Don’t Diet This New Year! Get Healthy with Your Family Instead.
Have you made your New Year’s Resolutions yet? Are they to get fit? Eat healthier? Be happier with your body? If you’ve put “lose weight” on there, I want you to think carefully about that choice. A lot of teens will go into the New Year with a goal to lose weight. A lot of their parents will too. But here’s the thing: dieting is harmful, and it doesn’t work.
Dieting is a short-term weight loss solution that often leads to weight gain in the long run. Instead, you can support your child to develop a healthy weight in their natural weight range by making a few gradual changes to your family lifestyle that both you and your child can maintain for a lifetime.
Why Doesn’t Dieting Work?
It seems to work. At first. But reduced calorie or highly restrictive diets can be hard or even unsafe to maintain for a long time and so dieters eventually revert back to their old eating habits. And when they do, they typically gain the weight back and then some. Which leads to another diet. And so on. When you diet, you don’t decrease the number of fat cells in your body, just their size. But when you gain weight, the fat cells actually multiply. So, losing and gaining over and over can increase the number of fat cells in your body over time. These fat cells can never be lost, only reduced in size. As such, “yo-yo dieting” can set you up for weight gain in the long run.
Second, your body has a physiologically optimal weight range called your “setpoint.” Your setpoint range is largely inherited and there is nothing you or I can do to change it. It is determined by your genes. Knowing this can be freeing! This means that no matter how much you try to control it, your body will just keep returning to the weight it “wants” to be: the weight that is healthy and natural for your body. While consistently overeating unhealthy foods can push you above your setpoint range and an eating disorder such as anorexia can push you below it, in general, if you just eat when you are hungry (and stop when you are full) you will end up in your setpoint range. While we can’t change our setpoint, we can try to stay at the lower end of our range by changing our nutrition and activity level.
So, unless you or your child are medically obese and a doctor has advised a special diet to prevent or control diabetes or heart disease, it is best to make some small, gradual lifestyle changes that can be maintained over time. To find out more about healthy weight ranges for your kids based on their age and height, you can use a BMI calculator. If you are interested in learning how to set a healthy example of weight control and body image for your child, here are some useful strategies that the whole family can use together.
Dieting doesn’t work so stop doing it. Help yourself make this commitment by throwing out all your dieting magazines, low-cal and Keto cookbooks. Get rid of your diet foods, diet pills, and clothes that don’t fit anymore. Put your bathroom scale out of sight and your measuring tape away in the sewing kit where it belongs. Delete your calorie counting app. And then – don’t weigh or measure yourself every day. Doing so just fuels an unhealthy obsession with the numbers. Weighing yourself once a week or less is all you really need to do to know if you are on track. Don’t read or talk about dieting with family or friends. Ask to change the subject. Before you eat, ask yourself “Am I really hungry?” Eat only when you are hungry and eat what you enjoy. But eat and drink real foods – not diet ones.
Self-acceptance doesn’t mean giving up on self-improvement. Instead, it means being kind and compassionate towards yourself while honestly observing your strengths and weaknesses. Instead of putting harsh labels on the body parts you don’t like, try to re-label them with nonjudgmental descriptions. Rather than “giant, flabby thighs” you may say “thighs with cellulite,” or “175 pound body” instead of “grotesquely fat.” Try hard not to make any disparaging comments about your body in front of your children because these messages about shape and weight can become ingrained in their own self-evaluation systems. Be sure not to comment on their body either, except to say things like “You look strong (healthy/flexible/powerful).” Support your child wearing clothes that make them feel good. If a doctor says that you or your child need to lose some weight, focus on the health reasons instead of appearance.
