Why weight loss is a not the best goal - and what to aim at instead
If a scientist were running a global project to get humans to gain weight, we’d have to say that the experiment has been a massive success. For much of the world’s population weight gain has become inevitable - and without any training or special equipment or support groups, without setting any goals or taking any measurements or any resolutions. Many people have steadily put on weight every year of their lives.
Of course we’re not part of a global experiment but looking at things this way can help us understand that modern life is designed to help people eat more and exercise less - as a result they gain weight without even thinking about it.
The grail of weight loss is an illusion that causes dieters to fail
Weight loss can create a mind-set that actually causes us to fail at the very goal we desire. Why? It’s easy to become obsessed with losing the right number of pounds or grams. This can cause us to enter into lifestyles that we can’t sustain; a ‘bikini diet’ is the perfect example. Such extreme calorie restriction diets suggest that we can lose enough weight to look good in swimwear and that might be true. But what those diets don’t tell us is how we’ll feel and look six months down the line when we’ve gained all that weight back, and we also start to despise ourselves for our lack of willpower and begin to believe we are ‘doomed to fail’.
The problems with weight loss goals
- Choosing a target weight may not be logical - we all have different metabolisms so an ‘ideal weight’ for one person may be different for another, even if they are the same height and build
- Muscle weighs more than fat, so sometimes we can actually ‘gain’ weight whilst becoming healthier and losing fat.
- Getting down to a weight is possible - staying there can be impossible if we haven’t altered our behaviors to reward ourselves for changing our lifestyle
- Obsession can lead to depression - for some of us, fighting to get to a set weight can damage our emotional and even mental wellbeing as we punish ourselves with extreme calorie restriction and beat ourselves up if we ‘slip’ or ‘binge’. It also makes us no fun to be around!
Better goals for weight loss success
Oddly enough, setting different goals can lead to substantial and sustainable weight loss. Here’s why:
Goals we can sustain for a lifetime lead to altered eating patterns
If we set the goal, for example, of completing a couch to 5k run program, we tend to change a lot of things: our exercise levels, our diet, our clothes, the people we spend time with, the feedback we get about ourselves. … as a result we will be drinking more water because we’ve been sweating out the miles, we have seen our ability to cover a distance improve, we might have found surprising side-effects like being able to tie our shoelaces easier as we become more supple and more slender and we’ve probably been given massive emotional and physical support by other runners. This feedback is likely to keep us running - maybe we’ll aim for a longer race, perhaps even consider a marathon - and so our daily life will have become that of a runner rather than that of somebody trying to lose weight.
Lifestyle goals can be more rewarding than weight loss goals
How does it feel when we get down to our target weight? Awesome, isn’t it? But how does it feel three weeks later when everybody around us is pigging out on pizza and we’re still eating salad without dressing and feeling left out? It’s not much fun. The problem with weight loss goals is that there’s an inevitable gloom and misery to having achieved them. There’s no reward for long term weight maintenance that doesn’t feel like a punishment.
On the other hand lifestyle goals - for example being able to walk three miles in your lunch break within three months of starting, or even the simple goal of aiming to treat your body better within a month, tend to make us feel good about our achievements. These goals lead to changed habits (what behavioral scientists call ‘processes’) that can be maintained for a lifetime and they also contain their own rewards - they don’t punish us for our achievement.
By choosing goals other than weight loss targets, we can actually keep off the weight and enjoy life more.
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