Learn how to change your eating habits while not destroying your self-esteem.
Is it okay to want to lose weight?
There’s a frequent question I hear from my patients, and it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer, so it’s time to tackle a taboo topic: Is it okay to want to lose weight?
It’s a subject that has to be approached with caution, because it’s complicated by many factors. We know that diet culture is toxic and harmful; it leads to poor self-esteem and disordered eating, and it perpetuates the harmful attitude that women are objects instead of human beings. We’ve come to a crossroads, caught between wanting to be done with diet culture and all of its heavy baggage, and striving to be fit and healthy not just in our bodies but in our minds, hearts, and souls.
Does this mean we can’t set constructive goals to eat in healthier ways, especially if we sense our current relationship with food is problematic? Here’s the bottom line: Approaching weight loss is tricky, and the only way for it to be healthy under most circumstances is as a by-product of a primary focus on better and more balanced eating habits.
Can losing weight be healthy?
Both social and mainstream media are full of inspirational “success stories” of people who have lost a lot of weight. Often accompanied by ads for diet supplements and the latest fitness craze, the blatant message is that being skinny brings happiness and makes you a better person.
Losing weight — if you need to, for health reasons — can boost your self-esteem and your body image, and it can lend you the confidence to make other changes, like employment and relationships, that can positively transform your life. Research has shown that making progress toward goals can bring happiness and satisfaction. You might feel enthusiastic about taking charge and creating the life you want to live, and it’s natural to feel proud of your accomplishments. Meeting a weight-loss goal can bring similar results.
"Diet culture has a dark side. You might feel good now, but you’ll feel worse later."
So, yes, there can be both mental and physical benefits to losing weight, but this isn’t the whole picture. There’s more going on behind the scenes of those weight-loss success stories and diet ads. Along with the benefits of losing weight come some significant challenges, too. Diets, ultimately, aren’t sustainable. Not meeting your goals — whether they’re realistic or not — can lead to feelings of sadness and depression. And diet culture has a dark side. You might feel good now, but you’ll feel worse later.
When attempts to lose weight are a problem
Weight loss can bring physical benefits like lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease, but you shouldn’t count on a smaller dress size to immediately change your life for the better, no matter what fabulous lifestyle the diet ads are trying to sell you.
Initial weight loss can feel intoxicating, especially when you’re receiving external praise and positive reinforcement. But dieting success is temporary, and being thin doesn’t guarantee happiness. As your weight loss momentum slows and the thrill of shopping for smaller sizes starts to wane, you’re still left with the difficult slog of the daily diet — and with the negative mindset that led to your diet in the first place. Worse, your weight might start to creep up again even as you’re tracking or even slashing your daily caloric intake. Dieting is unsustainable for the long haul, and those new, smaller clothes may not fit as comfortably anymore. By then, the early rush of weight loss and life changes is long gone. You end up feeling like a failure. Your body image could become distorted, and you might get stuck in the rigid thinking of the diet culture mindset.
It’s not uncommon to feel pressured to maintain your lower weight, and to overreact to even small fluctuations on the scale. It’s not like the outside world — with its many temptations of unhealthy foods — just disappears once your diet starts. There can be real social consequences for trying to stick to a restrictive diet when everyone around you seems to be indulging, and this can have a negative impact on your mental well-being.
Losing weight can also increase your risk of depression. A UK study of overweight and obese adults showed a 52-percent increase reports of depression for those who lost 5-percent or more of their body weight, compared to those who remained closer to their original weight. When you’re out of synch with your body, feelings of shame, guilt, and self-judgment easily follow, and this only fuels the dieting cycle. Mental health and emotional well-being aren’t automatically taken into consideration as active parts of a weight-loss program, but they should be.
Dieting with the solitary goal of weight loss can also lead to problems with disordered eating, which can increase your risk for more serious health problems. Did you know you could be setting yourself up for a greater risk of bone loss, gastrointestinal issues, low heart rate, electrolyte imbalances, increased anxiety and depression, and even obesity?
Frequent dieting, rigidity around food and exercise, preoccupation with body image, and categorizing foods as either “good” or “bad” are only some of the signs of disordered eating patterns, and many people who struggle with disordered eating don’t even realize the potential toll on both their physical and mental health. Focusing only on weight can encourage a poor relationship with food, and a poor relationship with your body as well. Rigid thinking that takes over your thoughts and spills over into other aspects of your daily life is apt to leave you feeling bad and at risk for disordered eating.
How to change your habits with eating while increasing your self-esteem
When you’re feeling physically healthy, there’s a good chance you’re feeling good about yourself, too. Your relationship with food plays a big part in this. Learning to eat intuitively, developing a positive body image, and cultivating a healthy relationship with food can go a long way toward restoring and building your confidence.
Everyone is different. Your journey is your own, and it’s important to focus on rhythms, habits, and practices that feel good and right to you. It can be difficult at first to give yourself permission to eat after the rigidity of dieting. But your body needs fuel to survive, and that fuel comes from food. You deserve to eat, just as you deserve water to drink and oxygen to breathe. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat as you re-learn how to recognize your body’s hunger cues and what it feels like to be full.
You can try a practice of mindful eating, where you set aside all other distractions — like phones and TV screens — to focus on the experience of every bite as you learn how to savor your food. Trying new foods is another way to bring enthusiasm and joy back into eating, instead of familiar anxiety and stress. There are no “good” or “bad” foods as you give yourself permission to eat the foods that satisfy your hunger and make you feel good. Beginning such a journey can feel intimidating, but your health and well-being are absolutely worth it.
“Our relationships with our bodies are deeply personal and nuanced,” says nutrition coach Daria LeGrand of Chomp Nutrition Coaching. “I think it is important to continually evaluate your reasons for wanting to lose weight, and to examine whether or not your ability to practice self-love is conditional on weight loss.“
"Refocusing on your health and redefining your relationship with food can take time and effort, and some old habits will be harder to break. You are literally changing your life for the better."
It’s important to practice patience and compassion with yourself, too. Refocusing on your health and redefining your relationship with food can take time and effort, and some old habits will be harder to break. You are literally changing your life for the better. Surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family, looking up to healthy role models, and working with a therapist and/or a nutritionist can also help you along your path toward improved long-term health. If you’re still wondering about losing weight, the good news is that weight loss can be the natural result of eating better and nurturing a healthier body. More important, once you’re free of the rigid thinking of diet culture, you’ll feel better about yourself inside and out — and that beats the numbers on the scale any day of the week.