The fact is, some of us are just meant to weigh more than others. On average, it takes a reduction of 3500 calories to lose a pound. But given two young women of the same age, height, weight, muscle-to-fat ratio, figure, and level of daily activity, one may have to cut back 4000 calories to lose a pound while the other may only need to cut back 2000. This is because metabolisms differ. Your basal metabolic rate is the rate at which your body uses energy while at rest to maintain vital functions like breathing and keeping warm. (Of note, a low-calorie diet can actually slow your metabolism down, so it is important to eat regular meals and snacks and try not to go more than 3-4 hours without eating during the day.)
Bottom line: you may really want to be thin but if your genes want you to be curvy, you will just make yourself miserable trying. Accepting your body with its strengths and weaknesses can help. There are many ways to work on increasing your physical self-acceptance, but a simple and easy strategy is to repeat positive daily affirmations such as “I am enough” or “My body is strong and powerful” or “I am loved and cared for” or – a favorite that I saw on a dressing room mirror – “Be-you-tiful.” Make a list and try out some different affirmations until you find the ones that work for you. Encourage your child to speak kindly about their body as well.
Determine How and Why You Eat
To determine how and why you eat, pull out your cell phone and create a new note called Daily Eating Record. Make a table with four columns: When, Where, What, and Thoughts and Feelings. (If you prefer “old school” methods, just use a 3×5 index card for each day.) Every time you eat something, write it in your record as soon as you can while the thoughts and feelings are still fresh in your head. If you’ve forgotten to do it immediately, record it at the end of the day before you go to sleep that night. You don’t need to record the calorie count, amount, or serving size. In fact, please don’t. The record should be very brief. Put an asterisk by any “out-of-control” eating episodes.
At the end of one week, take a look at your record and see if you notice any patterns. Do you eat only when it is time to eat or whenever food is available? Do you overeat at home or just at restaurants? Maybe you eat poorly when you are bored, tired, or lonely? Maybe you load up on junk food when you hang out with certain people? While your genetics and metabolism determine your body’s natural and healthy setpoint, emotional reasons for eating cannot be ignored. Analyzing your Daily Eating Records can help you discover any emotional reasons for eating that are preventing you from maintaining a healthy weight in your setpoint range. Once you’ve identified your patterns, you may be able to do something different about those emotions. Help your children learn to identify their different emotions and advocate for their emotional needs, too.
Satisfy Emotional Needs Directly
Filling emotional needs appropriately with something besides food can be difficult for a lot of reasons. First, finding food is easier than finding happiness. If you’ve been comforting yourself with cookies since childhood, then this habit is pretty ingrained. And since old ingrained habits are comforting and change is scary, it’s not surprising you would continue to reach for the cookie jar (or mac-and-cheese or ice cream) rather than go for a walk, pick up your sketchbook, or call a friend. But it’s important to meet your emotional needs directly because eating is just a short-term solution. To truly control your weight, you need to learn to control your life by satisfying your emotional needs in other ways such as relaxation or alternative behaviors. Here are some ideas:
- Deep breathing – Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breath in through your nose filling your belly with air, hold the breath for a few seconds, and then slowly release through your mouth pushing all the air out of your belly. For instructions and a video on how to teach deep breathing to your child, go here.
- Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) – Stress is often held in the muscles of the body. Slowly tighten and then relax all the major muscle groups in your body, one after the other from your head down to your toes. Squeeze and hold each muscle group for about 5 seconds, and then relax for 10 before moving on to the next group.
- Visualization – Imagine a special place that is very relaxing to you. It could be the beach, the forest, or a hammock in your backyard. Picture yourself there and imagine all the things you might see, hear, smell, feel, or taste. Breathe deeply and enjoy visualizing yourself in your special place until you feel relaxed.
- Plan alternative behaviors that will meet the emotional need – If you’re lonely, you need companionship. Video chat a friend. If you’re sad, you need hope. Watch an uplifting movie. If you’re tired, you need a rest. Take a nap or say “no” to a task. If you are feeling unappreciated, you need acknowledgment. Review your past successes. If you are angry, you need to voice your feelings. Use assertive communication to tell someone how you feel.
