Running on Less and Why Weight “Loss” Doesn’t Work
by Georgie Fear & K. Aleisha Fetters
Lose. Shrink. Carve. Whittle. Cut.
For many of us, body goals are all about loss. We strive to become smaller, take up less space, and obliterate this stretch mark and that arm flab. We believe that, to feel truly visible, we must first erase much of our bodies.
Indeed, for the more than 56% of U.S. women who try to lose weight[i] every year, “wanting to feel better about themselves” is a top reason for wanting to shed pounds.[ii] “Improving appearance” follows closely behind. Many women pursue weight loss with happiness as the end goal,[iii] believing that looking better is an assumed prerequisite for feeling better about themselves. (By better, we mean smaller.)
But treating weight loss as the embodiment of self-improvement is a losing proposition. The very act of trying to lose weight makes us unhappy. In fact, in one study, every single person who went on a diet reported being less happy four years later.[iv] And get this: The least happy of the bunch were those who “successfully” lost weight. They were twice as likely to suffer from depressed moods compared to those who either maintained or gained weight. According to another analysis, five years after losing weight, nearly half of women have regained more than one-fourth of the weight—and the average regainer is heavier than she was before she ever started dieting.[v]
We aren’t happy with our results, and it’s because we aren’t happy with ourselves.
When our motivation to eat healthfully or exercise depends on the intensity with which we want to erase parts of our bodies, what can we do but suffer? This bid for loss keeps us in a constant deficit, running on less than empty. In fact, researchers point to the fact that the greatest barrier to weight loss isn’t sitting too much or eating the “wrong” foods—it’s a faulty mindset.[vi] And unfortunately, according to one survey, 90% of people don’t consider psychological well-being to even factor in the weight-loss equation.[vii],[viii],[ix]
But let’s be clear: Mental and emotional health are inseparable from physical health. They are the root of every healthy behavior.
As health professionals, we witness this play out time and time again. Women come to us, frustrated with their “failed” weight-loss attempts—tired of their eating habits, disappointed with their lack of consistent exercise, and, above all, confused. They often say, “I know what I need to do to lose weight.” But they also admit that they struggle to make themselves do it. No matter how much they say they want to lose weight, they can’t seem to eat healthfully or exercise with any consistency. They believe their inability to lose weight proves there’s something “wrong” with them. They question their willpower and call themselves lazy.
Such internal narratives are not only counterproductive; they’re wrong.
Negative Emotions Are Lousy Motivation
Behavioral scientists know that negative motivation, whether it’s hatred of our thighs or fear of future health issues, is a fleeting impetus for change. Negative self-evaluation doesn’t inspire us to thrive; it encourages inertia. If we think of ourselves as lazy or unhealthy, we’ll do what lazy or unhealthy people do. Research repeatedly shows that negative emotions erode impulse control and guilt fosters self-destructive behaviors; when we’re “bad,” we believe we deserve punishment and suffering.[x], [xi] When we disapprove of ourselves, we feel like we don’t deserve better. Furthermore, negative moods reduce our cognitive abilities. When we’re down on ourselves, we’re literally in too bad of a mood to learn how to make healthier decisions.
Weight stigma—the belief that size is inversely proportional to worth—is a pervasive social problem that results in psychological distress, increased binge eating, disinterest in exercise and healthy eating, and weight gain.[xii], [xiii] Experts in health psychology and behavior change have found that self-criticism and judgement are anything but conducive to healthy habits. Research shows that people who believe their body type affects their worth exercise less—regardless of their body shape or size.[xiv] And people with type 2 diabetes are less likely to follow their doctor-recommended diets and exercise routines if they have poor self-esteem.[xv]
Dieting, exercising, or trying to form even the healthiest of habits to “fix your flaws” is like willingly sitting for a 24/7 teardown from a nasty panel of critics. This week, let’s explore every single mistake you’ve ever made and, while we’re at it, what’s up with your hair?
Think of it that way, and no wonder you’re too busy to work out, you can’t seem to white-knuckle your way through the latest deprivation diet (conveniently masked as a detox or clean-eating strategy), and the words “get fit” sound like torture.
They’re rooted in a mindset that desperately needs to change, for our bodies, health, and lives. Aleisha and Georgie have built careers around helping women overturn the belief that successful weight loss is simply about exerting more effort and mustering more willpower. We teach women to start meeting their real needs, and we watch transformation happen. But there are millions more women out there than the ones we can coach one on one, and we feel all women deserve to hear: Wellness isn’t about giving yourself LESS.
More, More, More
Give Yourself MORE is all about changing that losing mindset so you can change your body and life for the positive. It asks, what if you stopped trying to subtract from your life (and erase your so-called “faults”), and started adding to it? What if your priority wasn’t on shrinking portions, cutting carbs, or burning calories, but giving yourself MORE—more of what you need to thrive physically, mentally, and emotionally?
