Imagine that you have moved into a new house. You’ve done that before, right? Do you remember how it felt to not be sure which light switches turned on what, or to wake up at night and have to remind yourself how to get to the bathroom?
It took some time before you could navigate around in the dark. You had to learn how to fold the towels so they fit in the linen closet the way you like them. Eventually you could estimate how long it would take for the water in the shower to warm up, or which room got the coldest at night. But it took time, right? You had to live there for a while before it felt like home.
Now imagine that you have been in your new house for a few days, still unpacking and surrounded by boxes, and someone barges in and says, “tell me where the can opener is!” Startled, you may look bewilderedly around at the half-unpacked boxes scattered about and stammer that you’re not sure. “Oh really,” says the intruder, crossing his arms with a self-satisfied smirk. “You’ve been here a full week and don’t even know where the can opener is. I’ll bet you’ll never know. This whole idea was stupid. This house will never work!”
You may get defensive. You may say, “well hang on a minute there, mister. I just got here and I have barely even unpacked. Just give me a minute to get things organized and then I can tell you where things are.” And he may shrug, turn on his heel, and sit in the corner, waiting to be proved correct.
That may seem like a ridiculous scenario, but it happens more than we think. How many times have you been on a diet for a week and then stepped on the scale only to see little to no change? The voice that says, “I told you so,” is the same one who barges in and demands the can opener. But when it happens on the scale, we don’t get defensive and stand up for ourselves. We hang our heads and say, “you’re right. This was dumb. This will never work.”
But in your house, you did find the can opener. You figured out the light switches. You learned how to jiggle the door so the deadbolt will lock. And now, after being there for a while, you can find your way around in the dark and know which part of the floor squeaks and where to be careful for Legos. You know that place like the back of your hand, because you stuck around long enough to unpack the boxes and figure it out.
It is the same way with the habits that we take on. Before we have barely gotten going, we’re demanding results and expecting to be proficient at our new skills. If the weight loss isn’t fast enough, or we overdo it during a weekend of travel, or nothing happens for a while, it’s easy to assume it will never happen. It’s okay to bump into a few walls while you’re finding your way around.
Now, that’s easier said than done, so here are some mantras you can share with that intruder:
“I’m Learning.” Yes, there is a learning curve to creating health habits! Remind yourself that you are learning, and give yourself credit for what you have figured out already. You can even keep a notebook of your discoveries as a visual reminder of what you have learned.
“Give Me Some Space.” I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible to work when someone is reading over my shoulder. My fingers get wonky and I can’t type, I make stupid mistakes, and it aggravates me. I need some space! You might, too. This mantra can sometimes work best when you physically stretch your arms out to the sides and literally make some more space for yourself. This is your goal, and you can take up all of the room in it!
“Keep Unpacking.” There is a picture on the wall of my living room that is crooked, and it has been that way for about four years, when I hung it up. Every once in a while I see it and I know I should take the nails out and straighten it. But I haven’t. That’s okay. It’s a reminder that we are always a work in progress, and always settling in. Allow yourself to keep unpacking and get settled before you decide the place is not for you.
This week, give yourself time to bump into the walls and try a few light switches before you call it quits on your health goals. Give yourself some space to learn. Keep unpacking.
At least once a week, someone tells me about the new challenge they are undertaking to lose weight or get healthier. They are going to stop eating anything white, or they’re going to cut out all carbs, or exercise every single day at their new gym.
I saw a 30-day “get skinny” challenge online that listed about twenty-five things to avoid: no sugar, no alcohol, no red meat, no tropical fruits, no fast food, no fried food, and of course, no excuses. Then followed the comments of people who had accepted the challenge, and said, “this is what I need to finally get myself in gear!”
And I couldn’t help but ask, in gear for what? Never one to shy away from a challenge, I love and appreciate the thrill that comes from achieving something difficult, even if that is its own reward. I get that. Doing the difficult thing just to say you did it is a legitimate source of confidence and accomplishment. But when the goal is to get healthier, I find that success is much more accessible when we make things pretty easy.
First, let me define what I mean by success. When the goal is to lose weight and get healthier, I declare success when my client has reached a healthy weight, is able to maintain it through holidays and travel and tailgate season, and feels at ease with their ability to stay there physically and emotionally. Most of the time, when people drill down to what they want from their healthy goals, it is the ability to get to a good place and stay there.
