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Words Matter: Helping Kids Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food and their Bodies One Word at a Time

Words Matter: Helping Kids Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food and their Bodies One Word at a Time

Photo by  Ali Inay  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

Imagine this…

Your overweight teen confides in you that he’s getting teased at school about his weight. You have noticed recently that he has been eating more pleasure foods (like chips) while playing video games. You yourself have gained a few pounds, and you’ve decided to go on a little diet. How do you manage this situation? What do you say (or not say) to him?

Helping children foster a positive body image while developing a healthy relationship with food can seem like navigating a minefield. Messages that our bodies aren’t good enough and that our self-worth depends on our looks are everywhere, while at the same time clever marketing is constantly encouraging us to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods. Body dissatisfaction is common among adolescents, and has been shown to predict unhealthy weight-related behaviours that put individuals at risk of weight gain (e.g., binge eating and reduced breakfast consumption) (1). Moreover, our lifestyles are more sedentary than ever before (2), and global childhood overweight and obesity is on the rise (see http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/childhood/en/).

You may feel like you have no power to influence your children in this toxic landscape that overemphasizes being thin while at the same time encourages overeating. Fortunately, there are some things you can do! It turns out that what we, as parents and caregivers, say about food, weight and dieting (even if we’re talking about ourselves or our friends) matters. For example, when we encourage kids to make healthful food choices, and support them in physical activity, they tend to have more positive dietary habits (like eating more fruits and vegetables) and engage in more healthy physical activity (3, 4). At the other extreme, kids who are teased about their weight in early adolescence tend to have poorer emotional well-being (5) and more disordered eating (e.g., binge eating) in late adolescence and young adulthood (6).

So how can we help children develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, while not making them feel like their self-worth is based on the size and shape of their bodies? In general, we want to try to:

  • Ban any form of diet talk and negative body talk from our homes.

  • Encourage healthful eating and physical activity habits.

  • Through our words, try to nurture an identity beyond physical appearance.

Easier said than done, I know. Check out these specific examples below, taken from and inspired by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer’s book, " “I’m like so fat!” Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world" (7).

1. Instead of DIET TALK like:
• "I feel so fat; I need to go on a diet."
• "No thanks to dessert; I’m dieting."
• "I’m so proud of my friend Stacey for sticking with her diet."
• "Have you ever thought of going on such-and-such diet? It really worked for your Aunt Carol."

TRY:
• “I’ll pass on dessert today and have an apple instead; I haven’t had enough fruits and vegetables today.”
• “No thanks, I’m full.”
• “Yes, I’d love dessert. Just a small piece please.”
• “This is delicious. I’m really enjoying this meal. But no thanks to seconds.”
• “I’ve discovered a million different ways to eat fruits and vegetables.”
• “I’m not going on any more ‘diets.’ Instead I’m going to focus on some long-term changes in my eating and physical activity patterns that can make me feel better about myself.”

2. Instead of NEGATIVE BODY TALK like:
• “I feel so fat in this dress.” 
• “I’m working out so much and not losing weight; I don’t know if it’s worth it all the time?”

TRY: 
• “My body has undergone some changes lately; I think I’ll try on something else that might fit my body better.” 
• “I can really tell the difference in my strength and stamina since I’ve been working out.”

3. Instead of over-emphasizing your kid’s PHYSICAL APPEARANCE through comments like:
• “You look so pretty today.”
• “Wow you look great in that picture. You’re the handsomest kid in the class.”
• “You’re going to break some hearts when you’re older with that handsome face.”

TRY:
• “I love your laugh; it’s just contagious.”
• “When you smile, your whole face lights up. It’s just beautiful.”
• “You have a great, unique sense of style. I admire the way you wear what looks great on you instead of what everyone else is wearing.”
• “You look so much like Grandpa; when I look at you it brings back so many great memories.”

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For more great tips and information on this topic, check out my colleague Jodie’s blog post, We All Know What It’s Like To Feel Fat. Let’s Try To Change That For Our Next Generation.

Join us…

  • In person! Come check out our workshop for parents and caregivers, Healthy Children: Body and Mind, on March 25th, 2018 from 1:30 - 3pm at the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA (Montreal) to learn more about how to help kids nurture a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Email jrichardson@connectepsychology.com for more information.

