You’ve decided you want a new beach body later this year. Time to go on a diet, right?
Not so fast.
Changing your body doesn’t start in the kitchen or the gym. It starts in your mind.
One reason weight loss can be such a challenge is that those stubborn pounds often result from ingrained habits, such as eating whenever you’re stressed.
“These habits relieve discomfort—at least in the short term,” notes VeryWellFit.com. “Why would you discontinue a practice that provides relief and comfort?”
One reason to change: This need for comfort can become an unhealthy feedback loop.
For example, a study from Canada’s Dalhousie University found that half of its subjects, all of whom were overweight, used “food as a coping mechanism, which in turn created a source of emotional distress. Participants linked their eating behaviors with the need to alleviate the mental distress that influenced their emotional well-being.”
Fortunately, there are ways to help your mind get off the stress–eat–more stress treadmill…and finally allow you to feel happy about the body you see in the mirror.
Practice Basic Self-Care: Less Stress, More Sleep
The changes that stress causes in the brain can not only cause you to eat more, but also lead you to grab a cupcake instead of a handful of nuts.
As VeryWellFit puts it, “There is a good reason that ‘comfort food’ got its name.”
Exercise, best known as diet’s tried-and-true partner when it comes to weight loss, also helps short-circuit stress—a double-win.
Simple breathwork is another stress buster: While lying or sitting in a comfortable position, breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of two, then breathe out through your mouth for a count of six.
In addition, poor sleeping habits have been linked to urges for fatty, sugary foods.
To make sleep less elusive, go to bed and arise on a regular schedule all week long, including weekends. Keep electronics out of the bedroom (including the TV) and block noise and light as best you can; you can also try lowering the thermostat.
Change the Chatter in Your Head
Once you reduce your stress levels and start sleeping more soundly, you can begin to fight your negative self-talk—the little inner voice that is always whispering something unkind about how your body looks or feels.
“For some people, a negative body image is tied to self-worth,” explains VeryWellFit. “This can get in the way of success when trying to develop healthy eating habits or trying to reach and maintain a healthy weight.”
Your inner voice is also problematic when it engages in all-or-nothing thinking, such as when you opt for a candy bar instead of an apple one afternoon…and then decide that you’ve failed completely, leading you to follow the candy bar with a cookie and a bag of chips.
The good news? You can flip that inner script once you’re aware of what’s happening.
VeryWellFit suggests replacing troubling thoughts such as “I’m so out of shape” with “phrases such as ‘my body is strong,’ ‘I am enough’ or ‘I have come a long way,’ mantras that are commonly used to boost confidence.”
You can also derail self-judgemental thinking by saying “stop!” out loud or counting slowly to 100—anything that allows the negative thought to simply subside and pass.
If you’re someone who enjoys competition, challenge yourself by saying something like, “Can you lose weight? Are you up to it?”
One exercise-motivation phrase backed by research? “I can do better.”
No matter what approach you take, always act out of self-kindness. You would never tell a friend the sorts of things your inner voice tells you—why treat yourself that way?
Visualize Weight Loss Success (and Start Eating Mindfully)
After you’ve learned to cultivate a more positive inner voice, it’s time to take things a step further with the power of visualization.
“If you want to be thin, picture yourself thin,” advises WebMD.com. “Visualize your future self, six months to a year down the road, and think of how good you'll look and feel without the extra pounds.”
Ways to make visualization more concrete include:
- Downloading an app or video. Any number of guided-imagery tools are available through YouTube or wherever you get your apps.
- Using flash cards. Try writing the things you’re working towards on index cards, and go through them when you go to bed and when you wake up.
- Creating a visualization board. Collect words and images that inspire you and put them on a board you can look at every day.
You can also use the power of your mind to eat more thoughtfully.
“Eating mindfully is about awareness and intention,” says WebMD. “The core of this healthy eating strategy is to slow down and be fully in tune with all tastes and textures of the food at hand.”
When eating with intention, you pay full attention to your meal—savoring its aromas and flavors—without distractions. You eat slowly and thoughtfully; as WebMD puts it, “Mindful eating is an experience, not a race.”
You can learn more about mindful eating here.
Have Weight Loss Goals…and Patience
Now that you have solid mental tools to work with, it’s time to set some goals.
Whether it’s a desired weight or a detailed eating plan or what you want to accomplish in the gym, make your goals attainable.
For example, WebMD suggests identifying “a realistic weight range, not a single number”—losing between 12 and 24 pounds in a year, let’s say—“which is totally doable, sustainable and manageable.”
Many people use the SMART system of setting goals that are:
You can learn more about goal-setting here.
To make things easier, break your goals down into more manageable mini-goals.
“Make a list of smaller goals that will help you achieve weight loss,” suggests WebMD. “These mini-goals should be things that will improve your lifestyle without wreaking havoc in your life.”
Examples include eating an extra serving of vegetables each day, ordering side salads instead of starches such as french fries and walking for 20 minutes after dinner instead of hitting the couch.
As excited as you are about your goals now, it helps to have patience. There will be days when things will seem impossibly hard. Just stick with it…and remember to keep showing yourself the love.
Create an Action Plan (Including a Slip-Up Plan)
Once you have weight loss goals in mind, it’s time to build an action plan around them.
“Planning ahead is 80% of the battle,” says WebMD. “If you're equipped with a detailed plan, results will follow.”
Each evening, plan your meals and fitness activities for the following day, keeping track of them either digitally (there’s a short ton of planners available for download) or via old-fashioned pen and paper. Then do as much as you can to make things easier in the morning, such as prepping breakfasts and lunches as well as packing your gym bag.
One approach that might help is reserving time on weekends for meal prepping.
You also need to consider your plan-within-the-plan—what to do when slip-ups occur.
Everybody makes mistakes when trying to execute a plan, and you won’t be an exception. The way to get back on track is to:
- Understand why you erred by evaluating why the slip-up occurred: Did you have a frustrating encounter with someone? Did you get a poor night’s sleep the night before? Did you become dehydrated (which can mimic hunger)?
- Accept the fact that you erred without beating yourself up about it.
- Reread your original goal to reset your intention.
One way to avoid slip-ups in the first place is to schedule a “cheat meal” and one or two days when you rest instead of exercise every week.
Find Weight Loss Support
It’s easier to make progress on your action plan if you’ve got a support system in place.
“Find a friend, family member or support group you can connect with on a regular basis,” advises WebMD. “Studies show people who are connected with others, whether it's in person or online, do better than dieters who try to go it alone.”
Are your buddies trying to lose weight themselves? So much the better.
According to a Brown University study, teams of would-be “losers” lost significantly more weight. (Another study indicated that being surrounded by positive people was also linked to greater weight loss success.)
If your challenges with weight loss stem from deeper issues, don’t hesitate to include professionals on your support team.
“There are many experts who are specially trained to deal with depression, past trauma and other issues that may be standing in the way of weight loss success,” says VeryWellMind.
Ask friends and family for references, or contact the American Psychological Association.
Other professionals who may be helpful include nutrition experts such as dietitians and nutritionists.
Track Your Progress and Reward Yourself
Here comes the fun part: Noting the progress that you’ve made towards achieving your goals…and giving yourself a well-earned pat on the back.
“Weigh in regularly and keep journals detailing what you eat, how much you exercise, your emotions and your weight and measurements,” WebMD says. “Simply knowing that you're tracking your food intake could help you resist that piece of cake!”
Once you’ve done your recordkeeping, go enjoy yourself! Any reward will do, from a spa day to a day at an amusement park…as long as it doesn’t involve food, of course.
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.