For most people weight reduction is a formidable endeavor, fraught with failure, frustration, and setbacks. Most people who diet either don’t reduce their weight, or they regain the weight they’ve released. Weight reduction takes tremendous self-discipline and tenacity. Here are the six challenges you must master for success.
- You must value behaviors that lead to good health and devalue behaviors that lead to poor health and weight gain.
Ariel came to see me because she was 40 pounds overweight, even though she exercised every day. She was otherwise in good health. She had a yearly physical checkup. She slept well and took vitamin supplements. She was happy in her work and her marriage. Obviously, her weight gain was due to her food intake. We both agreed that the problem was that she loved pizza and beer and consumed large quantities two or three times a week. The remainder of the time, she said, she ate sensibly.
Ariel insisted that, even though she wanted to reduce her weight, she was simply not going to modify her intake of pizza and beer. It seemed incomprehensible to her that she would have to alter her behavior to get the result she wanted. I finally told her that she would have to decide which was more important to her happiness: eating pizza and drinking beer, or taking off those 40 pounds. I said if she chose the former, she had no reason to engage my services.
Ariel was unwilling to implement the obvious solution to her problem. To get her result, she would have to learn to devalue pizza and beer. She would have to find value in an alternative behavior that would lead to weight reduction.
To devalue unhealthy behavior and value healthy behavior is the first major challenge of habit modification (Trafton, Gordon, and Misra, 2011). If you honestly want a healthier body size you have to stop glorifying unhealthy foods: stop regarding them as a source of comfort, pleasure, or reward. You have to stop ignoring or minimizing the health risks and discomforts of excess weight. You have to start valuing healthy foods and regular exercise. You have to start valuing a healthy body and its attendant advantages.
- You must develop sufficient resiliency to the point that you no longer turn to unhealthy foods or drinks when feeling anxiety or discomfort.
Stress makes people gain weight. Stress activates addictive behaviors by lowering serotonin. Stress pumps cortisol into the body, causing a host of health issues, including the buildup of body fat. Stress drives many people to overeat foods that put on body fat. Stress takes advantage of genetic vulnerabilities, influencing gene expression. If you have a genetic predisposition toward obesity or addiction, too much stress may tip the scales in an unhealthy direction.
Resiliency is determined by the amount of stress we encounter during any given time period as well as the intensity the stresses we encounter. Eliminate unnecessary stresses when you can find a way to do so safely and sanely. For the remainder, you must find sensible ways to cope. As you develop your coping skills, you may need guidance from a coach or a therapist. You can buffer the stress in your life and increase your resiliency with adequate rest, proper nutrition, moderate exercise, and supportive relationships.
- You must structure your time to allow for exercise, meal planning and preparation, and adequate sleep.
Moderate exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep are the foundation of a healthy body and a healthy brain. Yet consistently finding the time for these three items might seem a formidable challenge. To accomplish it, you might need to apply time management skills.
To reach your target weight, you need to somehow find time for you. You might have to negotiate with friends and family members so that they respect the time you’ve set aside for high priority activities: no requests, expectations, or interruptions.
- You must set reasonable, realistic rules for yourself and follow them without equivocation.
Rules simplify our lives. They save us from the hassle of having to make the same decisions over and over. Thus, they conserve our self-control. To be effective, rules must be specific, such as “No ice cream or cookies allowed in the house.”
“Without equivocation” doesn’t mean that you have to follow the rules perfectly, without fail, because, sooner or later, you will break a rule. It just means that once you set a rule for yourself, it doesn’t help to complain, cheat, doubt, quibble, or otherwise question your own rule. If a rule doesn’t serve your needs, change it.
- You must develop the capacity to regroup in the face of failure and keep pressing toward the results you want.
Two axioms apply here. The first axiom is this: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If you make a plan to release excess weight and you keep failing, maybe the problem isn’t your tenacity or willpower. Maybe the plan itself is the problem. If your plan is too ambitious, failure is inevitable. If your plan is too easy, it might not bring sufficient results.
The second axiom is this: Failure is feedback. Failure doesn’t mean you’re a dolt, or you should give up, or you’ll never succeed. It means you achieved an outcome different from the one you intended. Failure leaves a trail of clues. It holds information about how to modify your plan so it brings better results. Failure points to areas for correction and improvement. Failure presents an opportunity to do things differently to get another result (McDermott and Jago, 2001).
Every time you overindulge or override a rule to the extent that you regain weight, you’ve failed to accomplish an outcome. In the language of recovery, it is a relapse. When it comes to addiction, relapse is to be expected. To succeed, you must regroup, renew your commitment, modify your plan, and resume your efforts.
- You must develop the self-discipline to practice new behaviors, repeating them until you perform them habitually and consistently.
By now it should be evident: If you want to reach your target weight, you must change certain behaviors and develop new habits. When it comes to behavioral change, you have four options: You can stop an existing behavior, start a new behavior, do less of a specific behavior, or do more of a specific behavior.
When it comes to a risky behavior, such as eating sweets, you can decide for yourself. Do you stop altogether, or do you modify your behavior so that you eat sweets sparingly? This gets us into the subject of moderation versus abstinence. It’s essential that you decide for yourself which tactic will best serve your interests. Some people would find it easier to stop eating sweets altogether. The advantage of abstinence is that it’s easier to say no, once and for all, than to endlessly vacillate. It simply requires less mental effort.
Some people, however, would rebel at the thought of abstinence, finding it intolerable. For many people, prohibited foods actually seem more appealing and irresistible (Ruben 2015). The problem with moderation is that it can present a slippery slope, unless you stick to a rule that specifically limits your intake. Example: I will eat one donut, once a week.
When it comes to instituting a new habit or doing more of an existing behavior, again, specificity will help. If the new or more frequent behavior is something such as exercise, or packing a healthy lunch, or getting to bed by 10 pm, when and how often will you do it? This question matters because you want know that you are achieving an outcome. Lastly, you have to do it often enough and long enough to get results.
McDermott, I. and Jago, W. 2001. The NLP Coach. London: Piatkus.
Rubin, G. 2015. Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives. New York: Crown Publishers.
Trafton, J. A., Gordon, W. P., and Misra, S. 2011. Training Your Brain to Adapt Healthful Habits: Mastering the Five Brain Challenges. Los Altos, California: Institute for Disease Management; Institute for Brain Potential.
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