  • On social media! Follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology.


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


NOTES

  • A shorter version of this blogpost was originally posted as a Facebook post here.

  • Learn more about the research discussed in this blogpost here: Project EAT Publications

REFERENCES

  1. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Paxton, S. J., Hannan, P. J., Haines, J., & Story, M. (2006). Does body satisfaction matter? Five-year longitudinal associations between body satisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(2), 244-251.

  2. Owen, N., Sparling, P. B., Healy, G. N., Dunstan, D. W., & Matthews, C. E. (2010, December). Sedentary behavior: emerging evidence for a new health risk. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 85, No. 12, pp. 1138-1141). Elsevier.

  3. Pearson, N., Biddle, S. J., & Gorely, T. (2009). Family correlates of fruit and vegetable consumption in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Public health nutrition, 12(2), 267-283.

  4. Heitzler, C. D., Martin, S. L., Duke, J., & Huhman, M. (2006). Correlates of physical activity in a national sample of children aged 9–13 years. Preventive medicine, 42(4), 254-260.

  5. Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Haines, J., & Wall, M. (2006). Weight-teasing and emotional well-being in adolescents: Longitudinal findings from Project EAT. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38(6), 675-683.

  6. Haines, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Eisenberg, M. E., & Hannan, P. J. (2006). Weight teasing and disordered eating behaviors in adolescents: longitudinal findings from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Pediatrics, 117(2), e209-e215.

  7. Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I'm, like, SO fat!: helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Guilford Press.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat.  Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat. Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

shutterstock_277455629.jpg

I could feed you the statistics saying that obesity, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are serious problems in our society*, but I think you already know it. Why? Because most of us know exactly how terrible it feels to feel bad about our body, to feel fat compared to others, to feel judged, obsessed, and anxious about everything we eat and everyone we see. Most of us at one point or another in our lives have tried some sort of unhealthy weight control behaviour, gotten stuck in a dieting-binge eating cycle, or found ourselves feeling depressed and ashamed because of how we look. We might not admit it openly, but we know.

Why do so many of us know this? Because we live in a “toxic environment”1 for body image and weight-related problems. We are constantly receiving cues to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods on TV, in the grocery store, while driving down the street and we are enabled to be as sedentary as possible with our cars, our escalators, and our ball throwers for our dogs. And yet, within this same environment that facilitates weight gain, we are bombarded with messages that we should be unrealistically thin and fit and everywhere we look we are surrounded with images of thinness that are associated with success, love, popularity, and happiness.

“It is difficult to imagine an environment more effective than ours for producing nearly universal body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with eating and weight, clinical cases of eating disorders, and obesity.” Dr. Kelly Brownell1

But again you already know all of this, why? Because we experience it everyday when we go on Facebook or Instagram. Before we clicked we felt fine but now we feel that sinking feeling in our gut and start thinking “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not fit enough”, etc. We experience it when we’re waiting in line at the supermarket and we read the headlines of the magazines stating how this actress is now battling anorexia and how fat the other one’s butt looks in her bikini and how to lose our own belly fat in just 30 days! And what is all this obsessiveness for? So we can all continue to make the beauty & dieting & fast food industries prosper? So we can all spend inordinate amounts of time on our appearance and thinking about food? So we can all try to look the same? So we can all feel terrible about ourselves? I guess not, but we’re so used to it that many of us don’t even see that our environment is a problem, we blame ourselves instead for not being thin enough, tall enough, fit enough… we think we’ll feel better if we just “fit in”.

Maybe you want to change all of this for yourself. I hope so, because you deserve it. But, one thing that I’m pretty sure of is that you don’t want your kids or kids you care about to feel the same way that you have. You want them to feel healthy and strong. You want them to feel confident about themselves, about their bodies, about their food choices, and about their uniqueness. You want them to take care of themselves, to trust themselves and to be free to be themselves, right?

So, what can we do to mitigate this toxic social environment that we live in so that our children can make healthy choices and feel good about themselves?

Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor, researcher and advocate in the field of obesity and eating disorder prevention has written a great book called “I’m, like, So fat!”2 on how to help our teens navigate eating and body image in this weight-obsessed world. It’s a super helpful read! Here are just a few pointers from the book:

1. Model healthy behaviours and healthy body talk.

a. Model healthy eating patterns, which means eating regularly and not skipping meals. Model healthy food choices, which means incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods. If you have trouble adhering to these guidelines due to your own eating preoccupations try to model healthy behaviours in front of your children. What they see you doing is what matters most for them.

b. Show your kids how to enjoy pleasurable foods in moderation; this is a skill they need to have in this environment! When you have a piece of cake try to show them you appreciate it. Don’t say something like “oh, I really shouldn’t be eating this”. And if you choose not to opt for cake on an occasion, say something like “tonight my body feels like something more refreshing for dessert”, rather than “I’d love to but I can’t, I’m on a diet”.

c. Model healthy body acceptance. Try to show your kids a positive attitude towards your own body. Tell them something you’re grateful for about your body, for example “I’m so thankful that my legs are so strong, they helped me walk all the way to my meeting today”. Help them see that changes in our bodies over time are normal. For example find something positive to say about your wrinkles like how these lines show all the expressions your face has worn over the years. Seeing you accept your body changes will help them think more positively about their own body changes, especially during puberty.

d. Avoid making weight-related comments as much as possible about yourself or others and don’t make weight-related comments directed at your children.

2. Create a healthy environment at home.

a. Make access to healthy foods readily available. Have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand and, if possible, cut up and ready to go.

b. Prioritize family meals. Participation in family meals is related to a number of positive outcomes, including healthier diet, less unhealthy weight-control behaviours, less unhealthy behaviours like smoking, alcohol and drugs and less depressive symptoms in teenagers.

c. Don’t just encourage your children to do physical activity, do it with them. Walking, biking, skiing, going to the park… Make physical activity part of family time together. Start wherever you can and try to make it fun!

3. Focus less on appearance, more on health.

a. Encourage your children to develop healthy habits for the purpose of taking care of their bodies, not for the purpose of losing weight.

b. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for weight teasing or negative weight talk in your home. Help your children realize that weight teasing is not acceptable.

c. Help your children develop an identity much larger than physical appearance. Focus your positive feedback on other aspects of their identity like skills, traits, hobbies, and interests.

4. Talk to them, and listen even more.

a. Be there to listen and support when your child wants to talk about their weight concerns. Empathize with them, you can even tell them you know how difficult it is to feel “fat” or less attractive than your peers for one reason or another. We all feel like this sometimes.

b. When your child talks about feeling fat, find out what’s really going on. Are they being teased at school? Are their friends making comments about being fat that are rubbing off on them? Are they feeling insecure and so they think losing weight would make them feel better? Listen before trying to fix. Often in listening we can help them come to their own solutions. Let them know that you’re always there to listen.

c. Let your child know that you love them no matter what their size, shape, and appearance. That you love them just as they are. Although we think that as our kids reach adolescence they don’t care about what we think anymore, they do. We do have the power to be a positive force for them!

Come to our workshop in March if you want to talk more about how you can try your best to be a positive influence for your children in our toxic environment. And follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology if you want to join the conversation before that!


Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

1Dr. Kelly Brownell is Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also Robert L. Flowers Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Director of the World Food Policy Center

2I’m, like, SO fat! Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD. Guilford Press. 2005.

World Health Organization, Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet, Updated October 2017

Project EAT studies can be found here: http://www.sphresearch.umn.edu/epi/project-eat/#EAT1

Becker A.E et al., Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, The British Journal of Psychiatry Jun 2002, 180 (6) 509-514.

*If you’d like statistics here are a few from the World Health Organization as well as studies by Dr. Anne Becker in Fiji and Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer in Project EAT:

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.

Globally rates of childhood overweight and obesity have risen from 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016.

