“I want to look like a supermodel” she said. Her answer to my simple question of “how can I help you” threw me. “Have you ever seen a supermodel?” I asked. “No” she said. “Then how do you know you want to look like one?” was my response. She was a young woman who needed some nutrition guidance, referred to me by someone who was worried about her eating habits. Although I loved her brutal honesty, I had to regroup to figure out what direction to go with this. Before I did anything I needed to find out much more. Oh, and she had a very specific weight in mind that she felt would accomplish this goal.
As is usually the case, when someone is bent on focusing on such a specific physical goal, there usually are other matters going on. I was relieved to hear that she had a therapist so I proceeded to find out more regarding her eating and exercise habits before I rushed into education and explaining why wanting to look like a supermodel was not a reasonable goal. To be clear, although this is a true story, it could be anyone I have seen over the past 30 years (and although I am changing a bit of the specifics as I usually do, her eating and lifestyle are not unusual and could be anyone’s). It was her statement about the supermodel that was a bit more direct than any I have heard, as usually people don’t come out and admit this. Somehow, deep down, I am guessing most of us understand this is not a smart goal and would never say it out loud.
The funny thing is when I asked her if she had ever actually seen a supermodel, she said “no” but then asked “have you?” I answered yes, because I had worked with a male model years ago who gave me lots of details about the unhealthy behaviors the models did before a shoot. Basically, they would starve and dehydrate themselves to look “cut” and then when the work was done, the binge eating began. Clearly, the image you saw in the finished photo was not the image of a body that was natural or that could be maintained more than a week or two (without serious consequences, such as hospitalization due to dehydration which happens often). Or worse. Yes, there are many people who are naturally super-tall and super-thin, and there may indeed be models who eat normally. In his situation however, this was not the case.
Anyway, it was her honest statement that motivated me to write about the insanity of having weight goals. I realized that so many people go blindly on their way getting themselves into ridiculous, stressful, self-esteem damaging lifestyles that sometimes go on for years, all because of a stupid “weight goal”. I hate numbers in general, and when it comes to a fluid, changing, living body, something that will never be static, never be the same day to day, I dislike the use of numbers even more. What baffles me sometimes is how a person decides on the magical number. In many cases, people pick a number from their past. “When I was in high school, I fit into size ‘x’ and I weighed 140 pounds, so that is what I should weigh”, or “I read that ‘famous model/actress so and so’ is my height and weighs ‘x’ so that is what I should weigh”. And on and on. For most of the people I have seen, there is no way to reach that magical weight and live a life in any healthy, sane or even safe way.
You might be wondering “what is the big deal? Why not have a definite goal in mind?” Here are the 5 reasons to forget about weight goals:
- Your body has a “Set-point” weight range it will fight to keep. I think of my father who was living proof of the meaning of “set-point” weight range. He was someone who I believe truly listened to his hunger cues and ate what he wanted. Being a traditional Italian and growing up with salami, sausage, fried peppers, Parmesan and fresh Italian bread he knew nothing about calories or nutrition. This is not why he ate. He ate the foods he loved and the meals my mom cooked. Every Sunday was pasta, meatballs, sausage, bread and sauce. He would sit there for what seemed like an hour and devour and savor his meal. He wasn’t big on sweets most of his life unless he craved something, then would have a good serving. His weight never really changed. How could this be, when he never spent a minute trying to figure it out? Set-point.
- You can ruin your set-point if you diet. I will never forget a patient I had years ago who had an eating disorder and would restrict then binge eat. She was in the health field and she understood what was going on when she did this however she had it stuck in her mind that she should weigh 125 pounds. She weighed 135 pounds. She had reached her goal at times through extreme behaviors however these could not be maintained due to the triggers for binge eating that resulted from her restrictions. She dropped out of treatment and I had not seen her in years. About 5 years had passed and lo and behold, she returned. The reason she returned she said was “I don’t want my set-point to go any higher”. She weighed 145 pounds (still within a normal weight range for her, but 10 pounds above what had been her norm). She knew it was her disordered eating behaviors that affected her natural set-point weight. All because she would not accept her natural body weight. When you have to experience extreme hunger every day in order to stay at a certain weight, then this is not your set-point weight range. And if you are binge eating then alternating with strict dieting as a result of wanting to be a certain weight, then you are at risk for ruining your natural set-point.
- When you focus on a number you get disconnected from your body’s natural signals. Most people who have a weight goal in mind weigh themselves on a regular basis. When they jump on that scale and it does not move, they tend to jump up the restriction (“I am going to be good today”). What happens is they become more “cognitive” and less “intuitive” with their eating. They “figure out” what they should have for lunch and eat only the amount they believe will result in weight loss. What happens instead is they most likely do not eat enough calories, fat or carbohydrates. This imbalance triggers the brain to step up the appetite, and especially cravings for those particular foods that are being restricted. The cravings kick up a notch. Finally, whatever the trigger the dieter breaks down and has “just one” but then, that “just one” leads to another and another…..and another. The body is smart and won’t shut up until it is in balance again. The problem is the mind takes over and leads us to binge because we “are going to start tomorrow”. And the cycle of disconnection begins. Does this lead us to our natural and healthiest body weight range? No.
- That magical number has nothing to do with health. The issues of health and “obesity” has been argued before, with those saying weight is related to health. The reality is that having a healthy body is much more complicated than a number on the scale and has much more to do with lifestyle (and genetics of course). If you have a goal weight in mind, as you can see, the behaviors people tend to engage in do nothing to enhance their health. In fact, the opposite is likely true. Dieting to lose weight rarely contributes to health. If being healthier is something you care about then if you focus on restricting and losing weight you are missing the boat.
- It is only when you let go of that magical goal weight number that you will be able to actually move in the sane direction of achieving a healthy (and happy) you. I don’t try to talk people out of wanting to feel good about the way they look.We all want that. But, from what I have seen, most people who diet to lose weight and are successful (for a while) do feel good about themselves at first. But if they don’t get off the yo-yo diet cycle and regain that weight, they do not tend to feel good about themselves at all. If, however, they stop focusing on that number and instead begin the road of truly reflecting on their health habits (which yes, do include healthier,not perfect, eating) then the journey can begin. This is a long journey and is not predictable like a diet. There are no promises. It is about exploring your lifestyle and identifying the things that are doing you in. Do you notice yourself mindlessly eating in front of the TV at night? Do you hate to cook so Chinese and pizza are a daily thing? Do you work late and struggle to fit in any kind of physical activity? Are you up until 3 am playing video games? Do you eat out of stress because you hate your job? Or, are you in a dangerous spiral of self-abusive disordered eating habits that you are yet to get help for? These are the types of things that need to be addressed that NO one diet can fix.
If any of this rings a bell, I hope you think long and hard about picking some random magical goal weight. Instead of wasting the energy doing unhealthy and impermanent things to get there (a place that probably has nothing to do with the real you), consider going in a different direction for once. Learn what healthy eating and healthy cooking is. Take the time to reflect on your lifestyle, and start with even one thing you want to change. Educate yourself about what it means to have a healthy lifestyle. Talk to friends you know well and trust, who you think manage to live this way and you might find out some strategies that might work for you, too, in this busy world. Work on intuitive eating and pay attention to all of the messages your body gives you every single day. Make your mistakes, feel yucky, but then learn from them. Over the months and years, guess what I have seen happen when people do this? They often just naturally land within a weight range that is truly natural for them. They do this while enjoying eating and good food, and living life to the fullest.
For more information on the negative impact of dieting, check out: Has Dieting Ruined Your Metabolism?