With 40% of Americans on a diet every year but success rates for weight maintenance for more than five years at only 20%, many of us have been through multiple weight loss/gain cycles. There are long-standing debates about whether yo-yo dieting (or weight cycling—losing and regaining the same weight multiple times) is harmful to health. It isn’t hard to find research that suggests a link between weight cycling and higher levels of overall body fat and obesity, loss of muscle mass, heart disease and diabetes. Researchers also wonder if the health risks of yo-yo dieting (especially regaining fat) are worse than the health risks of obesity. Yo-yo dieting is ineffective, emotionally painful and demoralizing. It’s time to reframe our motivation for weight loss to stop yo-yo dieting.
Yo-Yo Dieting: Spirit Crushing
Frankly, for the millions of obese Americans who struggle to lose weight (and keep it off), the frustration, shame and remorse that comes from successive, unsuccessful attempts to lose weight is spirit-crushing. Many people give up or spend much of their life in a state of regret and shame.
The body positivity movement has made some inroads into self-acceptance of a more diverse variety of body shapes. That’s vital to reducing the shame and anger overweight people feel at not meeting the strange and sometimes dangerous societal norms of beauty. No matter what weight, we need to love ourselves at any shape/size, and broadening our ideas about beauty gives us room to accept ourselves and love our body without regard for the number on a scale.
But some of us may still want to lose weight—for better health, to feel more comfortable in our bodies or to reduce the physical burden of weight. Our reasons or “why” for losing weight may change over time.
After decades of trying to lose weight—and living through a nightmare yo-yo dieting cycle, I was able to lose more than 60 pounds by focusing not on the way my body looked (which was pretty curvy-spectacular) but by focusing on some of the established and well-known health risks of being obese.
I’m sharing my journey, hoping that the strategies that worked for me will help you find meaningful motivators to consistently improve your eating and exercise habits. If your goal is long-term weight loss and not a quick fix, I think these strategies can help. If followed, they can support you as you get off the yo-yo rollercoaster for good. It’s time to reframe our motivation for weight loss to stop yo-yo dieting.
The Yo-Yo Diet Nightmare
For most of my life, I’ve been a classic yo-yo dieter. I started all my diets with a shiny new book, a good journal to record my progress, and a refrigerator stocked with healthy foods. I also had the latest exercise gadget at home (and since I liked exercise much more than dieting, I had some go-to exercises like walking and dancing built into my life).
I’d start this “awesome” diet in January, after packing on the pounds from October-December (starting with Halloween, eating through Thanksgiving, partying through Christmas, and ending with a celebratory toast and more food on New Year’s Eve).
I’d stick with the diet until April/May because I was motivated to lose weight for summer. I longed to wear shorts, be able to move comfortably in the heat, and spend time on the beach without dreading the ordeal of the bathing suit! All these extrinsic motivations (check out my ebook on weight loss motivation to learn more about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation) held me for a few months until I lost about 20-30 pounds.
I’d feel great about my achievement throughout the summer, and I usually managed to keep the weight off until September. As fall began, and I headed back to work from my summer vacation, and my stress levels would climb. I would have lost my extrinsic motivation (summer weight loss) and would start packing on the pounds. I did this diet cycling for decades! It lasted through my 20s, 30s, and 40s!
While on this cycle, my motivation for healthy eating and exercise had a shelf life of about four months (tops), with another four months of maintenance, if I managed to keep the weight off during the summer months.
By the time I hit my early 50s, I weighed 240 pounds and had little expectation that I could ever lose the weight (and keep it off).
A Health Scare Sparked New Habits, and Then Real Change
If it hadn’t been for a change in my health, I might not have successfully lost weight. You can read my weight loss story, but here’s the short version: I developed heart palpitations when I entered perimenopause, and they scared me to death. After visiting a cardiologist, who was the first doctor in my whole life to use the term “obese” to describe me (and talk to me thoughtfully about how I was hurting my health), I embarked on a healthy eating and exercise plan that helped me lose more than 60 pounds and keep it off for three years.
Why was I successful this time? I believe it was because I developed some solid intrinsic motivators—I didn’t want to die, and the heart palpitations scared me. I also realized that if I continued to neglect my health, I’d have a poor quality of life as I got older. I didn’t want to be an older woman who struggled to walk and do the basics of life because my legs, hips, and joints ached from the strain of my weight. I wanted to enjoy an active lifestyle with my teenage daughter.