Project EAT, a large multi-site study of 4700 adolescents in the United States, found that:

  • Almost half of girls and one fourth of boys were highly dissatisfied with their bodies and that body dissatisfaction contributed to a plethora of problems like unhealthy dieting, binge eating, depression, and weight gain over time.
  • Girls who read magazine articles about dieting/weight loss were six times more likely to engage in extremely unhealthy weight-control behaviours (like vomiting, diet pills). Boys who read the articles were four times as likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours.
  • Adolescents with a bedroom television reported more television viewing time, less physical activity, poorer dietary habits, fewer family meals, and poorer school performance. 

When Fiji got television in 1995, vomiting for weight control purposes went from 0-11% among girls over a three-year period, eating pathology more than doubled and girls living in households with a television were more than three times as likely to have high eating pathology.

Ten things I tell my clients about weight loss…  with compassion and hope.

Ten things I tell my clients about weight loss… with compassion and hope.

With the recent buzz about weight loss after the NY times article about Biggest Loser contestants regaining their weight I took out this long overdue draft of a blog post and decided to buckle down and get it done. For those of you who have not read the Times article, in a quick synopsis it relays research being done on weight loss that shows that the vast majority of people who lose weight put it back on and that this is not an effect of willpower but of a combination of metabolism, hormones and food cravings. Essentially, the body puts in place a combination of factors that encourage you to put back on the weight and if you want to keep it off you’ll be working against these on a daily basis. This is very important for people to understand as it explains why it is so hard to maintain weight loss and counters the naïve notion that it is due to weak willpower. On the other hand, it is sad because it means that many people cannot maintain a weight that they want. So, as a psychologist specialized in eating, here is what I tell my clients who are living with obesity and want to lose weight:

1) Manage expectations. I know this is hard, very hard. I see it over and over again as the number one factor that contributes to giving up: Disappointment with results and feelings of failure when people are doing the very best that they can and not getting the results that they want. It’s true that most people who lose weight end up putting the weight back on. But, studies suggest that through behavioural modification, which focuses on teaching skills to help identify and modify eating and activity behaviors, people can lose and maintain a weight loss of about 5-10% of their original body weight. This requires persistent effort and can have significant health benefits (Wing & Phelan, 2005). And findings might be more hopeful than this as suggested by the American National Weight Control Registry in which over 10,000 people have lost an average of 33 kg and maintained the loss for more than 5 years. The biggest misconception about weight loss is that it should be do-able to reach an “ideal weight” according to BMI charts and that it’s your fault that it’s not working. This leads to guilt, shame, and ineffective behavioral measures that yo-yo between rigid over-control and giving up. It has a devastating impact on people’s self-worth, and can make strong, hard working, resilient, and smart people believe that they are a failure solely because of their weight. So, if you are living with obesity and want to lose weight the Canadian Obesity Network suggests focusing on attaining your “best weight”, which is whatever weight you achieve through healthy lifestyle changes. So, instead of buying into diet ads that say it should be easy to reach an ideal weight, look at this as something challenging that you can do if you figure out how to make it work for you, prioritize yourself and accept realistic outcomes. People do it and they practice every day to maintain it.

2) Find your internal motivation. The number on the scale is not a good motivator. It is an external reward like money, which will not sustain motivation on a daily basis. Sustained motivation comes from something more personal than an external reward (Koestner, 2008). The two types of internal motivation we are looking for are intrinsic motivation and integrated motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when you do something out of pure fun or pleasure. If you can tap into some things that help you and are intrinsically rewarding YES! Do that. For example, some people learn to really love cooking, others find out they love playing squash, some find they enjoy writing about food in their blog. However, this will not likely be the only thing that will carry you through because some things will not be pleasurable (like eating salad when others are eating fries or going to the gym at 6am on a cold winter morning), so as important or more than intrinsic motivation is integrated motivation which is WHY is this important to me? What personal value does this uphold or strengthen? Why are healthy eating, exercise, self-regulation, planning, cooking, and grocery shopping important to me on a daily basis? For example, because it is important for me to play outside with my children, travel and explore new places, learn new things and challenge myself, be a good role model for my daughter, etc. If you can find this reason or these reasons the daily changes you are making will feel less effortful. When it gets hard and you feel like giving in to temptation or making excuses or giving up entirely you will know why you WANT to keep going with this lifestyle. At these moments, because I SHOULD is not enough. At these moments you need to know why you WANT to, why this is so important to YOU.

