I don’t own a scale. I dieted enough times when I was younger to know that, for me, not having one is an act of self-care. Not fixating on a number: how freeing!
So when I stepped on the scale during my annual physical last year, I was seeing my recent weight loss quantified for the first time. At the beginning of the pandemic, I, like many, set out to shed some pounds by taking up running. (Believe me, this was not my first choice among quarantine activities; my “Vanderpump Rules” binge came to an end and so did my patience with puzzles.)
At the doctor’s office, a brief dialogue took place with the nurse. She fiddled with the tipping thing at the top of the scale and then said, “146.”
“146?” I remember repeating back.
“146,” she said again. Then she turned her attention to her tablet with all my information.
This was a bit of a milestone moment. When I went on my very first diet 10 years ago, I aimed to lose 50 pounds, my goal weight being 150. I abandoned that diet ultimately — and many others after that — yo-yo-ing between 175 and 185. But look at me now, wow, I finally got there, under 150 pounds!
Except I didn’t feel all that happy. My only thought was, weird, this is not how I envisioned myself looking or feeling at my goal weight. For one, there’s a sense of finality to the term “goal weight,” like it’s an end game, and in this end game, I can finally believe I’m at a place where I don’t need to lose any more weight. But when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t believe that. I still thought I had work to do.
I also fantasized about the ways changing my body would impact my spirit. I thought I’d be more confident and comfortable in my skin, therefore moving through life with ease. Turns out, when you’re as critical of your body as I am, especially when it started during adolescence, your self-esteem can’t just magically change.
Of course, anyone who’s ever lost weight will tell you that weight loss doesn’t fix you. It doesn’t lead to a more fulfilling life or a happily ever after. Your other problems are still your other problems.
But maybe I found it hard to truly grasp that.
To dive a little deeper, I spoke to two women who underwent health transformations and have been vocal about how weight loss can impact what’s going on in your brain. Leaving my conversations with them, the same takeaway emerged.
Your mental well-being is just as important as your physical well-being.
Jacqueline Adan, 34, is a preschool teacher from San Francisco who’s been updating her now 135,000 Instagram followers on her weight-loss progress for more than five years now. She was 510 pounds in 2012 when she set out to lose weight after what she called a “rock bottom” moment at Disneyland when she got stuck in a turnstile. By 2016, she dropped 350 pounds and made headlines — appearing on TODAY — as she opened up about her journey.
In the years since, Adan had faced some struggles with weight gain, which also led to some health issues. She’s been open about all of that too, with many of her Instagram posts championing mental health awareness and self-love. She started seeing an eating disorder specialist and is recovering from a binge-eating disorder.
In hindsight, she told me, she saw how being so critical of herself took its toll.
“I never took the time to be proud of all those accomplishments and actually work on some of that disordered thinking,” she shared. “When I looked in the mirror it’s like yeah, I think I did a great job. But it was always a ‘but’ — but it could be better, but I could have lost more.”
Now, being informed about and aware of her headspace has changed her approach to weight loss.
“Along the journey, I think I didn’t make my mental health a priority,” she told me. “Everything I did was centered around weight loss. And then the more I lost, the more it became an obsession to see how small I can get. It went from being like, ‘I want to be healthy and live my life,’ to now, ‘I’m going to start restricting food, I’m going to start killing myself in the gym and try to get as small as possible.’ I didn’t really realize how damaging that was.”
Arielle Calderon, 31, had a similar reflection when sharing her weight-loss journey with me. She was a BuzzFeed writer in 2015 when she, by that point, lost 85 pounds on Weight Watchers, now known as WW. She started to write about weight loss for BuzzFeed, and posted about her recipes and fitness endeavors on Instagram, where she now has 157,000 followers.
Fast forward to July 2018, when Calderon then wrote a blog on her personal website titled “I Quit Weight Watchers And Here’s Why,” a post I told her I still think about to this day.
“What started out as ‘balanced’ quickly turned into an obsessive routine that robbed me of my life,” she wrote in her post. Another line later reads, “I was happy with the physical outcome, but the toll this took on my mental health was not worth weighing and measuring everything I ate. It was a facade. This was not unconditional love with myself.”
In 2017, Calderon had been in and out of the hospital for a gallbladder issue, which eventually led to surgery. Being immobile and restricting certain foods on the doctor’s orders, she said, “triggered this extreme mental break.”
“I was crying all the time and binging, and I just wanted to not be on a diet, but then I felt like there was no way I couldn’t be on a diet because my whole social presence was about that,” she said. “There was pressure to keep it up and it was not good for me.”
She entered a 12-step anonymous program, found a therapist and later began seeing an intuitive-eating dietitian (more on intuitive eating later), who was insistent that Calderon stop dieting to recover. She quit WW in early 2018.
“It was months of agony in terms of debating with myself if I could do this or not, if I could stop dieting, and then it was like, because she just kept drilling it in me, I finally decided to stop.”
She gained back weight, she said, but is much happier now even though “it definitely was not an overnight shift.”
