As a psychiatrist working with people who have food and weight-related concerns, I often hear about the struggle around weight, eating and body image. No one is immune.
However, the struggle of people who are overweight and obese carries the additional burden of stigma and discrimination.
The stigma of obesity and the related discrimination against overweight people is very real. Research has shown that obese people experience discrimination in employment, education, health care settings and personal relationships. It seems that the stigma and discrimination faced by these individuals may be causing more problems than the actual excess weight does.
Many people with weight concerns also have a critical attitude towards themselves. Harsh self criticism, however, usually leads to yo-yo dieting rather than lasting weight loss.
I've seen many patients preoccupied with weight go through cycles of weight loss and gain, food addiction, body dissatisfaction, distraction from other personal goals and reduced self-esteem. If the goal is health, rather than a specific number on a scale, we need a good dose of self-acceptance and compassion.
In an image-obsessed society, it can take an incredible amount of work to shift towards health and away from certain idealized images. The reality is that health looks different on different bodies, so making that shift can feel truly radical.
With that in mind, I present seven points that I hope will help you on your journey toward a healthy relationship with your body and food.
Overall, weight only weakly predicts longevity. Studies show that people who are slightly overweight actually live longer than normal weight people. Weight is only one of many health indicators.
Quality of diet, stress levels, fitness levels and many other factors also influence longevity. Stressing about weight can do more harm than good, so find ways to reduce stress in your life and do things that you enjoy and that build you up. Get into an activity, read, journal, walk, sing etc.
2. Establish health goals.
Instead of focusing on weight, figure out your own personal goals for health.
How would you like to feel? What would you like to be able to do? What does health mean for you? Your goals may be entirely different from someone else's. Address sleep, fitness, a nourishing and healthy diet, self-esteem, stress reduction, etc. Make your goals SMART: Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.
3. Throw out the scale.
Weighing in can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with numbers and can detract from the pleasures and non-weight related rewards of changing your lifestyle. Instead of weighing yourself, work on self-acceptance and positive self-image.
4. Ditch the diet.
Develop a long-term, sustainable healthy lifestyle and way of eating.
You're likely to abandon quick fixes and radical diets after a few weeks, and the yo-yoing of weight is harmful. Make changes you believe in and that you can stick to for the long haul.
5. Practice radical self-acceptance.
To move forward, you first need to accept where you are.
Self-hate can push you towards dysfunctional coping through binge eating and avoidance. Love, on the other hand, is healing.
While it might seem difficult, I encourage you to work every day on accepting yourself as you are. Practice positive affirmations, such as "Even though I have a problem with ________, I deeply and completely accept myself." Say the affirmations to yourself out loud and they'll slowly work their way into your conscious, even if you don't immediately believe what you are saying.
6. Stop negative self-talk.
The next time you find yourself in a cycle of negative self-talk, imagine that you're actually saying these things to your best friend. Change your perspective and realize that the things you think are OK to say to yourself would never be acceptable in conversation with someone else. Why should talking to yourself be any different than talking to a friend?
Don't contribute to the stigma of weight by saying things that are negative and critical. Positive reinforcement and attitude work better than punishment when making changes that will stick.
7. Get support.
Don't let weight concerns isolate you. Get plugged into your community and get support in your pursuit of health.
If you've experienced discrimination or are in a difficult emotional place, find additional support. Organizations such as Health at any Size and Association for Size Diversity and Health can connect you with resources and a community of supportive people or seek out a compassionate and experienced therapist or health care provider.
Stigma and discrimination can trap people in a cycle of stress, self-hate, negative coping and weight gain. Developing a healthy attitude about weight will improve your chances at breaking this vicious cycle.
Instead of stressing about how to lose weight, focus on how to be happy and healthy. While the number on the scale may or may not change, self-acceptance and improvements in health will always be a change for the better.
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