3) Plan ahead and write down your plans. There is ample evidence to suggest that if we can write down a plan for HOW we will reach our goals we will have a significantly greater likelihood of success (Gollwitzer, 1999). Iron out your daily systems rather than focusing on your long-term goals. “I want to lose weight” will do nothing for you, except for maybe a few days, weeks or sometimes months of deprivation riding on sheer willpower. But, it will not last. The key is to invest in creating daily routines that will require less effort once they have become habits. It is an accumulation of different daily habits that will make things change. So, instead of focusing on losing weight focus on setting up a healthy daily habit like walking a certain number of steps per day or bringing a healthy lunch to work. Don’t try to break a bad habit like no more croissants for breakfast because bad habits don’t really go away (for more on habits read the Power of Habit) but we can replace bad habits with new habits that we want to have. So, if breakfast is a trigger for having a croissant, turn breakfast into a trigger for having something healthier like a poached egg and avocado on a piece of whole wheat toast with a side of fruit & cottage cheese. The good thing is that the more we do these new habits the more they will become automatic and eventually stronger than old habits. Start with one change at a time and when you feel like you’ve nailed one down (let’s say after a week of repeated practice) then move to another change in your system.

4) Plan for things that will upset your system. Because there will be things that upset your system and you will need to know what you will do to stay on track. We call these If, Then plans. For example, IF on the weekend it is harder to exercise at the gym because my young kids are at home, THEN instead of going to the gym those days I will go biking with my family or cross-country skiing or simply take a long walk along the path. I cannot emphasize how important planning is. You will not always follow your plan and this is normal and ok, but those experiences when you go off track or something comes up to upset things should be treated as learning experiences rather than evidence of failure. These experiences are the most important ones in helping us grow and achieve success. We need to adopt what researcher and professor Carol Dweck has labeled a growth mindset that rewards effort, strategy & progress, rather than a fixed mindset, which leads to thoughts like “I’ve either got it or I don’t”. So, each off-track moment is an opportunity to reflect, learn, ameliorate and create another If, Then plan.

5) Set up your environment to help you. Seriously, you have to do this. We live in a toxic environment when it comes to food and physical activity (Wadden, Brownell, & Foster, 2002). There are triggers for eating high calorie foods everywhere and the more you eat those high calorie foods the more sensitive you are to all the triggers around you. The other day one of my clients told me all the restaurants around my office in a few blocks radius. Not necessarily because she had been to them but because in parking and walking here so many times her brain picked up on all the cues for food. Another friend of mine could probably name all of the clothing stores around my office because she shops a lot and that is what her brain will pick up on. My husband sees a Starbucks everywhere we go and I spot the wine bars from a mile away :) Realize that if you have the habit of buying food, or eating certain foods you are more vulnerable to the triggers all around you and unfortunately there are a lot! A toxic amount. So, it is in your best interest to protect yourself at least for a good long while until your brain sees things a bit differently (and even then to some extent since habits die hard). So, set up your environment to eliminate cues for eating that will be tempting. For example, if you make cookies plan how many you will eat yourself beforehand, how many will go to your children and husband and then give the rest away. Do not keep them sitting out on the counter. If you have leftover pizza put it in the fridge in the basement out of your sight. Your family can walk downstairs to get it tomorrow. If you are going to a restaurant and there will be an abundance of choice go online to check the menu and make your choice ahead of time. You can even tell the waiter you don’t want a menu when you get to the restaurant. There are also ways to avoid physical activity all around us, escalators, cars, elevators, etc. so it is helpful to set up ways to ensure we get our physical exercise. One of my favorite ones is to make a plan with a friend or join a league of some sorts so that you have a commitment. Another good one I use personally is to ensure I have no car present at work so that I have to walk or run home. Get creative and find out what’s going to work for you. 

