This post was hard for me to write. When it comes to pointing out problems and ranting about societal ills, I’m a rock star, but as soon as the time comes to provide a solution, I find myself struggling with what to say. The breadth of these problems and how embedded the ideas about the “ideal body” and weight are in our collective consciousness are daunting. I can’t possibly come up with a solution to a problem that huge, so I’m not even going to try. Instead, what I’m putting out there are some things you can do to help keep yourself from falling into (or back into) the weight loss trap.
Focus on Performance
This is the big one, people, because what you weigh doesn’t matter as much as what you can do. Our bodies are amazing machines. Watch American Ninja Warrior, spend some time viewing the Crossfit Games, hell, watch a soccer match. The things our bodies can accomplish are staggering.
“But Alice,” you’re thinking, “these people are professional athletes who spend 4-6 hours a day at the gym. The rest of us can’t achieve what they can. We have to work, drive kids to violin lessons, or clean the stupid kitchen once in a while.”
You’re right, they are professionals and not all of us can devote that amount of time to performance. BUT, who says that means we can’t do amazing things? When I first started powerlifting, I could barely squat 145 lbs. Now, I’m squatting over 200—and looking to get close to 250 by the end of the summer—less than a year after I first stepped into a squat rack. Sally DIED doing a half marathon and was told not to run anymore; nevertheless, she finished the Moose Mountain Marathon last year. Six people I know finished the GoRuck challenge, which involved twelve hours of crazy physical exertion. People with desk jobs run Ironman triathlons for fun. People swim the English Channel. People climb mountains. A woman who lost her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing ran it a year later. Go to a Tough Mudder, watch an Olympic weightlifting meet or a marathon. These athletes are normal people just like you—people with jobs, and kids, and houses, and families, and responsibilities. There is nothing standing in the way of you being phenomenal.
I encourage you to find something physical that you enjoy. It can be anything. Work on it for a week to get a baseline of where you’re at, set some reasonable goals for yourself, then work towards them. Ideally, find an event that you can participate in to give you something timely to work toward. Track your progress. Maybe you’ll lose weight and maybe you won’t, but once you start seeing the results of your hard work on your performance, you’ll care much, much less. You’ll also be that much stronger, faster, and healthier.
Just do it. Really. Stop. Now. Food isn’t your enemy; food is fuel. When you’re focusing on performance and making progress toward your physical goals, you need that fuel to keep you going.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make changes to your diet. By all means, if you’re eating fast food multiple times a week, cut that out. Substitute fresh fruit for sugary snacks. Consume less alcohol. All of these things will help you become healthier and help improve your performance.
To get the most out of your body, you need to provide high-quality fuel. Go for home-cooked, minimally processed foods that give you a good balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat). Diets that eliminate or restrict those macronutrients or calories won’t help you. Fat and carbohydrates are important for brain health and energy, respectively, protein is necessary for building lean muscle, and severe calorie restriction will inhibit your progress toward those shiny new performance-based goals, as well as produce a slew of other problems.
I know it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to diet these days, since there’s so much conflicting information out there. My personal philosophy has always been everything in moderation. You need to make room for dessert every now and again, and having a beer or a glass of wine isn’t the end of the world (for most people). If you want to get a solid medical opinion on diet, I recommend this article by Dr. David Katz who, in addition to being a great writer, presents the argument for food choice that makes the most sense to me.
Build Your Community
Having a support system is essential to breaking the cycle of weight loss thinking. Ideally, you’ll be able to surround yourself with people who are already past focusing on the scale, or are at least working toward getting out from under its sway. Having people around who truly understand what it means to be fit and healthy makes your journey easier (plus they’re awesome). As an example, I walked into Solcana Crossfit for an intro class the other night (more on that in the weeks to come), and ran into a friend who had just finished her workout there. After a quick—and sweaty—hug, she said (I’m paraphrasing here), “Holy cow, look at your traps! Those are amazing!” This is one of my favorite compliments I’ve ever received; much better than, “Wow, you’ve lost so much weight!”
If you don’t have a group of people who understand your new performance focus, then at least surround yourself with people who build you up, who encourage you, and who want to help you achieve your goals. And don’t despair! It might not be easy at first, but this is an opportunity for you to be a leader. When your friends start talking about weight loss, shift the conversation to physical accomplishment. Share your new goals, talk about the progress you’re making. This will plant the idea that there’s an alternative way of looking at health and fitness. Sharing your goals has the added benefit of allowing your friends and family to be appropriately enthusiastic when you say things like, “I just nailed a body-weight squat!” or, “My 5K time dropped by a minute!” Be patient, it’s hard to overcome years of training. There’s no need to be strident or rant at innocent bystanders about the damage that weight loss messaging does, that’s my job (well, my avocation).
Most importantly, be the kind of friend you want to have. Compliment people on their accomplishments, on their strength, their endurance, and their progress. When friends begin to focus too much on the scale, gently guide them away. Remind them about the positive things they’re doing, how they’re healthier, stronger, faster, tougher.
Tell them that they are more than a number on the scale, that we’re all more than numbers on the scale.