We’ve all heard the expression “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. I believe this resonates with our health as well. Many studies have shown that quick fixes such as fad diets and even gastric bypass or gastric sleeve procedures (“stomach reduction surgery”) do not often show permanent changes. The human body seems to have a “set point” where it wants to be. When you deviate from that set point, as when you try to lose extreme amounts of weight, it secretes hormones that make you feel extreme hunger or maybe even depressed which resolve when you gain the weight back. Some of these hormones are secreted by fat cells that sense they are shrinking.
Think about a long term goal that you’ve had, maybe saving money to buy your first house, planning your wedding, graduating from college, etc. Could you do any of these in 3 weeks or less? how about six months? Probably not. We shouldn’t think we could get 100% healthy in these time frames either. Sure, if you restricted your calories and lived in the gym you could probably see dramatic weight loss (like you often see on those TV shows like “Biggest Loser”), but the weight will come back.
How can anyone become and stay healthy? Just like the analogy of saving to buy your first home, we should think small. Start with the smallest changes and go slow. The key is consistency and to keep motivated.
Here are some tips to get started:
- Set a SMART goal each week. This is something that is specific and measurable. For example, “The first week of June, I will eat one piece of fruit each day.” Avoid goals which are less specific such as “I want to eat more fruits and vegetables.”
- Plan ahead, think about what you will need to do to accomplish your goal and create contingency plans. In the example above with the fruit, perhaps you will need to go grocery shopping and buy 7 pieces of fruit every Sunday. What if you don’t have time to shop one week? Maybe you could keep frozen fruit such as bags of berries or peaches (BTW they are delicious) in your freezer that you could defrost and eat.
- Pick low hanging fruit. Avoid changes that disrupt your life too much. Going from a sedentary life to saying that you are going to workout daily can be a shock to your body. Maybe instead, you can add a 5 minute brisk walk each day. I know that you probably think 5 minutes is too little, but lets remember that 5 minutes a day x 7 days per week x 52 weeks per year, equals a heck of a lot of walking! Also, you may start off with 5 minutes, but perhaps in a few months, it will increase to 15 or 30 minutes when you lose weight and feel more energetic.
- Think about replacing not cutting out. If you are a diehard chocolate fan and eat it every day, cutting it out completely may seem like torture/punishment. However, maybe if you replaced it with non-fat chocolate pudding or sugar free hot chocolate, you can still satisfy your chocolate craving without all the excess calories.
- Pick a diet that works for you. I get this question all the time in my practice, “What’s the best diet to lose weight?” I say, it’s the diet that you fits in with your lifestyle, that you can maintain for the rest of your life, and that does not cause you to gain weight or increase your cholesterol/blood pressure. Everyone is unique and we are learning more and more that our bodies respond differently to the food we eat.
- Write it down. Each week, write your goal for the week down and place it on your desk to remind yourself.
- Recognize obstacles in your path. These can be situations or even people who will unknowingly throw you off. For example, if you decide your goal is to reduce your alcohol intake (alcohol is packed with calories, and can slow down your metabolism considerably), perhaps you can avoid cocktail parties or social events where the focus is on drinking. Perhaps replace those events with activities such as going to the movies with friends, or hiking in a park. Many studies have shown that people with obese friends have a high risk of becoming obese. The reverse is true. Why is this? As humans, we like to do things that others around us are doing, a sort of evolutionary peer pressure. So if your friends are getting ice cream, it would be difficult not to eat with them. Obviously, if your goal for that week was to avoid sweets, you may have a hard time at the ice cream shop! Recognize the challenge and find a way around it.
- Be creative. Think about ways you can achieve your weekly goals.
- Enjoy each little “win” and let that provide motivation for you to keep going. Perhaps, reward yourself in a healthy way! Take time to look back every so often and see how far you’ve come and how great you feel. In my own life, I’m shocked at how many changes in my life I have made over the years, from getting “hooked” on running to cutting out red meat, and to cutting back on my food portions to name a few. Again, these changes were over the course of years of continued improvement. “Slow and steady wins the race!”