6) Figure out how to deal with the feeling that this is not fair. It may seem to you that this is unfair and you may feel restricted. If this is the case these are normal feelings to have. It is unfair, because some others don’t have to put as much effort into eating as you and appear to eat what they want when they want (that may or may not be true) but in all honesty if you are living with obesity and are losing weight or maintaining weight loss yes you will be putting in more effort, self-awareness and possibly eating less treats than those who never had a weight problem. It may help to know you are not alone in this and that others are faced with this same challenge. It may help to hear from someone else who is doing the same thing as you, and maintaining weight loss. It may also help to remember that other people who do not have the same challenges with weight have their own challenges (likely ones you don’t have) because we all have our own challenges. It will help to remember why you are doing this – your personal reason and to turn that feeling of “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” into “I am doing this because…” and remember that all this planning and safeguarding your environment is in this aim and a self-compassionate act to keep you safe, in line with what’s important to you and helpful for you. 

7) Prioritize effectiveness over fear of judgment. We do not pursue our goals in a vacuum. You most likely cannot lose weight and keep this to yourself. You will need to take the risk and tell some people for the sake of effectiveness. One of the big barriers I see with people is that they don’t want people to know they are trying to eat healthier because they are scared that people will judge them if they don’t lose weight – which is absolutely understandable. I think the most unfair thing about this challenge is that everyone can see it as opposed to a different challenge, that people cannot see as evidently. But, it is indeed a reality and so it takes a lot of courage to come out and say, “I’m eating healthier”. Yes, you leave yourself open to judgment if you don’t change physically but the fact is you will likely do much better if you use social support to your benefit. Jane McGonigal, author of the book Super Better (described more below) calls it recruiting allies. For example, at a dinner party you will likely be too vulnerable if you do not know what is coming out ahead of time so it is in your best interest to call the host ahead of time and ask her what will be on the menu. I had a client recently who told me she kept thinking it was the last course so she kept treating each one like it was her main meal. Sometimes if there are no healthy options it is in your best interest to bring something with you that you can add to the dinner party (e.g. a healthy quinoa, vegetable, or chicken dish). And it is often in your best interest to ask for help or accept help from other people. For example, one of my clients has a partner in her lunch group and they remind each other each day of something important for them (e.g., take your time when eating). Another one of my friends started a group with his friends in the morning to do physical activity before work. People who care about you likely want to be helpful but may not know how, so tell them how to help. For example, if they are nagging you about something or making you feel guilty tell them that this is not helpful. If they want to be helpful you will let them know how they can best do this when the time comes (if you want to put it off or just get them to back off) or tell them right away what they could do to help (e.g., cook that dish you love once a week and freeze a batch of it). If someone seems to really be sabotaging you or does not want you to succeed this can be very difficult – you will have to either address this with them or create a separation from this person. 

8) Get creative. This is not a one rule fits all process by any means. It is a personal journey. And it is not something that has to be a terrible struggle every day. In his response to the NY Times article about the Biggest Loser Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says, “Liking the life you're living while you're losing weight is the key to keeping it off”. There will undoubtedly be moments of struggle but don’t go into this thinking everything is inevitably a struggle. Yes, it requires sustained effort and self-awareness but get playful and creative. Find ways to enjoy your new systems. Find ways to make things that are difficult into fun challenges. Adopt a playful, game mindset about things. For example, check out Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter website about adopting a gameful mindset. She has you think of things as challenges (like in a sport or game) rather than chores and turns things like drinking water into Power-Ups so that you feel like you’re gaining power each time you do something good for yourself. I also think you can add value to things by pairing up something you don’t necessarily like or want to do with something that is internally motivating, so either something you enjoy or something that is important to you. For example, one of my clients loves podcasts so she pairs up her walk to work in the morning with a podcast episode. We call this a 2-in-1. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this (in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear) as developing your trickster mindset. Find a creative way to get something done in a way that will be more fun, and more motivating.

