O.M.G. Summer is going to be here in, like, 5 months and I need to lose 50 pounds to get my beach body ready! So, here’s what I’ll do… I’ll stop eating carbs completely. I’ll have lettuce and mushrooms for lunch and dinner and I’ll drink a kale and cucumber smoothie for breakfast every day.
Lots of people start their year this way. Maybe not this ridiculously, but truth is stranger than fiction, right? But it’s usually some sort of frantic realization coupled with an impending deadline that leads to this sudden rush to lose a bunch of weight really, really fast.
The problem there is that it is NEVER sustainable. You’ll see results the first week or three or eight. The scale will give you some better numbers each time you step on it and you’ll probably feel your clothes loosen up. Cool.
But your energy levels will be hovering slightly above “stoned sloth at nap time” and you’ll be living in a constant state of self-denial, drinking water with lime while your friends enjoy seven beers at the bar, skipping out on that pasta dish that you really loved and basically eliminating all the little pleasures that you used to enjoy when you didn’t care about what that extra 50 pounds would look like in a string bikini.
Again, this isn’t sustainable. Sure, there’s an argument that maybe we get too much of our pleasure and enjoyment from the food we eat. Maybe the billions of food porn accounts on Instagram actually are an unhealthy obsession with what we eat. But the other argument is that life is short and you’ve got to enjoy it while you can.
But the question is – why can’t you have both? Why can’t you eat foods you love and also be healthy? Well the thing is, you can. There are three things you have to do to make this work though.
First: Commit to the Long Game
If you legitimately need to lose a decent amount of weight – let’s say 30 pounds or more – in order to be healthy and avoid the various hazards that lifelong weight problems can bring, then you need to first understand and be okay with the idea that it isn’t, shouldn’t, probably won’t happen inside a tiny window of time. That isn’t to say that you can’t make progress quickly or that you won’t see results quickly. But don’t expect to get from “here” to “there” in four weeks or eight weeks or whatever.
You also have to know that once you get there, you’re not “done”. In order to maintain that, you can’t just go back to whatever habits you have now that have lead you to where you are. If you drink three sodas a day and eat pizza for dinner four times a week then you can’t cut that out for three months, lose the weight and then go right back to your old routines and habits.
In order to make meaningful, lasting changes you have to be okay with it taking as long as it takes. If that means it takes a year, then be okay with a year. If it’s faster, then great. If it’s slower, then okay. Your commitment is not to a goal weight, it’s to living a healthy lifestyle. Make that commitment mentally. Forget about the scale and focus on how you feel and how your clothes fit. As you start to make the changes in your lifestyle – your habits, preferences and actions – you will notice the difference first and before long other people will begin to notice the differences as well. “Are you losing weight?” will become a question you hear from coworkers, friends and family.
So commit to the long game. Short term is temporary. You want lasting change that you can sustain for the rest of your life – while still feeling like you have a full, rich life.
Second: Change Your Favorites
“It’s an acquired taste,” is something you usually hear people say as they examine a particularly slimy snail that they’re about to consume. Their nose is usually turned up a little bit to indicate their disdain for anyone who’s not comfortable or ecstatic about slurping down rare gastropods purely for the enjoyment of it.
But changing your tastes is something you can do – and it’s not that hard (as long as the taste you’re looking to acquire is not snails). If you have a real sweet tooth and find yourself craving a snickers bar on the regular, maybe try to replace that with a couple of small squares of dark chocolate and a small serving of 10-15 peanuts. I personally found that replacing my late night snack, which might normally have been milk chocolate or cake or pie or some other sugary treat, with a piece of Ezekiel bread, a little bit of almond butter, half a banana and a light drizzle of local honey makes a much healthier but equally satisfying snack. If I’m not in the mood for that, I cut up 5-6 fresh strawberries and drizzle a small amount of honey over those.
So look for healthy foods to replace your current unhealthy favorites. Avoid pre-packaged and processed foods in general. If it has ingredients that you can’t pronounce, leave it on the shelf at the store.
Here’s the weird thing that you will find after a few weeks of working to do this… When you do have that Snickers bar, you’re going to feel like absolute crap. Your body won’t be used to the flood of processed ingredients and refined sugar. You might find that Snickers bars aren’t your favorite thing anymore and you really do prefer that dark chocolate and peanut mix.
Third: Enjoy All Things in Moderation
Finally, don’t deprive yourself. Willpower is an interesting thing and there’s a lot written about it. I won’t cover that here, but you can read about this thing called “willpower depletion” here. The basic concept is that willpower is like a muscle – the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. However, it’s also possible to deplete your reserves of willpower, at which point you will find it very difficult to resist temptations.
So how can you make this work in your favor? Let yourself give in to temptations once in a while. You might decide that it will be on a weekly basis, or maybe even twice a week. I don’t care – that’s your call to make. Know that when you do give into temptation, it will cost you. The added calories and sugar might slow your progress down ever so slightly. That’s a trade-off you’re making. Make it a deliberate decision though. “I’m going to have ice cream after dinner on Friday,” is a perfectly valid thing to say to yourself on Tuesday afternoon when the boss is droning on about deadlines and project plans and whatever it is bosses drone on about.
When you do indulge, do two things: 1) do so in moderation. Know when enough is enough. You don’t need the whole pint of ice cream. Just a reasonably sized scoop will be plenty to satisfy the craving. Anything beyond that and you’re feeding more than your stomach – you’re probably feeding something in your psyche, like boredom, stress or frustration (which can also all be cured at the gym). 2) Enjoy it, completely guilt free. Don’t worry about the calories – at times like these I really wish they DIDN’T put the calories on the menu! Don’t worry about the carbs. Just enjoy it. You’ve put parameters on it – “I’m having one scoop of ice cream after dinner on Friday” and then you give yourself permission to enjoy it.
Forget guilt. Forget “cheating” on your “diet”. Those things are negative and will drag you down, make you feel bad and will ultimately lead you to rationalize that your behavior doesn’t matter. (“I’ve already cheated enough, might as well cheat more” as opposed to “I enjoyed my treat, that was really good and now I just go back to my usual healthy routine”.)
Life is short, but it’s also – for most people – pretty long. If you’ve found yourself 26 miles from where you want to be, or where you feel you need to be, then trying to sprint that 26 miles will result in disappointment and failure. But you can walk those 26 miles. It will take some determination, you’ll get sidetracked once in a while but only for a short time. But mostly it takes commitment to walking the 26 miles, no matter how long it takes. To quote a favorite platitude, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” that matters.