You wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it, and the same logic can be applied to embarking on a weight loss routine. A crucial component for weight loss success is mentally preparing for the changes to come. Think of your diet as a dress rehearsal for a new way of eating. Your job before starting a diet is to think about how you’re motivated, your emotional pitfalls, and the strategies that’ll help keep you mentally strong and committed to your goals.
When consulting with her weight loss clients, Becky Kerkenbush, R.D., media representative for the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says there are fundamental principal points for successfully losing weight and setting the stage for positive lifestyle changes.
Set realistic goals.
Kerkenbush encourages her clients to set realistic, specific goals. You’ll stay more motivated if you establish short-term milestones that help you make progress. If your goals will take months to reach, you may become discouraged and find it hard to stay on track. As an example, Kerkenbush tells her clients to plan for one to two pounds of weight loss a week. Make that weekly loss your focus, not the total amount you want to lose. A pound of fat consists of 3,500 calories, so trying to lose more than a couple pounds each week isn’t doable without extreme calorie reduction. Avoid trying to maintain very low caloric intake levels. Over time your metabolism may be reset at a lower level, making it increasingly difficult to lose weight.
Your goals need action plans, so take the time to sit down and list what you’d like to achieve with your diet, plus doable strategies. Kerkenbush suggests thinking about the process of achieving your goals. For example, committing to adding 30 minutes of exercise a day and swapping out sugary soda for water as ways of staying within your daily caloric limit. Remember, it takes time to accomplish goals. Part of your strategizing should include how you’ll budget the time each day to fit in your action plans.
Make a commitment.
“Losing weight is a long-term commitment, and quick fixes won’t stick. Commitment requires focus, energy (mental and physical), and strategy,” Kerkenbush says. The most successful ways to stay committed are by setting achievable goals, developing action plans for reaching them, and focusing on each day instead of what’s ahead.
Be 100 percent committed to your goals, so there’s no indecision about what you want to accomplish. If you run into problems with staying true to your commitment—maybe you discover that your diet is unrealistic to your lifestyle—take the time to examine why. Then make positive changes to stay on track.
Hone your inner motivation.
Ask yourself why you want to lose weight. Keep these reasons in the forefront of your mind throughout your diet. Think about how you’re motivated, and set up rewards (non-food) that help you stay on track. Include weekly rewards that will motivate you, and ask a friend to be your diet buddy. This way you have someone to talk with when you’re feeling discouraged and join you for exercise sessions. It’s a great way to make fitness more fun, and you can provide support and motivation for each other.
Low self-esteem can be a driving factor for many people who struggle with their weight. Poor body image and negative thinking are the banes of dieting. Kerkenbush recommends avoiding situations and people who shame or sabotage your efforts. She also encourages letting go of any guilt associated with eating. If you were told to never leave food on your plate or throw it away, think about what’s more important—your health or dumping excess food in the trash. If you struggle with these issues, consider working with a therapist to learn how to turn off your negative thinking. The tools you’ll acquire will help you for the rest of your life.
Key into your body’s signals.
Kerkenbush says many people have little connection to distinguishing true hunger signals versus stress or boredom eating. She recommends using a “hunger scale” as a way to learn mindful eating. A hunger scale determines the appetite level. It’ll help you avoid getting to the point where you are starving and will wolf down anything within reach. Misreading hunger signals can lead to danger zones in your diet. The clearer you can be about what’s true hunger versus stress eating, the better you’ll be able to manage your caloric intake.
Make a habit of pinpointing your location on the hunger scale before you eat. If emotional or stress eating is your Achilles’ heel, try the following tips to sideline this habit.
- Set up a buddy system with friends you can talk to when emotional eating is difficult to ignore.
- Give it time by always waiting five minutes before responding to the urge to snack or eat something that’s not in your diet.
- Redirect a poor snack choice to a healthy one, such as swapping potato chips with crunchy vegetables.
Have a list of activities that help you reduce stress, such as exercising, reading, or meditating. When you feel stress eating coming on, try an activity instead.
The road to success in any endeavor is through accountability. Kerkenbush says it’s important to track your weight loss. However, don’t weigh yourself more than once a week or you’ll be riding the wave of daily ups and downs. Keep a food and activity journal to track your daily intake and exercise.
There are numerous online tools for monitoring your diet and fitness that make it easy to record your progress. Whether you like to track every little thing or keep a simple record, it’s essential to make an effort so that you can analyze how you’re doing and make changes if you don’t see progress. Writing down your food intake is the best way to stay on track. So, don’t fudge on the entries and make an effort to detail serving sizes.
Create a meal plan that fits your lifestyle.
Planning your diet requires some reflection on how you live your life and your relationship with food. If you lose control at a buffet or grab whatever’s quickest to eat, consider these factors when designing your diet. Plan ahead so you won’t be sabotaged by past behaviors.
A diet requires an eating plan that reduces your daily caloric intake to the level where you’re taking in less than you’re expending. You need to do a little math to figure out that number, and then plan meals that stick to it. Do your homework to determine caloric levels of foods and accurate portion sizes.
To get started designing your meals, use the following healthy guidelines:
- Include at least four to six servings of vegetables and fruit.
- Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods.
- Limit high-sugar foods and saturated fats, and reduce sodium intake.
- Cut or reduce alcohol consumption to two drinks a week.
- Avoid eating late in the day. Research has shown that eating late in the day can make diets less effective, so try to eat your dinner before 7 p.m., and lock down the kitchen for snacks beyond that.
- Eat lean protein sources and low-fat or nonfat dairy products.
Once you’ve determined your diet parameters, you can start making portion-controlled meals that streamline your daily consumption of food.
If you’ve battled your weight most of your life, exercise may not be the first on your list of favorite things. If that’s the case, think about why you dislike exercise. Did you have a bad experience at a gym, or does walking hurt your knees? There’s a sweet spot for exercise for every person. But it takes some trial and error to find out what will work for you. If you can find an activity you enjoy, the negative mindset you had will soon become positive. You’ll see exercise as a reward, not a punishment. Adding even a short bout of daily exercise to your routine will make a big difference in your health, weight, and well-being.
Studies have shown that you’ll reach your goal weight faster and have more success maintaining it if you include exercise in your routine. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day can increase your caloric deficit by 200-300 calories, depending on the type of workout you do. In a week, that adds up to about half a pound of fat, and exercising daily allows you to have a higher diet caloric intake than someone who doesn’t exercise. In addition, exercise boosts mood and improves self-esteem, both critical for helping you stay on track. Exercise provides a stress buffer, so you’re less susceptible to emotional eating.
Remember to be patient.
If you’ve never exercised, a fitness professional can set up an exercise program that reflects your needs and lifestyle, so don’t try to go it alone if you’re not already exercising.
Invest in a pedometer, so you can get a better idea of your daily activity and set exercise goals and chart your activity. Use the same patient, progressive approach to exercise as you do with your diet. Hitting it too hard can derail you with injuries, especially if you’re carrying excess weight.
Dieting isn’t easy, but you can build a road to success by taking the time and energy to make an action plan before you get started. Think of your diet as a trip that needs to be mentally mapped out before you take off. Build in plenty of motivating stops along the way as well as options for avoiding roadblocks. The endpoint isn’t the focus—it’s the journey you go on to learn how to reboot your mindset and achieve your goals.