Jessica Gray has always been passionate about nurturing and taking care of her body. That's why she became a certified nutritionist to help others realize the importance of healthy eating, teaching them how to make it a lifestyle. Unfortunately, all of that went right out the window when she gave birth to her first child and began obsessing about losing the baby weight.
"The pressure to lose the baby weight can be so frustrating and overwhelming that you lose sight of everything, no matter how much education you have," Jessica recently told Shape. "In my case, I ended up treating my body poorly for six months, trying to conform to this ridiculous standard of beauty that shouldn't have been my priority in the first place."
Like most women, Jessica found that her body didn't just "snap back" to what it was before pregnancy. In an attempt to speed up the process, she began doing all sorts of fad diets and weight-loss tricks, desperate to get back to her pre-baby body. (Just FYI, it's normal to still look pregnant after giving birth.)
"I was doing detoxes, three-day cleanses, juicing—you name it," she says. "Just a week after trying a new fad, I'd give up and move on to something else if I didn't immediately see results. By no means was I starving myself, but I wasn't eating proper meals either. And by restricting so much, I'd end up craving unhealthy foods and go overboard. It was a vicious cycle."
This went on for six months—until Jessica's husband pointed out that she wasn't setting a good example for their daughter. "My daughter was getting to an age where she started noticing and copying our behaviors, and I realized that I didn't want her to lead the life that I was," Jessica says. "I wanted to teach her to be healthy and kind to her body, not put it through hell just to look thin or skinny."
The very next day, Jessica sat down with a journal and began writing down her food goals for the day, and she kept it up until she began practicing better eating habits on her own. "I started by adding breakfast into my diet, which is something I'd been skipping for the past six months," Jessica says. "Then I made sure I had two snacks as well as two other solid meals throughout the day. No juices, all real food."
She also made a point not to count carbs or calories: "Now my philosophy is that as long as I'm eating whole foods that are as unprocessed as possible, then I don't need to worry about how much I'm getting of everything as long as it's balanced." (She has a point. Did you know that portion sizes might not be the key to weight loss after all?)
She adopted the same approach to her workouts. "After giving birth, I was doing exercises I hated and didn't have time for," Jessica says. "Now I just focus on moving every day. I get my 10,000 steps, go to a workout class two times a week. And on the weekends, I hike and bike, just to make sure I was being active every single day."
Within weeks, Jessica began noticing her body changing drastically. "While the scale didn't budge much, my body started looking so much better," she says. "I noticed a lot of fat disappear from my problem areas, like my stomach and thighs, and mentally I was so much happier and relaxed."
There's a reason why a more laid-back approach to weight loss works. First off, linking your self-worth to what you eat is always a bad idea. "Not meeting those expectations—by exceeding the number of calories, carbs, or macros—causes a lot of stress. And over time, dealing with that stress can alter or slow down your metabolism and in some cases cause a hormonal imbalance," says Mary Mosquera, R.D., at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "This can then lead to canceling out the benefits of eating a healthy meal or making healthy choices—that's something most people don't realize."
Like Jessica mentioned, putting all that pressure on yourself can also lead to emotional eating, which further eliminates the progress you think you're making. "At some point, your body is going to want some release, which usually comes in the form of cravings," Mosquera says. "The foods we crave tend to be high in carbs and fat because they light up the part of our brain that releases hormones like dopamine, giving us a temporary feeling of release. This leads to more emotional eating, which makes it even more difficult to actually lose any weight." (Here's why we should give up on restrictive dieting once and for all.)
"Putting your mind and body first is the biggest thing you can do to go about losing weight successfully," Mosquera says. "Instead of focusing on what you should give up, focus on what you can eat that will improve your health and help you reach your goals. That will help you make the changes more sustainable."
Jessica now embodies that approach wholeheartedly. Today, instead of stressing about what she shouldn't eat, she aims to live a balanced life by listening to her body and giving it exactly what it needs.
"My main goal is to keep doing what I'm doing and focus on balance as opposed to aesthetics," she says. "I think every mom who feels pressure to lose weight needs to step back and focus on what's important. You just had a baby and you should focus all of your energy on that and those precious first moments. The rest will follow. How long it takes you to reach your goals shouldn't matter as long as you're healthy."
This article originally appeared on Shape.com.