Maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle is something most of us aspire to, but not everyone achieves. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than one third of the US population is currently obese, putting them at risk for diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising moderately over long periods can be very challenging. From stress to fast food, to busy lifestyles and our genes, there are many barriers we have to contend with. I see toxic thinking about weight on a daily basis in my practice.i When you think about weight in "All or None" terms, have unrealistic expectations, or define your self-worth only in terms of weight this creates anxiety, shame, or obsession that can derail your attempts at long-term behavior change.
Below are eight common "thinking traps" related to weight and alternative, healthier ways of thinking about the issues.
1. “I AM SO FAT!”
You HAVE fat on your body – Fat is not who you are. Tying up all your self-worth in your weight is a trap that makes you overvalue appearance and undervalue your personal strengths, hard work, and other contributions. Make a decision to define yourself and your life in terms of these qualities. Make a collage or write a diary that expresses the positive aspects of who you are today and where you want to be tomorrow.
2. “I DON’T HAVE ANY WILL-POWER”
This thought is not accurate. You are looking at the situation in black and white terms. Everybody has willpower. Can you think of a situation where you did persevere and meet goals, even if it’s not weight-related? Willpower is like a muscle and can get rusty from lack of use or depleted by trying to do too much. Also, research shows that the situation and what actions you take are more powerful than any personality factor in determining whether you can stick to your plan. So structure your life to support healthy living. Schedule when you will do your exercise. Work out or run with a friend or join a class to increase your chances of sticking with it. Throw out all the junk food and replace with healthy, natural fruit, vegetables, and protein sources.
3. “I’ll NEVER BE AS FIT AND TRIM AS MY FRIEND BETSY.”
The goal isn’t to be like somebody else. It’s to be the best YOU that you can be. Betsy may have a different body type, lifestyle, temperament, or circumstances. Some people have a natural liking for exercise or have a higher energy level. Others have more money to spend on healthy foods and gym membership. Research shows that more educated and wealthier people exercise more for leisure. Also, the more green outdoor space you have around you, the healthier your lifestyle will be. You can’t control all of these factors, but you can be a creative problem-solver in finding ways to exercise and eat healthy within your means and body type.
4. “I NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT NOW!”
Losing weight and keeping it off is not something you can achieve overnight. There is no magic pill or bullet to take the weight off for you. Starving yourself to take weight off quickly will likely lead to the inevitable rebound effect in which you end up bingeing or abandoning the whole plan. It’s best to build in elements of a healthy lifestyle in stages so as to make it more likely you will keep it up. If you haven’t run in a while, start with 10 minutes a day and build up. Because of media influences, your weight may be just fine, but your body image may be distorted so you don't see yourself accurately. Be sure to check out any weight loss plans with your doctor to make sure they are necessary and not harmful to your health.
5. “I DESERVE THAT BOX OF COOKIES”
This kind of deceptive thinking can get you into trouble. Think about whether this voice is really your friend? It’s acting like it wants to help you, but is actually tempting you to do something unhealthy. You deserve a chance to meet your health goals and stick to what you promised yourself, rather than a engaging in a mindless binge that will leave you feeling bad later. “I deserve” thinking may be a sign that your willpower is depleted by too much stress or demands of work, household, or parenting. Rather than a cookie, plan how you can take a rest break or have some fun time. If you really want to have a cookie, make a decision to eat one slowly and mindfully, and put the rest of the box out of reach.
6. “I’M TOO STRESSED TO CARE ABOUT HEALTHY LIVING”
This type of thinking represents an “All or None” approach to life that leads you to procrastinate and not take action to solve a problem. There is never a perfect time to get healthy because stress is a fact of life. If it’s a time-limited deadline that will be over in a week or two, it’s ok to wait, but set a date when you will start your healthier routine and stick to it. Living healthier means being creative and working with the time you have. You may need to schedule buying and cooking healthy foods over the weekend or before work. If stress causes emotional eating, it’s important to keep track of your triggers and plan coping strategies to deal with them. What you eat can also affect your stress and energy levels, so cut down on caffeine and high-sugar foods that cause blood sugar levels to crash when they wear off.
“7. I CHEATED ON MY WEIGHT LOSS PLAN AND FEEL LIKE GIVING UP”
There goes the “All or None” thinking again! It’s not the one binge that will derail you, but what you do in response to it. In life, failure is part of the journey and can create opportunities for improving your skills and approach. When you get up and back on track right away, you will go into the next round all the stronger for it. So give yourself some self-compassion. Keeping up healthy eating and exercise over the long term is difficult, especially when there are competing demands and role obligations. Give yourself kudos for trying and then think about whether you were really hungry for the food or for something less tangible, such as love and support. How can you meet that need in other ways and cope better with triggers next time around? You may also want to ask if restricting foods is the best strategy for you because there are alternatives like "mindful eating."
8. “IF I LOSE THAT 15 POUNDS, MY LIFE WILL BE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT”
It’s easy to indulge in this kind of thinking, especially when you feel stuck in a rut, bored, or lonely. But it’s actually an illusion. Unless you are seriously obese, it’s not the weight that restricts your life so much as how you respond to your weight. Shame about overweight makes you want to isolate yourself and avoid situations where you might be judged unattractive. The more you stay within the four walls of your home, the less likely that you’ll find new, rewarding activities or relationships! Losing weight will not take away all your insecurities or make you into a different person. You may gain a little more advantage in the dating game, but attraction is the result of many factors – not just appearance. And happiness makes you more attractive to potential friends or mates. So make a decision not to let your weight hold you back in life and get out there and expanding your life today!
About the Author
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and an expert in social behavior, neuroscience, mindfulness, stress, & relationships..
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