Eating a whole-food, no-sugar, no-caffeine diet stopped those palpitations immediately. I was amazed at the energy and vitality I had when I only ate unprocessed, whole foods. The weight fell off; I consistently lost 2 pounds per week until I reached 40 pounds in the first seven months. From there, my weight loss slowed but remained steady until reaching more than 60 pounds.
Start with Meaningful Internal Motives (and a Healthy Dose of Self-Acceptance)
The lesson I learned was that my motivation for losing weight had to be truly meaningful to me and driven by my desire to have a better life. I had to frame my thinking differently and move from weight loss for weight loss sake to using it as a tool for overall better health and a future that included spending active time with family.
My weight loss motivation became more connected to what I valued and enjoyed in life. Most importantly, I had to accept myself at any weight and refuse to think about putting my life on hold until I lost a specific amount of weight (that’s the body positivity mindset). Living fully, and with as much self-love as I could, was an important positive motivator for developing a new lifestyle.
Your motivation for weight loss isn’t a static entity. It changes as the months go by, and you have to change with it. It wasn’t until my weight loss slowed (after the first 40 pounds or so), and I tried to add some occasional processed foods back into my diet, that I realized that I would need to figure out how to stoke my motivation daily (when the internal motives weren’t front-of-mind). I then focused more on exercise and taking action as a strategy for achieving lasting weight loss.
I use healthy eating, exercise, mindfulness and engagement in favorite activities like walking, dancing, and snorkeling, to stoke my motivation. I’m not on the yo-yo diet rollercoaster anymore because I know that I’m my best self when I follow my healthy habits—and I’m not going back to the pain and sadness I felt when I was heavier and out of shape.
Motivation Tips for Weight Loss (Basic Principles that Work)
So, where are you in terms of motivation for pursuing your weight loss and fitness goals? The most important first step is to remember that weight loss and fitness are built on a string of actions you take each day.
I’m not going to promise you that you’ll be transformed in a month. It may take that long to lose your first 5 pounds or get consistent with an exercise plan, but incorporating those behaviors into your lifestyle takes time and usually is not a linear (one and done) process. As you work to include both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation factors, try these tips along the way.
Choose the Right Food Plan
Work with a doctor or registered dietitian to find a food plan that suits your weight loss and health needs. Whether you’ve selected a food plan to follow, or are thinking of embarking on a new one, you need to ask yourself:
- Does the food plan have the potential to work given my lifestyle and health needs?
- Is this plan sustainable for a year, five years, 10 years?
- Does the food plan focus on healthy eating behaviors that my doctor has told me I should incorporate into my life on a long-term basis?
- Will I be hungry all the time, or does my food plan feel like it matches my caloric intake needs and eating preferences?
Research shows that it makes little difference which plan you pick, but I would argue that finding one that suits your lifestyle is key. For example, two factors helped me know that a whole food diet was best for me: I wanted to get rid of the heart palpitations. I was willing to test the hypothesis that cutting out sugar, caffeine, and processed food would reduce those palpitations.
I also enjoy eating. I am a volume eater, and I can’t stay on a plan that doesn’t include large salads, grain bowls and healthy burritos. I needed a food plan that would let me stuff my whole wheat tortilla with a ton of healthy veggies and grains to feel satiated.
If I had picked a food plan that allowed me to eat any food I wanted, as long as I ate below a certain calorie level, I probably would have continued to eat calorie-dense foods (pasta, bread, cheese). Still, I would have limited my intake to an amount that was out of line with my need for high-volume meals. Ever seen those photos comparing the number of calories in one doughnut to a whole plate of fruit? I know, I know—sometimes you just have to eat a doughnut. I hear you! But my point is that I need that plate of fruit to signal that I’ve had enough food and can stop eating. That one doughnut is just going to whet my appetite.
When I picked my plan, I chose not to count calories, but instead to eat tons of low-calorie, healthy foods. It worked for me, and now it’s time to see what works for you. One fun way to get started is by taking a diet personality quiz.
