Written by: Natalie Pirolli MS, RDN, LDN, RYT | February 23, 2023
Have you ever started exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables, and feeling really good physically and mentally only to step on the scale, not see a change, and feel terrible? You might feel like all of those health behaviors you adopted were for nothing, forgetting the part where you were feeling better physically and mentally. You might also decide to just throw in the towel and discontinue these habits because your efforts didn't result in the weight loss you hoped for.
But what if your initial goal wasn't weight loss? What if instead, you were trying to boost your strength, mood, and stamina, and reap the benefits of having added fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in your diet? You then might not minimize your success because of the number on the scale (or even check the scale) and continue to be motivated to incorporate these habits moving forward.
When we focus on weight loss, even if it is part of a larger goal to boost our health, our behaviors automatically become weight-focused instead of health-focused. This can cause us to neglect how our behaviors make us feel physically and mentally—like not realizing that we're benefiting from our new behaviors (despite not having a weight change) or not realizing when we're hurting ourselves to achieve a weight change.
However, it can still be difficult for us to take weight completely out of the equation. Often times medical professionals will recommend weight loss when cholesterol, triglyceride, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, etc. are elevated. Unfortunately, they often recommend weight loss even when there is nothing out of range but a person's weight has increased or their BMI is above "normal," too. (And you know how I feel about BMI as a measure of health). And if it's not our doctors, it's society's ever-present message that weight loss is good, thinner is better, fat is bad... There is pressure from all angles.
But weight loss alone isn't the key to better health, mood, or self-esteem. And given the (extremely) low success rate of dieting to achieve long-term weight loss, this focus, unfortunately, does not always set us up for long-term success and can have some adverse effects.
Let's talk more about some of the things that can happen when we make weight-focused goals:
1. Our goal becomes a number on the scale rather than a physical or mental health benefit.
We can often make number-focused goals. Whether it is our doctor's recommendation for 10% weight loss or our goal to lose 15 lbs and be back to our "wedding day weight," we tend to put emphasis on a specific number. One major problem with this is that the weight we've decided on (or been recommended) may actually not be realistic for us. Our doctor might just be choosing a number that puts us in the "normal" BMI category, but what if our set point range (the genetically-determined weight range our body naturally settles around) is higher than this number? What if our body is changing with the phase of life we're in? (We're not designed to weigh what we did in high school our entire life). Maybe we crash-dieted before our wedding and have since improved our relationship with food and had children—is that wedding day weight really realistic or healthy for us?
Even if we are able to "achieve" that number on the scale, we may not be able to sustain it without engaging in drastic dieting behaviors. We may need to continually restrict more calories, or work even harder to burn them, to keep the weight off over time as our body naturally tries to go back to its set point. We're also likely to find that a lower weight doesn't provide joy, confidence, or a boost to our physical/mental health in the way we thought it would (or at least, not for very long).
Additionally, when we choose a number on the scale as our goal, it neglects our true motivators for change. Identifying what our core motivators are helps us focus on what we're really after, which usually isn't just a number on the scale. Maybe we want to have more energy or stamina, increase our strength, reduce inflammation or blood pressure levels, or improve our mood and self-esteem. Knowing that a specific number on the scale does not lead to these outcomes, we can then focus on the things that actually do help, for example:
moving our bodies more often in ways we enjoy
reducing our reliance on caffeine for energy
starting a sleep routine to get more quality sleep
eating balanced meals/snacks regularly throughout the day
incorporating more antioxidant-rich foods
incorporating more nutrient-dense foods
if needed, supplementing the minerals we may be lacking or deficient in
quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake
journaling, meditating, incorporating more self-care
seeking support and professional help for mental health
2. Our success is measured by a number on the scale rather than how we feel.
Back to our fictitious doctor—say she recommends we lose 10% of our body weight to improve blood glucose levels. With this in mind, our goal becomes weighing X amount. We believe at this weight we will be healthier and "better," so all we have to do is get there somehow. After three months of eating more balanced meals regularly throughout the day, moving more, working on stress management and sleep habits, we return to the doctor to find our blood glucose levels are within normal range! But before the doctor shares this news, we step on the scale and see no change from our last visit. How do you think the resulting feelings of shame and discouragement will affect how we hear the good news about our blood sugar? Is it not worth celebrating our major health improvements because our weight didn't change? What's worse, the doctor may likely say "I'd still like to see you lose a few pounds" further creating the association between weight loss and health or success and diminishing the positive habits we've created.
