Before and after pictures are inspiring. We love seeing transformation. Someone who is 100 pounds overweight finally decides to do something about it, and they actually succeed. They work hard, eat right, keep going, and after a year they look like a new person—thin, fit, and happy. Their story inspires us and we decide to become the next transformation. We want what the after picture is selling.
So we buy healthy food, order exercise programs, buy the supplements, and hit the ground running. Everything is so exciting. We can't wait to finally get the body we want. We are confident that this time it's going to work.
Two days later, we are already deciding to give up. It doesn't feel nearly as exciting anymore. We are hungry, sore, tired, and talking ourselves out of continuing. The fact that we lost a decent chunk just in those first few days makes us feel like we somehow earned a break. So we take it, deciding to pick it back up another day.
The truth is, losing weight is hard. We're told how easy it is all the time, but the process itself can feel brutal. There is a way to succeed, but we have to understand how to make it through the times when it gets tough. We have to embrace the truth about the process.
Here are four lessons I learned during my own weight-loss journey:
1. You have to stay present and win the moments.
Losing a significant amount of weight takes time. When you're in the middle of the journey, and even more so at the beginning, time can feel like the enemy. The body you want is on the other side of this chasm that is made of up not just days and weeks, but more than likely, months and sometimes years.
Simply put, losing weight is going to take time. One of the most common ways that we get tripped up on the journey to lose weight is when we decide to stop and put the process off to another time. It's an often repeated scenario: We start a diet or exercise plan, get two days or even a week in, and then make a decision to quit the plan, especially when it starts getting hard. We don't completely give up on it, mentally. We just decide to pick it up and continue it (and the journey as a whole) later. We feel good about our decision because we convince ourselves that we will still do it, just at another time—pretty much any time that isn't this present moment.
The problem is that we repeat that scenario all the time. We always put off the journey to another time. We avoid the present moment. We convince ourselves it's OK as long as we tell ourselves we'll do it later.
But if you seriously want to lose the weight—all the weight—then at some point you have to decide to stay in this present moment and win it. Nothing will change by putting it off. You'll still have to face the same decisions when you start again. Weight loss, after all, is not a single event but a series of thousands of moments when you decided to make the right choice, despite what your brain is telling you.
2. Losing weight won't always feel good.
The reason we avoid the present moment when losing weight is because we simply don't feel good. Food makes us feel good. More specifically, that candy bar or bowl of ice cream makes us feel good—at least for a time. A salad doesn't seem to have the same effect.
We know we need to make the right choice and pass up the crappy food, but our brains seem to fight us, our thoughts persuading us to eat the feel-good stuff. We've trained the brain to want certain foods that give us an immediate positive feeling. We've taught ourselves that it's normal. Changing the brain is not an easy thing. The brain doesn't like change.
So, when we force ourselves to stay strong and not indulge in those crappy foods we deprive the brain of those feel-good chemicals, like dopamine. We feel something else instead, and we don't like it. Those same chemicals are also the fuel behind that exciting motivation you had when you started. That starts to wane as well.
All of this leaves you in a not-so-fun state of mind. You feel crappy. This crappy feeling easily feeds the desire to give up, but you have to push through. You have to get past this "dopamine detox" phase and train your brain to keep going anyway.
By the way, exercise also releases chemicals that make you feel good. Trade those bad-for-you foods for exercise. It'll take time, but you'll start to crave a good workout instead of a trip to the buffet.
3. You have to stop making food a "goal."
Detoxing the brain and retraining it is part of the process. The brain needs reshaping for sustained weight loss to happen. It can get those good feelings again, but it needs to get them from a different source than food. Which brings us to an all-too-familiar aspect of the modern-day diet—the cheat meal.
Ah, the beloved cheat meal. Anybody who has ever been on a strict diet knows how exciting a cheat meal can be. We look forward to it, thinking about it all week, making it our motivation to keep going strong.
Understand something: Cheat meals are not bad. There is plenty of support for indulging once in a while. The problem emerges when a "cheat meal" becomes our reason for indulging whenever we want.
There's a strange phenomenon that seems to happen when we start eating healthy. All the food we are avoiding starts popping up everywhere. A friend's birthday, a wedding, a catered lunch at work, an impromptu pizza night at a friend's house—they all seem to happen when we are on a diet. We know we should avoid the food, but we decide that it's going to be a "cheat meal." Then the next day, we have another cheat meal. Then, pretty much every time we are presented with food we shouldn't eat, we make it a cheat meal in order to eat it and not feel bad about it. We get consumed with the fear of missing out, so the "cheat meal" becomes our lifeline.
After all, we earned it, right?
That way of thinking just doesn't hold up in the long run. It can become detrimental to the sustained progress. We have to stop making food our motivation for losing weight.
When food becomes the goal, it chips away at the mental rewiring we have been working toward. It's like saying, "my reward for eating healthy and changing the way I think is to eat unhealthy and think the way I used to." It doesn't make much sense, but it's a common trap.
4. What will happen when you reach your weight loss goal? Decide now.
Losing weight is hard. Keeping it off in the long run is just as hard. It's exciting to think about that time somewhere off in the future when we've reached our goal. Once we have attained the "after picture" reality, life will be perfect, right? We can eat whatever we want (we have room to work with now, right?), and look good in all the clothes we wished we could wear.
But then what?
Countless people have lost weight, and a lot of it, then slowly gained it back. They reached their goal, then didn't know what to do next. All of the weight loss success starts to become an excuse to indulge a little more often or pass up a workout here and there.
The truth is, that perceived euphoria we expected to feel at the end of the journey isn't quite as exciting as we thought once we got there. We do feel great for a while, but real life is still happening. Without a plan in place, we'll start to drift back to where we started. What are we going to eat? What kind of exercise are we going to do and how often? What will be our reason for staying in shape?
These decisions need to be made now, before a single pound is lost. Let's face it, losing weight—ALL of the weight—is a long process and can feel anything but easy. If we go into the journey with the right perspective, free of too-good-to-be-true wishful thinking, we can find sustained success. We CAN lose all of the weight. We can become the next "after picture."
It's tough, but it's worth it. Stick with it. Embrace the hard truths and learn from them. Lose the weight, for real this time.