid alcohol and try to get to bed by 10 pm (if you can). See how you feel.
  6.  Learn Learn Learn. If you look at your “diet” solely as a means to lose weight and change the way you look you are bound to be back where you started eventually. Instead, this may be an opportunity to learn so much about yourself. You may be forced for the first time to go grocery shopping in different isles. You probably have to cook more, and this is a good thing. Most healthy minded people I know have learned to enjoy cooking because in order to eat something both tasty and healthy, you really do need some skills. It does not have to be difficult, the microwave is fine. I know people who may have gone on and off diets but always have a few recipes they kept because they were really good. I suggest keeping a collection of dishes you have tried, maybe fast lunches or crock pot meals. No need to ditch the yummy healthy recipes you will find on this journey you have chosen. I tend to jot things down when I find a recipe I end up loving. I use google a lot! For example “Healthy Breakfast Casserole” gave me my favorite fast make-ahead breakfast for when I have company. “Best Ever Quinoa Sliders” and “Best Ever Gumbo” gave me other favorites. It really can be fun! I jot them down and stuff them in my recipe box (hopefully, you are more organized than I am). But healthy cooking is one thing to learn and keep, learning about yourself is the other great thing. Some changes come easy (maybe you discover yoga and love it). Some changes seem impossible. You may learn you struggle with one thing or another. Maybe it is too hard to break a night eating habit. Maybe you discover you can’t stop eating certain foods in moderation. No matter what happens to your weight, you will learn about yourself. And if you can’t fix it,just learning that you may need some help/support is a life-changing accomplishment.
  7.  If your diet program only focuses on food, be careful. Our eating habits are no simple matter! It drives me crazy when programs or health professionals spit out obvious information we all know without considering the individual experiences of a person. “Don’t eat too much sugar”, “Exercise more”, “Take smaller portions”, “Drink more water”,  “Limit eating out”, etc. etc. etc. What about the person who has tried to be active but just can’t because they were made fun of their whole life in gym class, failing that stupid pull-up test and mile run? What about the person who has been using food for 30 years because for them, it really is the only way they feel better? Or the person who has dieted for years and just can’t get out of that “all-or-nothing” mentality? Or the super picky eating adult who still only eats 3 foods? What about emotional eating, binge drinking, workaholism, stress, hating your job, bad relationships, not to mention health issues such as hypothyroidism, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia? It is way too easy to give advice, to think you are helping someone by spelling out eating and exercise instructions. But that is just one little piece of the puzzle. If you are determined to use a diet plan, please know that it is not the end-all and there is no shame in needing support for other things you struggle with in life. It is all inter-connected after all.

So that is my simple advice. I have so much more I would like to share but time is short today! We are getting ready for a month on the road, doing some exploring of the Southern USA in January. Being away will give me that time to reflect on the New Year and where I want to go. So far, I will share one thing I have figured out since my retirement in July. I still feel obligated to share my experiences somehow, to hopefully help others. Especially in the world of pediatrics and how weight issues are treated at times in children. I feel the need to get my 2 cents in, so finishing that book, even if it is just published on Amazon, is definitely a goal. Other than that, like most everyone else, I will continue to be grateful for all the love in my life, from family to friends to past co-workers and patients, students and families. ALL are what make me so thankful and feel so blessed.

Oh, that adorable little guy in the picture reaching for the rubber ducky? My new grandson! At not even 6 months old, he made me realize we must be born with determination. I watched him for hours mastering the skill of grasping for his toy (that is after he took a few months to get the fingers-in-the-mouth skill down pat). His face was contorted from concentrating so hard. His eyebrows furrowed, he looked so intense, he tried so hard. And when he finally got it and found out how to bring it to his mouth, the delight on his face was just awesome. We can do it, too. We can find our balance. It won’t come easy, nothing good or worthwhile ever does. If you are reading this, you surely were successful with lots of things in life (you got the ducky!). You got this, too. Happy New Year!!!!!

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