Healthy Living: How to move beyond the scale
The start of a new year always inspires resolutions, the reevaluation of goals, and people working to make meaningful change in their lives. The most common resolution for Americans for many years has been weight loss. Every year, gyms are flooded with new members striving to reach weight loss goals. While this is an admirable, and for some a necessary goal, each year I find myself annoyed. Not with those working to set and achieve their goals, but with our society that places so much value on weight and not on overall health. In fact the focus on weight is so prevalent in our society that when I searched for an image for this blog I gave up looking as the stock picture choices for "healthy" were images of vegetables or women smiling as they measured their slim waists (thus resulting in the lack of image for this blog).
Healthy living means so much more than just weight loss. Maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly are essential components to a healthy lifestyle and they are far more meaningful than simply just a way to lose weight. There are numerous studies that show the health benefits (both physically and mentally) of eating healthy and exercising regularly. In fact, there have even been studies that show that regular, moderate "cardio" exercise may be enough to treat some types of depression and anxiety. However, this is not where healthy living should begin and end. Health extends beyond more than just your weight on the scale. Healthy living, in my opinion and the way I talk with clients about health, incapsulates diet, exercise, self-care, relationships, adaptive coping, and so much more. Finding balance in these many areas helps individuals to live an overall healthy life. That being said, as so many people have an uncomfortable relationship with food, exercise, and weight the following tips and strategies may be helpful to you when thinking about health goals.
When people hear diet, they tend to immediately associate this with being on a diet, in that, they are restricting calories to aid in weight loss. The way I prefer to think about and talk to clients about diet is the broad sense of the term. What you eat on a regular basis is your diet. Additionally, I like to help clients change their mindset from thinking about foods as "healthy" and "unhealthy" and seeing all food as just that - food! It is true that some foods have more vitamins, nutrients, and essential elements than others. This is where the "super food" myths are born and where weight loss gurus and diet companies make their money.
Is it wrong to try to consume more nutritious food items versus less nutritious food items? Absolutely not! And for many, working toward a balanced diet is an important goal. The major issue I take with this is that when an individual strays off of their "diet" or eats an "unhealthy" food, shame and guilt are an expected outcome. People will often berate themselves for being human and desiring food that tastes good, while not being the most nutritious. It is often helpful to break out of the "good food" vs. "bad food" mentality and think of all food as just food. Some food choices work to nourish your body, some are entirely for the pleasure of eating and enjoying, and some food choices will do both. Working to remind yourself that all foods provide some nourishment and food is meant to be enjoyed, can help to reduce the need to eat only "good" foods or punish one's self for eating an off-limit food.
What are some ways to think about your diet and consume a balanced diet without falling into a dieting trap?
There are studies to show that moderation, in most everything, leads to long-term healthy change. This is true with what you eat as well. While everyone should work to eat healthy foods; limiting yourself to only foods deemed healthy often creates a dynamic where people then binge eat (over indulge) in foods that they have made off-limits. In fact, when these over eating episodes happen, research shows that individuals eat more of the off-limit food than if they had simply allowed themselves to have the food to begin with. This is to say, that eliminating certain foods or an overly restrictive diet - caloric restriction or restricting whole food groups - leads to over eating that can sabotage health goals. Additionally, restriction of foods or food groups (e.g., a low or no carb diet) is an almost impossible task to maintain long terms as your body needs carbohydrates as well as fats, sugar, and vitamins and nutrients to run efficiently and healthy. Since our bodies need these various food groups, over-restriction can lead to increased cravings and difficulty with portion control in the longer term.
So what is a possible solution? This is where moderation can be used. Lets assume that you want to decrease sweets. You can make the choice to limit desserts to only several times a week rather than completely denying yourself ice cream until the end of time. Or you can eat the ice cream daily, but in smaller portions following serving size recommendations. Of course we can all benefit from vegetables and lean protein, but even these need to be eaten with mindfulness. Only eating vegetables denies your body of what it needs to function efficiently and too much protein can be harmful as well. If you find that you're having difficulty with determining what makes a healthy, varied diet you may check your health insurance and see if you can meet with a dietician that can help you build a diet thats right for you.
For those who have difficulty with portion control, a "cheat day" may be a more feasible. The idea of a cheat day comes from more traditional dieting, where a person who is restricting calories and/or food groups eats whatever they want on one specific day per week. While I still highly recommend not over restricting diet, a cheat day may be useful if you find that you cannot limit some of your more favored foods to the recommended serving size once you get starting eating. Essentially, you would chose one day in the week where you eat what you enjoy without tracking food intake. Research has found that having an unrestricted day like this actually helps individuals to stay on track with overall food goals more easily and for longer periods of time.
It is important to keep in mind that on a cheat day, you want to be mindful of not eating to excess. Overall, you're still looking for a balance and eating chocolate cake from the time you wake until you sleep, would likely not nourish your body in a ways that allows you to feel good.
Ditching the scale
A major pet peeve of mine is the emphasis that is placed on weight when considering health goals. A scale can give you one marker of health that needs to be interpreted with many other health indicators. A large number of people are overweight, but have no negative health consequences (e.g., no high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart or organ disease). Conversely, many people who are well within the normal weight limits can have numerous medical concerns. Not to mention that the scale doesn't take into account individual differences such as muscle mass, build of a body, and other factors. Choosing to stop weighing yourself and using other markers to determine health can help you focus on goals other than losing weight. Rather than focusing on number on a scale you may consider:
- Other health markers - attending medical appointments consistently and ensuring that your health is in good standing overall (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.)
- How your clothes feel in terms of comfort to determine if you are losing/gaining mass
- How much you have improved with an exercise regiment (e.g., walking further than when you began, lifting more weight when strength training)
- The way you feel when you eat certain foods - does your body feel sluggish after eating particular foods or do you feel cognitively sharp when eating other foods?
This one is cliche for a reason. You've probably heard time and again that if you use affirmations, you'll likely start feeling better. And research would support this idea. Practicing focusing on what is going well can help you in shifting your perspective and aid you moving toward a moderation mindset. Rather than focusing on "bad foods" you ate today, remind yourself of the choices you made to nourish yourself or the ways you engaged in positive self-care that day. Remind yourself about how well you've done thus far with making any changes, and remember to validate yourself by noticing how hard change is. Some people like to focus on many positive thoughts, while others might create a single positive affirmation that they repeat to themselves daily (e.g., I am working hard or progress is slow, but I'm getting there). These types of positive self-statements can aid in creating a more positive mental atmosphere.
Working to change your mindset from focus on weight loss and food restriction can be tough! Its never easy to change your lifestyle and yet, make practicing these subtle changes can lead to longer, more substantial change that benefits both your mental and physical health.