Though many people think about losing weight as a physical journey, it also takes mental and emotional endurance. And just like your body can change along the way, your psyche can, too.
As licensed psychotherapist Sarah Mandel, RN, LCSW, explains, the mind and body are connected, and if we over-index on either, we can lose sight of how the other half is responding. Or worse, suffering.
"There is an emotional component to food that can impact an individual's efforts toward their goals, eventually having a negative effect on their wellbeing," Mandel says. That's why, she says, when you're aiming to lose weight, it's important to recognize any emotional attachments you might have to food and to consider any underlying emotional issues related to eating and your weight.
So, as you make lifestyle changes and set healthy goals for yourself, make sure you're paying attention to the words you use to describe yourself and your body, as well as the feelings that sprout up as the pounds come off.
Here, a guide to help you successfully navigate the mental and emotional aspects of weight loss.
1. Check In on How You Associate Food and Feelings
Maybe when you were growing up, your mother avoided the restaurant table bread basket like the plague. And when you entered puberty, she reminded you that carbs pack on weight and suggested you follow her lead by choosing veggies over pasta.
Though our families are likely well-intentioned when it comes to food advice, our parents' predispositions cause many of us to grow up thinking of food in terms of "good" or "bad." And Mandel says most of us don't even realize we harbor these labels, since we've internalized the associations from such a young age.
As an adult, though, they may manifest in you avoiding whole categories of nutritious food — carbs, for example — because you've conditioned yourself to think they're "bad" for you. To combat this, educate yourself about how your body really uses these foods and how they affect your health, Mandel says. (Pro tip: Carbs aren't the enemy.) If this sounds like a big undertaking, it might be a good idea to work with a registered dietitian, who can give you a refresher on basic nutrition and get you set up with a healthy, balanced eating plan.
2. Give Yourself a Break When You Slip Up
For the past few weeks, you've been on top of your diet and you've made it to the gym at least three times a week. Go you! But now, it's a friend's birthday and you really, really want to have a few margaritas to celebrate. However, you're feeling extreme shame for craving something that could divert you from your weight-loss path.
These feelings are common for many people, and especially those who see certain foods as luxuries. Similar to the labeling scenario mentioned above, Mandel says this kind of thinking can lead to obsessive behavior, and it's smarter to give yourself a break rather than laying on the guilt. "It is important to develop healthier ways to view food, by recognizing the feelings associated with an indulgence," she says.
To that end, play a game with yourself: You drink some margs — then what? Do you instantly gain the weight back? Do you worry about whether you'll be able to get back on the right track if you slip a bit? Answering these questions thoughtfully and honestly can help you navigate the feelings that are really causing your anxiety — and quash any unfounded worries.
If you find you aren't able to work through the stress on your own, don't be ashamed to ask for help. "Working with a mental health professional can help an individual effectively deal with the thoughts and feelings that guide the behavior related to a weight-loss journey," Mandel says.
3. Talk Yourself Out of Feeling Deprived
Losing weight often means cutting out sweets and other high-calorie comfort foods, which can lead to feelings of deprivation. And those negative thoughts can in turn make us feel anxious or depressed, upping the risk of emotional eating.
Instead of giving in to this vicious cycle, Anna Schafer Edwards, a registered marriage and family therapist intern, suggests taking control of your thoughts.
For example, Edwards says: "Imagine you are offered a piece of cake. Your first thought is 'It looks delicious, and I will feel happy after I eat it.' But you can learn how to think differently. Yes, this cake is delicious and I will feel great if I eat it now, but I will feel so much worse after I am done eating it. This will be a short-term pleasure."
Ask yourself: Is it worth it? Train your mind to answer that question before you dig in.
4. Remind Yourself That Your Worth Isn't Defined by the Scale
Whether it's a dialogue you've had with yourself or one instilled in you by those in your circle, many people — and especially women — tend to tie their sense of worth to their weight. When the media portrays 'happiness' and 'beauty' as 'thin,' it's easy to get wrapped up in this loop of negative thinking if you don't fit the mold.
When you subscribe to these beliefs, Mandel says the weight-loss journey won't be effective or enjoyable, since you'll feel frustrated, discouraged and unmotivated. "Individuals who experience poor self-esteem and issues with their weight and body image are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression. They may turn toward food for comfort, using food as a coping mechanism for stress," she says.
What can be helpful is to change your tune — literally. Every time you start to feel bummed that you only lost one pound this week, or that someone else is making progress faster than you are, repeat a mantra to yourself. This could be something like, 'I'm beautiful just as I am and I'm working to be healthier.' The goal is to keep these negative thoughts from reccuring and replace them with positive, kind self-talk.
5. Be Open With Your Friends and Family
If you are truly trying to lose weight, Edwards says it's important to share your goal with those you love, who will be your support system. And it gives you an opportunity to tell them what you typically struggle with, so they can avoid triggering your unhealthy habits.
"Food availability at events or family gatherings can be hard to resist," Edwards says. "If you're invited to an event where food is the main attraction, you can call ahead and inform [the host] that you might not engage in eating something that will break your diet, and ask that they don't push you to eat."
This is an effective way to set boundaries and remain social without derailing your progress. Most importantly, you're setting yourself up for success to meet your goals and feel good about yourself in the process.
Read more: How to Say 'No' to Holiday Food