Learn How to Stoke Your Motivation (with Action)
Taking action is one of the keys to sustained weight loss and fitness. Whether it’s sifting through the grocery isles to find new, healthy whole foods to try, or exercising for 5-10 minutes when it’s the last thing you want to do after a long day at work, you have to do something. Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable at the moment, move past those feelings, and take action anyway!
With each action you take, you empower yourself to know that you can do something for yourself that is entirely under your control. You won’t be “perfect”—there’s no place for perfection on your weight loss journey anyway. Taking action helps you energize and stoke your motivation to sustain your healthy eating and exercise plans.
Especially if you’re intrinsically motivated, you will enjoy healthy eating or exercise (most days) because it pleases you and fully engages your interests. Here’s the bottom line: Engaging in simple actions driven by motivating factors that you’ve chosen can bring you pleasure and create energizing emotions that sustain your weight loss efforts over time.
Focusing on the task of doing 10 minutes of exercise can get your mind and body back into an intrinsically-motivated state that then becomes the fuel for having a can-do attitude! String those healthy shopping trips and exercise sessions together over time (and consistently), and they start to carry personal importance and meaning for your life. That is what will sustain you on your weight loss and fitness journey!
Make Exercise a Part of Your Life
You knew I was going here! There has been much in the media lately about how few calories one can burn through exercise, and how eating fewer calories is more important to weight loss (and only weight loss—not health) than the amount of exercise you get. While that may be true, it doesn’t downgrade exercise’s significance to stoking weight loss motivation.
Even as I yo-yo dieted up and down in weight for years, I kept some exercise in my life. I used exercise for different reasons—it helped me feel better physically, improved my self-image, and helped regulate my moods and reduce feelings of depression. It also helped me maintain muscle, which, as I get older, I value more and more. I felt strong most of the time, which was positive, especially when everything else went south with my latest diet.
It turns out that consistent exercise is one of the behaviors of people who have lost weight and kept it off. Results from the National Weight Control Registry, which maintains data on 6,000 successful weight loss maintainers, found that people who perform greater amounts of exercise are more successful in maintaining their weight loss.There seems to be a spillover effect between feeling good about your exercise, the effects of physical activity on your body, and feeling motivated to engage in other healthy behaviors such as eating well.
Establish Workable, S.M.A.R.T. Goals
For years, I’d read diet and exercise books that asked me to fill out surveys and goal sheets. I’d write down a variety of goals like: I want to fit into jeans (instead of leggings); I don’t want my thighs to chafe, and I want to wear shorts; I want to protect my health; I don’t want to binge eat anymore; I want to feel better in my own body. What a list I had!!
Many of those goals were external, short-term ones attached to some notion in my head at that particular moment. They weren’t connected to any action steps I said I would take to make them a reality. And they never did become a reality.
As expected, after taking these surveys and filling out these forms every time I wanted to start a new diet, I grew tired of it. I’d still read the latest diet book, but I’d skip the first few “warm and fuzzy” chapters and try to get right to the diet plan’s meat. I knew I wasn’t keeping my promises, and deep down, I didn’t feel I could be successful enough to reach my goal. My past experiences showed that my plans weren’t sustainable. Something was missing.
Starting a new healthy eating and fitness plan is different when you focus on S.M.A.R.T. goals because, by their very nature, these types of goals are very specific and actionable. A S.M.A.R.T. goal is: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. It has some accountability built into it. Here’s an example of a good S.M.A.R.T. goal: “I will exercise at least three times per week.” I know the action I will take and the frequency. The goal is achievable and easy to measure. “I will eat one large salad or greens-based meal every day” is another S.M.A.R.T. goal.
It helps if your goals come from internal motives. For example, you recognize that exercising often and eating greens are very good for your body, and you want to treat your body well by taking those actions. While I think we can agree that we want to take better care of our bodies, we also have to see that goal as one that comes from our beliefs and desires, and not someone else’s. With those firm beliefs, we have a better chance of making lasting change.
I’ve created a S.M.A.R.T. goals worksheet. Try it and create a workable plan around an achievable goal. Success will motivate you to continue.
Whether it’s accepting your body as it is now, and genuinely loving your shape, or working with a sane approach to lose weight through consistent effort, I think it’s important to choose one (and get off the yo-yo dieting cycle for good). Get healthy weight-loss habits on repeat!
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