The answer: You would learn to live more fully, love your body, and take up the space you deserve, mentally, emotionally, and physically. You’d create healthy habits that would last a lifetime because they’d fill you up rather than drain you. You would lose weight and keep it off—by defying diet culture.
According to research, when dieters aren’t focused solely on weight, they not only feel better, they become healthier and enjoy more sustainable weight loss.[xvi] Dropping the hyper-focus on shrinking frees up cognitive space and energy to learn how to navigate emotions, nurture supportive relationships, and discover forms of exercise that are actually enjoyable.
Additional research links rigid one-size-fits-all approaches with both weight gain and disordered eating, and those that value “listening to and trusting your body” with weight loss.[xvii] Studies show that the most effective diet and exercise plan is the one you can stick with over the long term; low-carb, low-fat, or “clean” eating plans all yield similar weight-loss results—until you drop the ball… because who would want to carry it forever?[xviii], [xix]
Scientists have recently proposed a novel theoretical framework called the “upward spiral theory of lifestyle change.” Integrating scientific data on psychology and health outcomes, they stress that the most effective exercise and diet interventions are founded in positive emotional experiences. In fact, they say that thinking a behavior is enjoyable has a far greater impact on human health behavior than the belief that the behavior is beneficial.[xx]
This gets to the heart of self-determination theory, the prevailing framework of human motivation. Its central tenet is that intrinsic, internal goals and rewards elicit greater, longer-lasting motivation compared to extrinsic, or external factors like obtaining the “perfect” body. What’s the most intrinsic of motivations? Pure, unadulterated enjoyment.[xxi]
Meanwhile, psychologists repeatedly find that when it comes to habits, it’s more effective to think of adding one or replacing an unwanted one than taking one away.[xxii], [xxiii] People are more successful when working toward gains as opposed to losses: adding grams of protein to a meal plan as opposed to removing calories, trying to lift 10 more pounds rather than weighing 10 fewer. This requires us to turn diet messaging on its head, because healthy living’s consistently defined in the negative: Don’t sit on the couch, avoid sugar, cut calories, and don’t you dare eat that dessert or drink that wine.
Cultivating an attitude of MORE isn’t as easy as saying, “I’m not going to seek LESS anymore.” Nope. It’s also going to require honesty, introspection, and vulnerability.
After all, how many times in our lives have we asked ourselves what we really, truly want or need? It can even be hard to know, because we haven’t thought about it in so long… or ever. Learning to stop trying to subsist on LESS goes against everything we’ve been told about our value as women, losing weight, and what health looks like.
It won’t all be hard work, though. We’re going to have some fun with it. We’ll flip the bird to that no-fun, no-pleasure, no-satisfaction methodology, and start meeting our needs to create healthy, vibrant bodies and lives.
You won’t do this on your own. Georgie, Aleisha, and every other woman making her own journey into MORE will be right here with you. (Join the Give Yourself MORE Facebook group for support!) Together, we’ll explore how we became LESS seekers. We’ll look critically at how our mindsets manifest in our relationships with our bodies, workouts, meals, friends and family, hobbies, and even free time (wait, what’s that?). We’ll pinpoint the areas of our lives in which we all deserve MORE, and then embark on an actionable, sustainable path toward yours.
Give Yourself MORE is about seeking the positive: claiming more space, both physically and emotionally, satisfying our appetites, choosing nutritious foods, prioritizing joy, resting more, being more authentically, unapologetically us.
Through this easy-to-follow program, you can expect to improve your mental and physical health, strength, stamina, body image, and learn to live more authentically and fully. Let’s stop trying to not be “too emotional” and give ourselves permission to have feelings, opinions, and needs. Let’s honor our bodies and learn to embrace them for all they are and do, not just for how they look.
Yes, we promise both weight loss and improved body image, but here’s the thing: Weight loss should be an effect of, rather than a cause for, an improved body image. Your weight doesn’t determine your worth.
But if you want to lose weight, rest assured yours is a valid goal and doesn’t mean you don’t love or appreciate yourself. It’s often implied that loving your body and wanting to change it are mutually exclusive. But, when we love something, we want what’s best for it. When we truly love our bodies, we want to care for them and ensure their health and well-being.
Starting now, you’re going to learn how to be more generous with yourself and treat your body in the way it deserves. The results will blow you away.
- Emotional and binge eating being a thing of the past
- Confidence to stride down the sidewalk with self-assured grace, whether you’re wearing haute couture or your college sweatpants
- No longer worrying what people at the gym—or anywhere, for that matter—think of you
- Waking up feeling rested, keen to get out of bed, and full of energy
- Having so much fun getting stronger that you look forward to your workouts
- Never again feeling the urge to sneak food or eat in secret
- A shorter to-do list and more opportunities for meaningful experiences with others—and even “me time”
All of these things happen when you give yourself MORE. And they’re just the start. Together, let’s discover all that you can gain by embracing your MORE.
