This is what makes weight loss so hard. When we talk about ‘staying on track’ or ‘getting back on the wagon,’ we make it sound like it’s only ONE thing we need to do, but really it isn’t. If it were as simple as following a path or climbing back into a car, we could all do it, but a single phrase like ‘staying on track’ involves a whole lot of interrelated actions that all work toward a single goal: weight loss. It’s all of these actions that cause the problems and make it so hard to do.
Most of us know what these actions are pretty much by heart: it’s not only what to eat, but what not to eat; it’s what to do and what not to do; and it’s also about how to think about yourself and about your goals. Most people usually miss the whole mindset part of this because we tell ourselves it’s not as important as the eating and acting, but the thinking drives the eating and acting. If our heads aren’t on straight, our actions and eating won’t be either. When we get off track, we usually tell ourselves “I need to get my head together,” but as soon as we think we are ‘back together,’ we focus on the eating and actions again, until we find ourselves back off track- again!
Most of us start with our eating and we make two lists: What to Eat and What Not to Eat. Usually the idea of How Much to Eat is tied up in that too. We put down things like vegetables/ salads, chicken breast and lean meats, cottage cheese, and other typical ‘diet foods on the Good List, while the Bad List is full of cookies, chips, desserts and bakery items. Ho-hum! Here we go again! We usually have a Calorie Limit too, so we can add up all the calories in the chicken breast and cottage cheese to make sure we don’t go over that magic number!
On the What Not to Do list, it’s usually pretty simple: no lying around on the sofa or recliner, less tv/ computer/ Facebook, or whatever non-active activity we like to do. A lot of times, we include sleeping on this list, which is really a mistake! But we opt for less sleep and more exercise thinking along the old ‘move more, eat less’ standby for weight loss. Obviously, moving more must be better for us than sleeping! We also include the No Snacking rule: no cookies, no candy, no bagels, no pizza and we avoid those parts of the stores or the breakroom at work, and we sit as far away from the bagels or pizza at the meetings and lunches. We’re Being Good.
So we pack our food list full of the classic ‘healthy foods’ and our schedules full of as much exercise as we can do in a day, and we tell ourselves we are ‘getting back on track,’ and this time we are going to stay there! We think our determination is the right mindset and all we need is willpower to achieve our goals.
What most of us leave out of our mindset and our What Not to Do List is “don’t beat yourself up.” We’ve all done it: “I ate a bagel at the meeting! And it had cream cheese! And it was a huge bagel, too!”; “I had three slices of pepperoni pizza with the family for dinner!”; “Joanie had chocolate kisses on her desk and every time I walked by, I grabbed one or two! All day!!” We went off track again, so there must be something wrong with us. We really really want to lose weight and be healthier, so why can’t we do it? The doctor told us we could end up diabetic/ hypertensive/ other health problems, so do we have a death wish since we can’t stick to the diet?
No, you don’t have a death wish and there’s nothing wrong with you, unless you count the beating-yourself-up behavior. Hating yourself and self-recrimination doesn’t motivate people towards their goals. All it does is make them (YOU) miserable. The problem (one of them anyway) is that you think of yourself as ‘broken’ or ‘substandard’ and unless you ‘fix’ yourself, you aren’t worth loving or valuing. This is part of the wrong mindset that usually goes along with Staying on Track. There’s nothing wrong with you, but we’ve all grown up looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing what we don’t like. That’s what we focus on: getting rid of the flabby thunderthighs and the batwing biceps and the muffin top. Next time you are out in public, take a good long look at the rest of the world out there: there’s a lot of batwings, thunderthighs and muffin tops, even at the gym! That doesn’t mean we have to love our less-than-slender areas, but they don’t make us ugly and they don’t make us unlovable. They make us human.
We also fall into the Perfection Rules! mindset when we Get Back on Track. It’s a part of the beating ourselves up mentality: we had a bagel, the day is ruined, why not eat the Ben & Jerry’s? We’re already Off Track! The problem is that the next morning or that night, you’re going to be beating yourself up some more for the Ben & Jerry’s plus the bagel, and the next time you weigh in (another action on the ‘Good List’), you’re going to beat yourself up again if you haven’t lost the magic number of pounds.
All of this mindset and behavior needs to be on that What Not to Do List. Don’t beat yourself up; don’t go all or nothing with perfection; and most of all, don’t set impossible goals! Don’t misunderstand me: goals are great. They give us something to aim for, but falling short of them shouldn’t be disaster. If you have the three slices of pizza, it’s not a national tragedy. The same goes for not making it to your workout or sleeping in.
When most of us Get Back on Track, we try locking ourselves into rigid structures of behavior, eating and thinking. For some of us, the rigid structure works, but for most of us, it just makes everything harder. Setting really high goals is a good thing, as long as you have the steps to getting there in between. A goal such as losing thirty pounds in two months is really extreme for a lot of us, but setting a goal like losing a pound a week might be more realistic. The same is true for the Good Foods/ Bad Foods lists and the Calorie Limit: these ‘lists’ should be more about sustainability rather than “off limits” & “diet foods.”
For most of us, the Calorie Limit is tied directly to what’s on these lists: avocados are out because they have too many calories; broccoli is in because it’s got so few! Both of those are pretty healthy for you in fact. Avocados have a lot of fiber and a lot of healthy fat; broccoli also has a lot of fiber and both of them have a lot of nutrients. Rather than eating for calories, if we eat for nutrition, we have more success overall. We aren’t hungry all the time and we don’t feel deprived (major causes of going Off Track) and we usually have more energy.
When we feel good mentally and physically, it’s easier to Stay on Track. This means actions like getting enough sleep, not pushing ourselves to stick to extreme workouts or schedules (i.e., if you sleep in on the weekend, it’s a good thing!) and allowing yourself time to relax and do what you enjoy. It means things like allowing yourself a piece of pizza or a bagel now and then, and setting realistic goals for yourself. This is a journey to a healthier self, not a punishment. Being miserable and thin isn’t any healthier than being miserable and overweight. Staying on track is easier when you’re enjoying the journey and you’ll get there a lot faster if you eat the nutritious food you like, do the fun activities, and get some rest and relaxation. You’ll like the person in mirror more and you’ll like the person you become.