“I think if I were to do it all again, I would go to an intuitive-eating dietitian and talk it through — that way of like, how can I do this without mentally stretching myself to a horrible point?”
So what now? Start by finding the ‘why’ behind your journey.
So what does taking care of your mental and emotional health actually look like? For those answers, I turned to the experts. The first among their do's and don’ts: Get to the root of why weight loss matters to you.
Candice Seti, a San Diego-based licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management, put it this way: Focus on your “why” or “the goals of your goal.”
“If we were to fast forward to a year from now, and you’ve achieved that (weight-loss) goal, what’s different in your life? What’s better? What’s changed? How are you feeling? What advantages do you have that you didn’t have before? What negative things have gone away?” she said. “Just having them get a feel for why they want this and what it’s really about. So many times people go into it without a real understanding of that.”
The two other experts I spoke two — Emily Hemendinger, a licensed clinical social worker in Denver who works primarily with eating disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder patients, and Lindo Bacon, who holds a doctorate in physiology and authored the book “Health at Every Size” — also stressed the importance of reframing your mindset away from achieving a strictly physical transformation.
“Take the focus off of an aesthetic goal,” Hemendinger said. Instead, she promotes “body neutrality.” “If we can start to shift the focus away from changing our bodies and more on like, again, how we feel in our bodies, and having more of a neutral approach, like we don’t have to love our bodies. We can respect our bodies we can (be) grateful for what our bodies can do.”
“For people who are interested in weight loss, one of the biggest and most helpful things that they could do is to challenge that focus,” Bacon added. “Recognize that if they want to achieve better health and more satisfaction, feel more comfortable with food and (their) body, the idea is to focus more on appreciation of your body rather than changing your body and body acceptance.”
If you’re struggling to reframe your mindset, this advice can help.
In her 2018 blog about quitting WW, Calderon wrote that she would skip social events in fear of facing certain foods. Adan told me that a nutritionist advised her to drop her calorie consumption to 800 per day when her weight loss started plateauing. It’s not news to anyone that diet culture is “about making you feel bad,” said Seti.
“So much of the dieting world is so negative and so restrictive and so punitive,” Seti said. “That whole aspect of dieting just sets us up to have this really negative relationship with our body and ourselves and our capabilities.”
It’s no wonder so many people are caught in an unhappy headspace while trying to reach their weight-loss goals.
In my case, I struggled with the role of exercise in my life. When I didn’t run five days a week, I felt like I was letting myself down — which is easy in a pandemic when there’s nothing but time to work out. And when I didn’t exercise one day, it then became a slippery slope of ditching on all the other days too.
“That whole aspect of dieting just sets us up to have this really negative relationship with our body and ourselves and our capabilities.”
CANDICE SETI, A PSYCHOLOGIST
Seti offered some advice.
“You need to kind of break the all-or-nothing thinking — I’m either doing this 100% or I’m not doing it at all,” Seti said. “One of the most effective thinking changes you can have is kind of embracing a more 80-20 mentality, where there really are no failures, just an attempt to reach your goals 80% of the time.”
Between Adan, Calderon and the three experts, a common practice discussed was intuitive eating. This is a concept that brings eating back to the basics. You’re listening to your body and eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. Think less calorie counting and measuring and more general awareness of the food groups that should be on your plate.
Hemendinger offered another way to look at it: “I’m more about mindful eating and focusing on eating foods that feel good. So if you want chocolate, eat the chocolate, but how does it make you feel emotionally? Do you feel sluggish afterwards? Or do you have energy?”
Calderon and Adan both said they would seek out a regular therapist or intuitive-eating dietician if they were to embark on their journeys all over again. But when help from a professional isn’t an option, there are other resources, like online support groups, journals and workbooks. The book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works,” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, was also a favorite among this group.
For those along for the journey, here’s how to help.
The cheerleaders out there can make a massive difference in someone’s weight-loss experience, but be mindful of the messages you’re putting out there. Calderon, for example, said she’d often hear from friends, “Keep going!”
“I was like, what does that mean? I felt so weird about it,” she shared. “It gives you the validation that the fact that I’m losing all this weight so quickly is like totally fine. Because to most people I look better, or I’m healthier, even though I wasn’t healthy because I was starving. And I was mentally definitely not OK.”
Commenting on another person’s body, whether positive or negative, makes an impact on that person no matter what.
“It’s external validation. Weight loss is making you valuable,” Seti said. “If somebody has lost a lot of weight, I mean, that’s something that certainly could deserve recognition. But it’s about making it so that that’s not everything, and finding ways to recognize and acknowledge people all the time anyway, for whatever they’re doing, for whatever they’re bringing, for whatever their beauty may be.”
Hemendinger even offered a script for next time the subject comes up.
“If my friend comes to me and says, 'Oh, I lost five pounds this week,' and they’re looking for kind of that reassurance of, 'You look great!' I won’t say that. Instead I’ll say, 'So, then how do you feel?'”