I’m not a nutritional expert (that’s a whole separate degree!) so I’ll keep this section short. One helpful tip is that you don’t have to eat less to control weight, you can just eat a bit differently. In general:
- Eat a variety of foods from the different food groups. The food groups include vegetables and legumes, fruit, protein, grains, and dairy (see WhatIsMyPlate). Rather than removing foods you like, try adding variety first. For example, order a salad with your pizza. Keep experimenting with variety and find new things that you like.
- Reduce fat. Try this only after you have successfully added more variety to your diet. It may take a few months before you are ready. Start by targeting the one or two “biggest offenders” in your diet – ice cream, French fries, whatever. Then substitute a lower fat food you also enjoy like frozen yogurt or veggies with dip. After a few months of success with these items, gradually replace a few other high fat items with lower fat alternatives and so on until you have reduced the amount of fat in your diet.
- Reduce sugar. Sadly, sugar has no nutritional value whatsoever. No starch, no fiber, no vitamins, no minerals. All you get from it is empty calories and increased risk for diabetes. Like you did with fats, start by targeting one or two of your “biggest offenders” and replace others gradually. Choose flavored sparkling water instead of juice or soda. Choose canned fruit in water instead of canned fruit in syrup. Choose a high fiber cereal instead of Frosted Flakes. Choose popcorn instead of candy at the movies. You don’t have to cut out all sugar and can certainly treat yourself now and then, but the typical American diet has way too much sugar anyway and so there is a lot of room to make small, gradual changes here. And those little changes can make a big difference!
- Eat more whole foods. Whole foods are raw or lightly steamed vegetables, fruits, whole wheat products, whole rolled oats, brown rice, dried peas, nuts, and seeds. Switch your white rice for brown. Eat raw carrots instead of cooked ones. Have oatmeal for breakfast instead of cereal. Eat fresh fruit instead of canned. As before, give yourself several months to gradually swap out one or two items at a time.
If you are having trouble making the above changes to your nutrition, hire a registered dietician for a professional consult and customized meal plan! Carol Bell, RD at Table Health & Lifestyle (conveniently located in my building) has helped me to teach some of my clients about healthier, more nutritious eating habits.
Here’s a truth bomb: activity has to be fun for you or you won’t keep doing it. For example, if you hate doing squats and lunges, are you really going to keep up with your personal training workouts between sessions? To make sure an activity can become part of your “lifestyle,” think of what kind of movement you like to do. Do you like dancing? Or walking the dog? Do you like yoga? Trail riding? Mowing the lawn? What types of movement could you do as a family? Maybe your kids really like frisbee golf, jumping on a trampoline, geocaching, playing Just Dance, or snowshoeing out to Empire Bluff. Have a brainstorming session with your kids for how to increase your movement as a family.
Consider too some small behavior changes like parking at the far side of the parking lot instead of circling for the closest spot, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or bicycling to the corner store to pick up milk instead of driving. Anything that isn’t sedentary counts as activity.
Proper exercise goals are to have fun, to make your body function better (more flexible, stronger, better endurance), for your health, to fight depression, to reduce stress, to make you more mentally alert, to increase your basal metabolic rate, or for companionship (walk with a friend and catch up or join a group dance class and make new friends!). An improper exercise goal is to lose weight: exercise burns an insignificant amount of your daily calories and isn’t a very effective on its own without improved nutrition. If you need motivation, make a pro and con list for exercise and be sure to include some of those proper goals.
So, there you have it! Instead of making a New Year’s Resolution to “lose weight” this year, resolve to make some gradual lifestyle changes you and your family can actually maintain for the long term. Rather than make it a goal to be skinny, make it a goal to be healthy. And if you have a child or teen that is currently struggling with weight management or an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder, make an appointment with me and see how I can help support your family on your path to health this year. With teletherapy, I’m available to families both in Traverse City and throughout Michigan.
Source: Lifetime Weight Control by Patrick Fanning.