Almost everyone who’s ever struggled to lose weight will tell you this: losing the pounds is a walk in the park compared to actually keeping them off.
Most of us try to lose weight the “traditional” way—by reducing our caloric intake, often by several hundred calories per day. And we usually add an exercise program, usually consisting of strength training plus cardio. This diet/exercise combo will definitely work to get the pounds off…but unless you’re willing to keep up this regime of strict caloric deficit and high-intensity exercise for the rest of your life, the pounds will creep back, sure as shootin’.
The problem here is with the word “strict.”
Think about it this way: let’s say you are a 55-year-old woman who wants to lose 30 pounds. To achieve this, you reduce your caloric intake radically. You also strength train three times per week; and you spend an hour a day walking at an aerobic pace.
Two things will happen: you will lose weight…and you will spend a lot of your time hungry, and possibly resentful and unhappy. You won’t be able to join your friends and family for social celebrations involving food; or if you do attend, you’ll stand on the sidelines and sip your club soda with a twist of lemon. You won’t ever be able to cut loose and let yourself relax about food. You will be hungry a lot of the time, but somehow, you’ll white-knuckle your way through the cravings and the hunger pangs, because you really really really want to lose this weight, and you are determined. You have will-power, dammit! You will win, no matter what it takes.
Basically, you’ve chosen a weight loss program based on deprivation and suffering. And once you reach your goal weight (assuming you don’t drop out of your program part way through, which most people will do), you’re going to have to keep right on suffering and depriving yourself, or risk having the weight pile back on.
In short, you will need to be hyper-vigilant about food and exercise for the rest of your life. This sounds pretty depressing. And it’s unhealthy, both physically and emotionally.
Even so, it’s the basis for the vast majority of weight-loss programs, despite the fact that it ignores the fundamental principle that I’ve talked about ad nauseam here: Hunger Always Wins.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, what if you were to start out with a less-restrictive approach to food? I know that if I eat somewhere between about 1,500 and 1,700 calories per day, I’ll lose weight, slowly but steadily. (I’m five feet, ten inches tall, so I need to eat a couple of hundred calories a day more than a shorter woman my age to achieve the same results.)
The point is not the exact number of calories involved; the point is that I am losing weight at a slow but steady pace, and I can see myself continuing to eat like this for the rest of my life.
I’m not suffering, I’m not feeling deprived or unhappy with this amount of food.
Yes, I have to pay attention to what I eat, but I don’t have to be obsessive about it. If I have a piece of birthday cake or a glass of wine, I haven’t failed. I’m taking the long view, which means that the day after that piece of cake is history, I’ll still be paying attention to my food intake, and tracking what I eat.
And yes, I have to exercise, but I don’t have to freak out if I miss a class, or can’t always work out as hard as I might wish. A month from now, a year from now, 10 years from now I’ll still be exercising, and one missed class more or less isn’t going to make much difference.
A while ago, I twigged to an important fact: I have a chronic health condition. It’s called obesity. And just like other chronic health conditions, obesity requires life-long management. I manage my obesity condition by paying attention to what I eat, tracking my food intake, staying active, and being as kind to myself as I can.
I’ve chosen a path that’s not based on deprivation and suffering. It’s based on work and thought and care. It does mean I have to make choices, and be mindful about what I’m doing. It doesn’t mean I have to obsess or deprive myself needlessly.
It’s a path I can see myself following for a lifetime. And if I can follow it for a lifetime, I think I have a pretty good chance of keeping my obesity under control.