9) Develop self-compassion and acceptance. If your daily system is pretty good, you’re still learning and tweaking but you are pretty much incorporating the most important elements for weight loss (eating healthy and being active) you may want to learn to accept that this weight is your best weight. This is a long post in and unto itself so I won’t go into too many details about self-acceptance. I will instead direct you to a post on learning to love your body more by Lisa Linardatos (part 1 & part 2). I will say briefly that body acceptance is a process that involves developing compassion, appreciation and gratitude towards your body. Some practices that may be helpful include mindfulness and yoga. Now, if your daily system is in place and you have persistent health problems that would warrant further weight loss, please consult a trained professional in obesity management (dietitian, psychologist, medical doctor) to look over your system to see if there are any ways you can change it further (in a realistic and not life-ruining way). You may be able to improve your system by improving your sleep and better managing your stress. For people with severe obesity or significant obesity related health problems you may also consider bariatric surgery. Adding surgery to behavioral modification can help people lose significantly more weight. If surgery is appropriate for you it is something to consider very carefully, educate yourself about thoroughly, weigh the pros and cons, and talk with family members and friends about. It is by no means a magic weight loss pill, but it is a helpful tool as it works on the biological aspects that you have limited control over such as appetite and cravings. For more on bariatric surgery see Dr. Sharma’s Obesity Notes “Why I Support Bariatric Surgery” and “Why Bariatric Surgery Can Fail”.

10) Make it part of your identity. The people I know who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off have something in common, their daily system is a big part of their identity. They have become a healthy cook, an avid exerciser, an active grandmother, a mountain climber, a food blogger etc. You will not be this at first but you must believe that you can become this and act as if along the way. Too many people I see continue to say things like “I have such a sweet tooth”, “You know me, I can’t resist chocolate”, “Don’t put those in front of me you know I’ll eat them all”. We develop these types of self-deprecating dialogue as a means of self-protection: I’ll call myself out on it before other people can. But, the problem is two-fold: 1) we believe what we say to people and, 2) it gives us an easy out when things get tough. In order to be effective it helps to talk and act as if we are the change that we want to make in ourselves. So, when someone at the table says, “Anyone know any healthy recipes?” YES in fact you do, you know lots of them so share this. When someone talks about a new cross-country skiing club with friends YES in fact you do cross-country ski and are looking for some buddies to do this with. When your grandkids ask you to play soccer with them (even if you play goalie for now) YES you are interested in doing this with them. Leave the dishes for later and go play because that’s who you are (or who you are becoming). Acting as if we are the change that we want to make in our life will lead us to be that way, whether it’s sporty, healthy, an avid reader, a good cook etc. Changing your systems in a way that will result in being healthier is a challenge that takes daily, sustained awareness, effort, planning, creativity, and support so you will need to integrate this change into your person. You are not helping yourself saying and believing that you are “lazy”, “cannot resist temptation”, “don’t like exercise” etc. Act as if and you will come to believe. And remember all the times you have made changes in your life before and have come to be the person you are today! 

Let’s all band together and stop judging people based on their weight. It would make it much easier for people who are actively trying to lose weight or maintain their best weight to persist in their efforts if they were supported rather than judged. Shaming is never a helpful motivator for behavior change, so please, if you are shaming yourself based on your weight try a more compassionate attitude towards yourself and if you are shaming others based on their weight try to educate yourself about obesity and support all individuals, all shapes and sizes, in their attempts to live a healthy, balanced, enjoyable lifestyle.


Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References & Resources

Read the New York Times article by Gina Kolata: After the “Biggest Loser”, Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight.

Read this piece by Dr. Yoni Fredhoff, MD and obesity expert to learn more about managing expectations and successful weight loss: I’m an obesity doctor. I’ve seen long-term weight loss work. Here’s how. Vox Media. 

Wing R. R. & Phelan S. (2005). Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82, 222S-225S.

Also listen to: Public Webinar #1: Why Obesity is a Chronic Disease (Feb. 2016) by Dr. Arya M Sharma.

Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67. 

Listen to Connecte’s podcast episode with Professor Richard Koestner: The Why, How and With Whom of Goal Pursuit.

Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation Plans: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist, 54 (7), 493-503.

Also check out James Clear’s website about behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement. Read his free guide on Transforming Habits.  

Wadden, T.A., Brownell, K.D., Foster, G.D. (2002). Obesity: Responding to the Global Epidemic. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70 (3), 510–525.

Also visit the website of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Carol Dweck Revisits the 'Growth Mindset', by Carol Dweck. Published online September 22, 2015.

Go explore Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter website and read her book Super Better.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.