That’s not the kind of thing that happens in thirty days, and it surely doesn’t happen in a state of survival conditions. It just doesn’t. I can’t say that you won’t feel triumphant and accomplished at the end of your month of no fun, but I can almost guarantee that you won’t be healthier or at ease with your ability to stay at the weight you’ve dieted down to.
To succeed and thrive, we need to step out of survival mode and into a safe zone. I encourage you to simply ask what would make it easier to do the things that will lead to weight loss and a healthier body.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s use the most common methods for healthy living as examples: eating healthfully, exercising, managing stress, and getting enough sleep. Instead of asking what should be removed from your diet, consider asking, “what would make it easier for me to eat healthier this week?”
Instead of signing up for the most rigorous workout in town and jolting your body into boot camp, ask, “what would make it easier to get more exercise, the good kind that really gets my heart pumping?”
What would make it easier to find time for meditation or relaxation in your day? What would make it easier for you to get to bed earlier?
It’s a bit of a trick question. Yes, it would be easier if we didn’t have to do anything, or if wine didn’t have calories, or if we had personal chefs and could quit our jobs so we had complete control of our time. Ha ha, yes, I know. But for real. In your real life, what would make it more realistic that you’re going to do these things?
Life is already hard enough, and there are plenty of opportunities to challenge your body and mind every day. And, challenge is good for us and I love a good kick in the pants to work a little harder and level up. But if you have been trying to convince yourself that you just need to work harder and try harder to make changes in your health, then I invite you to instead ask, “what would make it easier?”
The pharmacy where I worked as a teenager had a sign in the back displaying the store’s hours of operation. You’ve probably seen it in other businesses as well:
“We’re open most days around 9 or 10. Occasionally as early as 7, but sometimes as late as 11 or 12. We’re closed around 5:30 or 6. Occasionally as early as 4, but sometimes as late as 11 or 12.”
It goes on with more exceptions to the rule, and it always gets a chuckle. It also sounds a lot like me when someone asks me whether their weight loss plans will work. Reducing calories and increasing exercise should work, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you lose weight at first and then stop losing weight. Sometimes you do everything “right” but some other medical condition is causing a plateau. Sometimes you and your friend do the same things, and one experiences results when the other doesn’t. The reason is because losing weight is more of an art than a science.
Science is exacting. It is either right or wrong, and can almost always be explained with facts, data, and reason. Science is using a food scale to measure your portions so you know exactly how many calories you are eating each day. There is a definite element of science in how we manage our health, especially of numbers like cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar need to be monitored. Science allows us to know statistics like how losing 10% of your body weight can reduce risk factors for heart disease, or whether you need insulin. Science plays a role.
Art, on the other hand, is open to interpretation. The same piece of art can be seen differently by different people, just as a size 10 on one person feels as comfortable and manageable as a size 4 on someone else. Art is connected to our own personal values, and when health is art, we are able to create a picture of what balance means for us.Health as art is about quality rather than quantity, and knowing that maintaining healthy habits will result in healthy returns, even if the numbers don’t always add up. Art makes us whole.
Science plays a role and art makes us whole. The truth is, we need a little of both to make magic happen in the world of weight loss. Consider these balance points as you work on your goals of achieving a healthy weight.
Balance Calories with Consistency.
I’ve been maintaining my current weight for about five years now, but I still weigh my portions most of the time. Calorie management is a big part of weight loss, and attention to the details can make the difference between losing weight and maintaining. But what’s more important than the everyday ratio of calories in versus calories out is the consistent pattern of a deficit over time. It’s just like watching the stock market or investing for retirement; it’s performance over the long haul that matters.
Balance Your Weight with Your Waist.
The science of weight loss tells us that 3,500 calories is equal to a pound of fat. So, using 3,500 calories through exercise and reduced calories should equal a pound of fat lost...right? Yes, it should. Except when it doesn’t, which is usually about a week before you need to fit into a bridesmaid dress or rented tuxedo. Relax. There is so much going on inside your body that can make those three little numbers on the scale go haywire. Medications, not drinking enough water, your current hormonal state, the workout you just returned from, and what you ate for dinner last night will all factor into the number that shows up on that scale.Your body is a living thing that in flux all day long. Put the scale away and focus on the waistband of your jeans instead. If it’s changing, so are you, regardless of what that hunk of metal and plastic tells you.
