How will your life be different after you make a commitment and have the willpower to lose weight permanently?
Odds are, you will be more physically active than you are now. Exercise will be a habit, four to seven days per week. Not necessarily vigorous exercise, perhaps just walking for 30 or 45 minutes. It won’t be a chore. It will be pleasant, if not fun. The exercise will make you more energetic, help you sleep better, and improve your self-esteem.
After you achieve your goal weight, you’ll be able to cut back on exercise to three or four days per week, if you want. If you enjoy eating as much as I do, you may want to keep very active physically so that you can eat more. I must tell you that I rarely see anyone lose a major amount of weight and keep it off without a regimen including regular physical activity. I wish that weren’t the case, and probably you do too, but that is the reality I have witnessed. Please don’t think you’ll be an exception; the odds are overwhelmingly against you. Plan on regular exercise being a part of your new lifestyle.
Commitment and willpower will alter your relationship with food. You will eat to live, rather than live to eat. You have important things to do with your life, dreams to pursue, and so little time left. If you have no long-range goals and are unclear about your purpose for living, you are certainly not alone. I urge you to consult a spiritual adviser such as a minister, priest, or rabbi.
Food is a necessary and enjoyable tool that helps you achieve your goals and fulfill your purpose by keeping you strong and healthy. Chronic overindulgence is a distraction. Carrying excess baggage impedes your progress on life’s journey.
Your new relationship with food will involve two phases: 1) weight loss, and 2) maintenance of that loss.
During the weight-loss phase, you will occasionally feel deprived due to calorie restriction. Your willpower will be tested and sometimes broken. But you recover control and press on. You don’t have to swear off all your favorite foods, just limit them. You will learn to eat reasonable portions of varied, balanced nutrients. You learn to delay gratification. You eat real food that is readily available and good for everyone in the household. You don’t have to sit there sipping your dinner out of a can while others at the table eat baked chicken, broccoli, and bread.
You’re excited and enthusiastic at first, full of hope, particularly when you lose those first three or four pounds. You’re not expecting to lose six or 10 pounds per week as in the TV infomercials because you know those results are bogus or unsustainable. You’re happy losing one-half to one-and-a-half pounds weekly because you know the loss is fat, not water or intestinal contents. You’ve held a pound of butter (four sticks) in your hand—that’s what you’ve lost. And it’s quite an accomplishment. The excitement wears off after three to six weeks, but it’s easier to deal with since you knew it was coming. You focus on the long-term benefits and renew your commitment. It helps that you’re now getting compliments from your friends and co-workers.
After much dedicated effort on your part, you finally attain your goal weight. You feel good about yourself. You take pride, justifiably, in your hard work, discipline, and willpower. You look better, sleep better, have more energy, and have rewarded yourself with some new clothes. But this is a critical juncture with risk—the risk of regaining fat and returning to your starting point. You must successfully navigate the transition to “maintenance phase,” in which you confirm and solidify your weight loss achievement. This is the most puzzling, problematic, and frustrating area in the field of weight management. To some extent, you must chart your own course.
Your relationship to food in the maintenance phase will have certain characteristics, however. In your weight-loss phase, you had been converting 400–600 calories worth of fat into energy every day. Now that you have reached your goal weight and have the will to stay there, you have options. You can 1) start eating an extra 400–600 calories daily, 2) reduce your physical activity by 400–600 calories daily, or 3) mix No. 1 and No. 2 such that you increase your current calorie budget by 400–600 calories. This is our old friend, the Energy Balance Equation.
In view of exercise’s benefits, many people choose to eat more food and continue their exercise program. At this point, the natural inclination, sometimes overwhelming, is to eat more than 400–600 extra calories per day. And you know what will happen. You will need perhaps even more commitment and willpower to keep from slipping back into your old habits, into your lifestyle of the last 10 years. You vow to admit this reality: you can never again eat all you want, whenever you want, over sustained periods of time. You look at a brownie, a candy bar, or a piece of apple pie, and you ask yourself, “Do I really want to walk an extra hour or jog an extra three miles today to burn off those calories?” If so, enjoy. If not, remember what they say: “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.”
You vow also to admit this reality: you’re going to “fall off the wagon” occasionally and gain four, five, or more pounds of fat. But it’s not the end of the world. You’re not a failure. An extra five or eight pounds won’t hurt you one bit, physically. But you draw the line, stand up straight, hold your head high, and simply return to your weight-loss program for a month or two. You’ve done it before and know you can do it again.
Changing your lifestyle is like breaking a horse. You’re in for a rough ride and you’re going to get thrown a few times. But you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and climb back on. With time and persistence, your will prevails.
After you commit to permanent weight loss and maintenance, you will likely find yourself eating different types of food than your usual fare. Most people settle into a routine and eat the same 10 or 12 meals over and over. Do you start the day with fried eggs, bacon, biscuits and butter? Perhaps one of your regular meals is fried chicken with mountains of mashed potatoes and gravy. Pizza and soda pop? Maybe you like a hamburger with large fries a couple days per week. During the maintenance phase of weight management, those meals are fine on occasion. But over the long run you will eat substitute meals that are lower in calories, incorporating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. As a result you will feel better, obtain more healthy anti-oxidants and other micronutrients, and keep your weight under control.
Steve Parker, M.D.