[i] Martin, C.B., Herrick, K. A., Sarafrazi, N., Ogden, C. L. Attempts to lose weight among adults in the United States, 2013–2016. NCHS Data Brief, no 313. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2018.
[ii] LaRose, J. G., Leahey, T. M., Hill, J. O., & Wing, R. R. (2013). Differences in motivations and weight loss behaviors in young adults and older adults in the National Weight Control Registry. Obesity, 21(3), 449-453.
[iii] O’Brien, K., Venn, B. J., Perry, T., Green, T. J., Aitken, W., & Bradshaw, A. (2007). Reasons for wanting to lose weight: different strokes for different folks. Eating Behaviors, 8(1), 132-135.
[iv] Jackson, S. E., Steptoe, A., Beeken, R. J., Kivimaki, M., & Wardle, J. (2014). Psychological changes following weight loss in overweight and obese adults: a prospective cohort study. PloS one, 9(8), e104552.
[v] Phelan, S., Wing, R. R., Loria, C. M., Kim, Y., & Lewis, C. E. (2010). Prevalence and predictors of weight-loss maintenance in a biracial cohort: results from the coronary artery risk development in young adults study. American journal of preventive medicine, 39(6), 546-554.
[vi] Rogerson, D., Soltani, H., & Copeland, R. (2016). The weight-loss experience: a qualitative exploration. BMC public health, 16(1), 371.
[vii] Lose Weight By Focusing On Mental Health First (2015) Orlando Health. Retrieved from: http://oh.multimedia-newsroom.com/index.php/2015/12/01/lose-weight-by-focusing-on-mental-health-first/ [article]
[viii] Lose Weight By Focusing On Mental Health First (2015) Orlando Health. Retrieved from: http://oh.multimedia-newsroom.com/index.php/2015/12/01/lose-weight-by-focusing-on-mental-health-first/ [article]
[ix] Lose Weight By Focusing On Mental Health First (2015) Orlando Health. Retrieved from: http://oh.multimedia-newsroom.com/index.php/2015/12/01/lose-weight-by-focusing-on-mental-health-first/ [article]
[x] Piers, G., & Singer, M. B. (1953). Shame and guilt: A psychoanalytic and a cultural study (Vol. 86). Springfield, Ill: Thomas.
[xi] Tice, D. M., Bratslavsky, E., & Baumeister, R. F. (2001). Emotional distress regulation takes precedence over impulse control: If you feel bad, do it!. Journal of personality and social psychology, 80(1), 53.
[xii] Vartanian, L. R., & Porter, A. M. (2016). Weight stigma and eating behavior: a review of the literature. Appetite, 102, 3-14.
[xiii] Jackson, S. E., Kirschbaum, C., & Steptoe, A. (2016, December). Perceived weight discrimination and chronic stress. UK Society for Behavioural Medicine Annual Scientific Meeting 2016.
[xiv] Vartanian, L. R., & Novak, S. A. (2011). Internalized societal attitudes moderate the impact of weight stigma on avoidance of exercise. Obesity, 19(4), 757-762.
[xv] Rivera-Hernandez, M. (2014). Depression, self-esteem, diabetes care and self-care behaviors among middle-aged and older Mexicans. Diabetes research and clinical practice, 105(1), 70-78.
[xvi] Bacon, L., Stern, J. S., Van Loan, M. D., & Keim, N. L. (2005). Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105(6), 929-936.
[xvii] Carraça, E. V., Silva, M. N., Markland, D., Vieira, P. N., Minderico, C. S., Sardinha, L. B., & Teixeira, P. J. (2011). Body image change and improved eating self-regulation in a weight management intervention in women. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8(1), 75.
[xviii] Johnston, B. C., Kanters, S., Bandayrel, K., Wu, P., Naji, F., Siemieniuk, R. A., … & Jansen, J. P. (2014). Comparison of weight loss among named diet programs in overweight and obese adults: a meta-analysis. Jama, 312(9), 923-933.
[xix] Dansinger, M. L., Gleason, J. A., Griffith, J. L., Selker, H. P., & Schaefer, E. J. (2005). Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for weight loss and heart disease risk reduction: a randomized trial. Jama, 293(1), 43-53.
[xx] Van Cappellen, P., Rice, E. L., Catalino, L. I., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2018). Positive affective processes underlie positive health behaviour change. Psychology & health, 33(1), 77-97.
[xxii] Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(sup1), S137-S158.
[xxiii] Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Br J Gen Pract, 62(605), 664-666.