To Lose Weight and Keep it Off, Think Like a Parent
The hardest part about losing weight is making sure you don’t gain it back. Studies have shown that at least 80 percent of people who have lost weight eventually regain it. Ugh, right? It’s happened to me.
There are psychological reasons for this slippery slope: Having deprived yourself of your favorite foods to shed pounds, you’re ready to indulge a little (ice cream! chips and salsa!). But there are also physical reasons: Once you’re thinner, your body requires fewer calories every day for energy, and your metabolism is slower—so you need to eat even less than you used to, says Dr. David Levenson, author of the new book Maintaining Your Weight Loss: A Mindfulness-Based Guide to the Adventure of a Lifetime.
As a physician who’s spent his career helping patients manage their weight, Dr. Levenson believes that the most successful strategy is act like a good parent—to yourself. Our recent conversation about this was a real aha moment for me, so I wanted to share his wise insights.
How does parenting relate to weight? Look at what research has found about the effectiveness of different parenting styles. Children do best when they have authoritative parents—who are loving and understanding, but who also set and stick to limits. Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, enforce very strict rules and often harsh punishments, while permissive parents basically let their kids do whatever they want. You can probably see where I’m going here. Consider the similarities in these guidelines…
Don’t criticize. Moms who start gaining weight—or who are frustrated that they can’t lose it—are often critical of themselves. “You may say brutal things to yourself that you’d never say to anyone else,” says Dr. Levenson. Criticizing your child when he’s struggling with a challenge won’t “toughen him up” or get him to work harder; it’ll just make him feel worse and want to give up. Instead, you can motivate him by encouraging him and brainstorming about how he might improve. By the same token, beating yourself up about how big your butt looks will only make you anxious, guilty, and likely to eat a big bag of potato chips. “You are your own best role model,” says Dr. Levenson. “Think about how you spontaneously treat those you love who are in distress.”
Be kind. If you have a setback (or a bagel), forgive yourself. “You’re not cheating, you’re just eating,” says Dr. Levenson. After all, you wouldn’t want your child to think that you won’t love her as much if she messes up. You want her to try her best and not dwell on her failures. “A calm, clear-thinking, objective mind, with appreciation for your hard work plus a little kindness and compassion will help you get back on track,” says Dr. Levenson. Positive reinforcement is more powerful than punishment.
Make reasonable rules. Kids need limits so they know how to behave. It makes them feel safe. Once you’ve lost the weight you want, you can’t just go back to your old eating habits, but you also want to be able to have a piece of birthday cake. You need new rules. Here’s Dr. Levenson’s plan: Stick to your weight-loss plan for six days of the week and on the seventh day, sensibly increase your calories. Weigh yourself at least three times a week. After 14 days, if you haven’t gained weight, you can have two “sensible eating days.” If you gain more than two pounds, take away a sensible eating day and add a weight-loss day. Any time you’ve gained three pounds, resume your weight loss diet every day until you lose all three pounds. “Our patients have found this system easy to follow, more effective, and significantly less stressful than trying to eat sensibly seven days each week,” he says.
Have realistic expectations. When you’re trying to lose weight, don’t focus on a specific number on the scale or size of jeans. Set small goals for yourself (five pounds at a time) and then see how you feel and if you can maintain that weight for a few weeks. “If you can’t lose as much weight as you wanted or keep it off, you need to come to terms with the fact that’s not what your body wants to do,” says Dr. Levenson. You can deal with the fact that your child may never be the fastest swimmer on the team or always get straight A’s.
Create a safe environment. Just like you childproof your home to prevent accidents, set up your kitchen to help you avoid temptation. If you have a trigger food (mine is pretzels) and you can’t eat just one, try to keep it out of your house. If you’re going to buy your kids a box of cookies, choose the kind you don’t like. Keep cut-up fruit and vegetables in the fridge. Of course, this is good for the whole family.
Focus on the big picture. Taking good care of yourself and your children can require willpower. As parents we face countless chores and choices that are not easy or fun—but hopefully we do what’s best for our kids’ long-term health and happiness most of the time.
Remember that tomorrow is another day. You’ll have a new chance to eat smarter or exercise. If you yell at your kids, you can always do better. After all, parenting is an endurance sport.
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