I can't tell you how many clients I've worked with that have experienced this whether it was their own goal to work on health behaviors or their doctor's. They start by saying how discouraged they are by their "lack of success" (on the scale) but when asked how they were feeling physically and mentally before knowing if their weight changed they say "Fantastic!"
If only we could focus on the way we feel more than the way we look or the amount we weigh. Unfortunately, it's not just the healthcare system shaming those in bigger bodies—the diet industry has inextricably tied our looks to how we feel about ourselves, too. (For example, have you ever caught yourself saying you "feel fat"? Deep down "fat" is code for something else, like insecurity, guilt, loneliness, etc. because "fat" is not an emotion, we have just learned to associate it with negative things).
Instead of checking for success on the scale (or by how our clothes fit, or how we look in the mirror), check in on those core motivators. Are you feeling like you have more energy? Could you walk/bike/run longer than you did last month or with less pain/difficulty? Do you feel more satisfied with your meals now that you've included more variety and fiber? And noticed other benefits of fiber like regular bowel movements and improved cholesterol? These changes can take longer, be harder to notice in the moment, and aren't as black and white as seeing our weight drop, so we can easily overlook them at first. Keeping a journal and regularly checking in on how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally can help you notice the real impact of your new habits.
3. We can take unhealthy steps to achieve our goal rather than taking steps centered around health and well-being.
When our goal is a lower number on the scale, we naturally will focus on incorporating weight loss behaviors to achieve that. Sometimes we think these behaviors are "healthy," but when they are purely weight-driven, they typically are not. This can look like drastically restricting calorie intake below our metabolic needs by skipping meals, cutting out major food groups, or trying the latest fad diet trend or detox. We might also start overexercising, which won't result in the benefits we might expect (like increased muscle mass, or improved mood or stamina) if we aren't properly fueling ourselves.
Taking drastic means of achieving weight loss can also cause us to miss out on key nutrients. Our body not only needs adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, but a bunch of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to effectively carry out all of the processes it needs to function each day. Every cell requires energy (calories) 24/7 and there are over 100 trillion cells in the body. So eating a variety of foods, from all food groups and eating enough to meet our energy needs are necessities.
Plus, when our body is in an unfed state (or fasting/starvation state) from lack of nutrition and calories, it signals stress (elevates cortisol levels). In this stressed state, the body favors fat storage and reduces our metabolic rate as a means of survival. (Remember this is a learned response to famine?). At first, these elevated stress levels feel like a burst of energy, which is why people often say they feel good when first starting a diet. But over time, chronic stress wreaks havoc on the body and the metabolic changes result in weight plateaus and rebound gains. This can lead us to try another diet, and another one, expecting new results but treating our bodies the same, unhelpful way.
This is why it's best not to partake in any fad diets or drastic means of weight loss in the first place. When the goal is weight loss, we typically think more short term—what can I do to get weight off ASAP? Instead, when we focus on feeling good physically and mentally, we tend to think: what sustainable habits can I incorporate long-term? More on this in number 4!
4. We can become preoccupied with food and our bodies.
When weight loss is our only goal, we become fixated on how the scale and our body size/shape change. Since these are our measures of "success" we may begin frequently checking and analyzing them. Becoming preoccupied with our exterior not only gets us out of tune with our inner self and needs but can lead to the development of disordered eating/exercise behaviors or an eating disorder.
Weight-centered goals focus on restricting, avoiding, and rule-following. This creates a scarcity mindset, which causes us to hyperfocus on what we're eating (or mainly, not eating). Think about it: on a road trip if you see a sign that says there isn't a bathroom for another 50 miles, what do you immediately start focusing on? Your bladder. The same thing happens we when make certain foods off-limits. The resulting deprivation and rigidity make it impossible to follow our "rules" long-term and may eventually lead to overindulging in all those foods we swore off.
Health-centered goals on the other hand tend, to focus on adding things to our life like more fruits and vegetables, physical activity, stress-relieving activities, quality sleep, fresh air, etc. Focusing on what we can add to boost our nutrition and wellness habits and having permission to eat all foods creates an abundance mindset. This mindset helps us continue these habits long term because we don't feel rigid or deprived. It also helps us reach a place of food freedom and more intuitive eating, which have long-lasting physical and mental health benefits.
Remember that weight loss alone is rarely the answer, even if it is what our doctor is recommending—improvements to our physical and mental well-being will require us to look at all factors of our health (like diet, sleep, stress, exercise, mental health, etc.). And there isn't a magic number on the scale we can reach to achieve the things we are looking for, so the next time you are tempted to make a weight-focused goal, I encourage you to pause and ask yourself, what am I really trying to achieve? Is weight loss the only way I get there?
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