For the majority of my life, my weight has been an issue. My parents didn’t know a lot about nutrition, so by default, neither did I. We went out for fast food at least three times a week, and as I got bigger I would just order more food.
From ages 3 to 17, I weighed significantly more than most of my peers. I remember shopping for new school clothes when I was 13 and running up to mom to excitedly tell her that I fit into size 40 jeans (size 28 would be about average). But since I didn’t know anything else, I was generally apathetic about my weight.
Kids at school were less indifferent. They constantly teased me. Even in high school, when I finally mustered the courage to make friends, I felt I had to accept them making fun of my weight. I felt helpless. But before my senior year, I decided to take control. I wanted to lose weight before college, so I wouldn’t have to be the “fat kid” yet again.
I lost almost 30 pounds just by removing soda from my diet (I had been drinking eight to 10 cans a day) and lightly exercising. The weight came off so quickly I remember someone asking me if I was dying. Feeling like I'd shed the embarrassment of being overweight, I was excited to go to college. But I hadn’t actually learned anything about nutrition. The dining hall buffets, drinking, and lack of exercise compounded over four years, and I reached my highest weight of 283 pounds when I graduated at 22.
Before I started my first job, I felt like I had another chance to reset people’s opinions of me. I was determined to do something. This time, the weight loss started slowly, but when I started seeing results, I became obsessed with fitness and healthy eating. Over the next two years, I lost 110 pounds. But the process was very isolating and not sustainable. While I had lost weight, I had also lost my ability to be happy.
Finding a Balance
Since then, I’ve gone through ups and downs trying to find the sweet spot between being happy and staying fit. Over the last nine years, I’ve kept the majority of the weight off, staying around 195 pounds. However, happiness hasn’t come as easily.
It doesn’t surprise me to read stats that say 97 percent of people gain back all or more of the weight they lose. I’ve realized that losing weight is only half the battle—and I’d argue the easier part. I find it funny that I searched the internet for information on how to lose weight, but that it never occurred to me to look for information about how psychologically complex losing weight is.
I wish I had Googled “what people don’t tell you about losing weight” sooner, as the information is out there. Through reading others' stories and from my own experience, I’ve figured out a few ways that have helped me cope with the aftermath of dramatic weight loss. I haven’t figured it all out, but here’s what I’ve learned—so far.
1. Find the right mindset for you.
I jumped into the process with unrealistic expectations. I wanted to go from 283 pounds to looking like a bodybuilder. I followed tips from the best bodybuilders in online forums, but I couldn’t understand why no matter how hard I worked out or how closely I followed their diet, my body didn’t look like theirs.
Now I avoid these disappointments by trying to focus on myself. It starts with having an internal and non-superficial reason to accomplish your goals. Rather than constantly compare myself to others, I’ve adopted a better mindset about why I want to maintain my weight loss: I want to lead a sustainable lifestyle to keep this weight off, feel good, and be healthy.
2. Follow the 80/20 rule.
I don’t like to think of losing weight as a journey, since that implies there is an end. There is no end; it’s an ongoing lifestyle. I had to find a way to keep the weight off while still enjoying life. It’ll always be tricky for me to be OK with skipping the gym to splurge on some nachos with friends, but I’ve found making smart choices 80 percent of the time allows me enough flexibility to enjoy social experiences while still having a healthy lifestyle.
3. Ask yourself: What makes me feel good and healthy? And what doesn’t?
Every day I'm able to do something that being overweight would have mentally or physically prevented me from doing. I think about the small things, like throwing a frisbee in the park with friends or chasing my dog, plus the bigger things, like doing a 10-mile hike in Norway, learning how to ski, or rappelling into a cave in Puerto Rico. I feel healthy when I have energy. I feel healthy when my bloodwork comes back and there are no abnormal results.
By experimenting a lot, I’ve also found what doesn’t work for me. I’ve found eating carbs during the day makes me feel sluggish. I’ve found nothing good comes from obsessing over a number on the scale or trying to look like bodybuilders. As Teddy Roosevelt put it, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
4. Be kind to yourself.
When my goals were superficial or external, I lived in a perpetual state of disappointment. It was mentally exhausting, and my happiness was wrapped up in trying to achieve that elusive “after picture.” I didn’t take time to celebrate any of my achievements and instead continued to focus on what I wasn’t accomplishing.
I’ve since developed self-compassion and have embraced being imperfect (a.k.a. human). Find out what makes you feel good and celebrate those things now instead of focusing on what you don’t have or what you’re doing wrong.
5. Take time to be quiet.
It’s not easy, but being more mindful has helped a great deal. Writing daily in the Five-Minute Journal app has been a good way for me to consistently focus on the small wins and stay in the right mindset. I also use Headspace to take time out of my day and train my mind through meditation. When I find myself going against tip #4, this helps me let the negative thoughts pass and bring myself back to the present moment.
Similarly, setting aside time for self-reflection and writing down my thoughts is helpful—in fact, writing this article has taught me a lot! I still deal with issues related to weight loss; however, the more I’ve gotten to know myself, the more comfortable I’ve gotten talking about these issues without fear of judgment. For all the time I’ve spent in the gym, it’s incredible how much taking those 30 minutes out of my day to sit quietly and write has helped my health.
6. Remember: You are not your weight.
Kids making fun of me in school enforced weight as a measure of self-value at an early age. When I lost weight, my value was reinforced through the attention I got. I still worry that if I were to gain weight I would lose my value, disappointing myself and everyone around me. The problem with this thinking is while a healthy lifestyle is a part of my life, it’s not who I am. I was never the “fat kid” and I’m not the “chicken-and-almonds CrossFit bro” now. I’ve always been me, regardless of how much I weigh. This is where I am now. I'm still grappling with all of this, but I’ve never felt closer to being able to confidently say that my weight is no longer an issue.