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When clients tell me they’re desperate to lose weight, they usually mean to go on some sort of diet and restrict calories. When I ask them what happened after they dropped pounds in the past, they often think a moment and restate their goal: they don’t want to lose weight; they want to lose it and keep it off. Ah, I tell them, no wonder they’ve had trouble in the past, because the latter is a different skill set than shedding pounds.
To lose weight, clients tell me they need to exert self-control, deprive themselves of foods they love, say no to food more often than they say yes to it, constantly monitor their weight, never overeat, consume only healthy foods, obsess about what goes into their mouths, and constantly think about food. This process likely sounds familiar to you.
The problem is that most people (about 95% of us) can perform these behaviors only for a finite period of time. We know this from scientific studies, including those described in Secrets from the Eating Lab and Body Respect. By exerting pressure to deprive ourselves of food, we’re going against our biological imperative to seek it, which triggers the inevitable binge. Thinking we’re not trying hard enough, we keep engaging in this diet-binge cycle repeatedly, sometimes for our whole lives.
On the other hand, to maintain a lower weight we need to do just enough consumption of foods we’ve previously restricted to not feel deprived, refocus our efforts on eating in the now rather than what we’ll weigh later, and care enough about ourselves to make decisions out of self-love and pride rather than feeling ashamed of overeating or making unhealthy food choices. To keep motivation flowing, we need to cultivate self-compassion so that every time we have a food misstep, we treat ourselves lovingly.
Losing weight involves moving toward a goal which can only be enjoyed in the future. Weight maintenance involves making choices in the moment which bring you satisfaction, nourishment, and delight in taking care of yourself. Weight loss draws your focus away from now, whereas weight maintenance means learning to self-regulate and stay in balance in the present with every food urge and eating experience. A goal of weight loss pulls you away from the body you have now and promises a better one tomorrow. Weight maintenance involves wanting the best for your current body.
Many of you definitely have the skills to lose weight, but as a client who had weight-loss surgery says, “It doesn’t help you figure out what you’re going to do when you get there.” She’s right. It’s time to learn the tools of maintenance. When you do, you really are all set with food for life.
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