Balance Perfection with Progress.
One of my favorite things to do is read stories of people who faced immense odds or setbacks and figured out a way to climb out, sometimes to epic levels of triumph. I often refer to these stories when someone is stuck in the muck of imperfection, thinking they are never going to make progress because every day, something happens to push them back. That, my friends, is called life. Success is not found in everything going according to plan, but in finding a way to move forward despite setbacks. I am going to say this part really loud: you do not have to get it right, you just have to get it going!
The truth is that weight loss is not just a numbers game, and it’s also not as easy as just making better choices. It takes a combination of science and art to make progress in changing our health, especially when the canvas is an ever-changing living thing that sometimes plays by its own rules.
So, relax. You got this. Enjoy those days when it all comes together and you knock it out of the park. Balance them with the days when you have to really focus to make any ground. If you are consistent, your success story may very well become a work of art.
When it comes down to the business of losing weight, the to-do list is pretty short: eat less, move around more, and try not to screw it all up on the weekends. But what if you’ve been doing that stuff for weeks now and nothing is changing? You may call your friendly neighborhood health coach, and she will likely say, “well, let’s take a look at how much you’re eating.”
You may reply that you eat a really healthy diet, and that you’ve stopped eating so much fast good, and don’t drink as much sweet tea anymore. And she may say, “that’s great! I am glad you are eating healthy food. Let’s take a look at how much you are eating.”
Knowing how much you eat is important, but not for the reasons you might think. Yes, if you want to lose weight then the math of calories in and calories out is something to pay attention to. But food journaling isn’t just about portions and calories. Sometimes, the best awareness we can build is the behind the scenes motivations for why we are eating, not what. Consider keeping a different type of food journal that encourages you to qualify your food before you quantify it.
I have three rules for food logging, and they are easy to follow. First, if you bite it, you write it. I would say that if you swallow it you write it, but that doesn’t rhyme. The point here is that every bite of food contains calories, even the healthy ones. Yes, it is completely possible to sabotage your weight loss by eating too much healthy food! So, if weight loss is a goal and it seems like you are doing everything right and not making progress, it might be time to get into the nitty gritty and focus in on the details. Write it down. Everything. Yes, even that.
Second, resist the temptation to evaluate what you just wrote down. No, no, no. This is data collection, not a performance review. If you don’t like what you wrote, that’s cool. You can change how you eat any time you’d like. But in the initial stages of food journaling, I just want you to write it down and put it on the list of things you ate, without deciding whether it makes you good, bad, or ugly. It just is.
And third, be as accurate as you can be with your portion sizes. Sometimes that means counting out how many nuts were in that handful. There is a lot of counting things in weight loss. That’s okay because counting things is easy. You know how the dentist says you only have to brush the teeth you want to keep? Well, you only have to count the calories you swallow.
Those are my rules. Shake off the apprehension and guilt and just track what you eat, as if you are observing someone other than yourself. Once you are logging away, it’s time to take your food journal from a simple list of things you ate into something from which you can learn and draw conclusions.
Look for patterns. Perhaps make a note of why you decided to eat, how hungry you were, and how you felt afterwards. Ask yourself whether you’d like to keep doing things that way, and if you want to change, what would have been a better idea. What can you do to make that easier next time?
Pay attention to the time that you eat to identify whether you are eating at regular intervals or going too long between meals. If you are a creature of habit, you may find that you eat at the same time of the day whether you are hungry or not. If you are always in survival mode, you may be surprised to see how long it’s been since you last ate.
Take a big-picture look at your food journal and look for the obvious signs of what needs to change. It is my philosophy that sustainable change affects as few areas of our life as possible, so I take the approach of changing as few things as possible to set things in motion again. Look at what you’ve eaten objectively, and ask yourself if you are creating an environment where you can be successful, or one where you are doomed to fail.
Change is not easy, but if the payoff is great enough, it can be rewarding. Awareness leads to behavior change, so being honest about why you decided to eat can play a leading role in forming new habits. Put down the calculator, step back and look at the big picture, and take a holistic approach to your food journal this week.
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!