Over the last six years I have lost, and kept off, almost 30 kilos. Given that I'm 153 centimetres tall on a good day, we're talking about a substantial change to how my body looks, feels and works. I had tried to lose weight before. Many times, I'd tried and failed. And that's because there are some things that no one tells you about losing weight — things that can make it hard to reach your goals.
If you or someone you know is trying to lose weight, here's some things I wish I had known.
- Losing weight will mess with your mental health.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting to see different results.
This is exactly what you sign up for when you decide you're going to lose weight. It takes a long time to see any results. For your body to change. For those numbers to shift. And — despite what those glossy magazines may have you believe — between DOMS and exhaustion from all those early-morning workout sessions, it can also take a really long time before exercise starts to even feel good.
Throughout this repeated-doing and nothing-changing, you'll have to force yourself to get up, get moving. To make a healthy breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. To make the "right" choices every moment of every day. Even though it seems like you've already been doing this for an eternity and it's still not working.
You will begin to believe that you are the problem. You will think that you're doing something wrong. In short, losing weight will generally leave you feeling like a sad, slightly insane loser. Since you're largely having to do this all through your own sheer willpower, it will also leave you feeling lonely.
And to counter that, to keep yourself motivated, to keep doing the same thing again and again with nothing more than the faint glimmer of hope as your non-proverbial carrot stick, you have to become obsessive. And that leads me to my second point.
- It's really hard to lose (a lot of) weight and not develop an eating disorder.
Those at the greatest risk of developing an eating disorder are high achievers who have been fed a nutrient-lacking, high fat, high sugar diet in childhood. That is, the exact kind of people who are likely to attempt or succeed at losing a significant amount of weight.
Now, you know that advice: there are no "good" foods or "bad" foods; there's just food. It's really great advice. Seriously, it is. But if you're trying to lose weight, it's really hard to remember that. Because to lose weight you have to change your relationship with food, with exercise, and with your body. And, it is really hard to do this without finding yourself in a mind-frame where the "old" you — their habits, foods and activities — are associated with nothing positive.
It is really hard to get yourself in a mindset of successful weight loss without recreating these things as something you hate. And that can lead to the notion of certain foods as forbidden fruit. Of a sense of food as related to self, and emotional control, and to food as a reward function or guilty pleasure. That is, the perfect breeding ground for an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. To be clear, this is not a good or healthy thing to do. It will not help you achieve your weight loss or health goals.
But those trying to lose weight need to be aware that this outcome is a possibility. Have strategies in place to support yourself and to find a path to loving and respecting yourself. Because nothing good can come from hating yourself. Nothing good can come from developing an even less healthy relationship to food and your body. You cannot change yourself and be happy while you hate yourself. Which leads me to my third point.
- You don't need partner, friends or family who "love you the way you are" — you need people who will support you to be who and what you want to be.
You may well not be interested in losing weight. If you're happy and healthy in your own skin, then own it. But, here's the thing, "I love you as you are" actually isn't a very nice statement. Think about it — if you tell someone you want to eat healthier and exercise more and this is the first response, it probably feels like they're saying they see you as nothing more than your current body. Losing weight doesn't change your sense of humour, your love for your friends and family, or your basic personality. So the response "I love you as you are" is redundant. Even people pre-weight loss assume their friends and family love them. If you feel a need to reassure us that you do, we're probably going to wonder why. Instead, if you genuinely want to be supportive, ask "What can I do to help?" And that's going to be an on-going question, because:
- You will always be who you were before the weight loss.
It has been over three years since someone took the time out of their day to walk over to me and let me know that my body disgusted them. This used to be an almost-daily occurrence. It made me anxious to eat in public by myself. It made me feel awkward and overly-conspicuous at social gatherings. And you know what? Sometimes I still feel that way. Because you can't just switch off from a lifetime of knowing that people hate your body, are disgusted by it, want to mock it. You will always be left with the residual anxiety and mistrust of being seen in public.
The weirdest thing about losing a large amount of weight — the thing that no one ever talks about — is that basically nothing changes.
I liked myself as a person before I lost the weight. I like myself just as much now. I still exist within that paradox of sometimes feeling anxious in public. I still eat dessert and absolutely love chocolate anything. I still eat decadent restaurant dinners and enjoy pub nights with friends. I'm still happy at the same time that I feel sad and alone when I think my friends who grew up with healthy eating and exercise regimes don't understand the constant thought and work that I — and anyone who has ever successfully lost a large amount of weight — has to put in to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
But what has changed is that I am now healthy. That I do now feel stronger in my body. And that's still worth all the rest of it.