Case in point: Chevese Turner, 45, founder and CEO of the Binge Eating Disorder Association, describes herself as a larger person who’s had weight concerns her entire life—but she (and her doctor) also consider Turner to be remarkably healthy. “I don’t have diabetes, I don’t have high blood pressure, my cholesterol is perfect,” she says. “My biggest problem is fatigue from running two businesses and having two kids! I move five days a week, sometimes even more. I swim once or twice a week—it’s my absolute favorite thing to do. Other days I walk on the treadmill or outside. I joined a tennis league. I love Zumba. I mix it up.”
One key for Turner was finding a doctor who could be a partner in her health journey instead of simply pestering her to lose weight. She had obsessed about weight and dieting for years and all that had done in the end was worsen her binge eating disorder and leave her body even heavier, she says. “Together, my doctor and I track my blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, and I do my part to stay healthy every day,” says Turner.
She also tries to incorporate as many healthy foods into her diet as possible, but has decided not to directly focus on losing weight anymore. Even though Turner’s weight may not be in the “normal” range on a national chart, both she and her doctor feel it’s fine for her, both physically and emotionally.
How to Slim Down Happily
Of course, plenty of people do need to lose weight for their health—and it helps to get your head in the right place when you set out to do it. “It’s important to get rid of the diet mentality; this really has to be about lifestyle change and maintaining these changes over time,” says Puhl. “Real weight loss is something that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to take time, and it’s important to set realistic goals.”
One way to do that is to focus on changing your not-so-great habits, such as drinking soda regularly, and adding healthier behaviors, such as daily walks, rather than making sweeping proclamations like, “I need to lose 30 pounds.” Being realistic about how much you will lose counts, too. “When people set ideals that are extreme and unlikely to be achieved, it really sets them up for an unhealthy emotional process and failure,” says Puhl. “Despite what we hear from the diet industry, that anyone can lose 40 or 50 pounds easily, what we see from science over and over again is that the long term effectiveness isn’t there.”
In other words, people may drop gobs of weight on fad diets, but they gain it back. So what is realistic? “We’ve seen that people can often lose 10 to 15 percent of their body weight and keep it off over time,” says Puhl. “That may not end up giving people their ideal shape, but it can make the difference in health, allowing people to get off medications, and it can mean increased energy and mobility. It’s important to recognize the benefits that can come from even modest weight loss.”
Another smart step in achieving a healthy weight is to take a look at your motivations for wanting to shed pounds and addressing any body hate with therapy or self-help before actively trying to drop weight. “Body shame and an overemphasis on shape tap straight into emotions, not rational thinking,” warns Bulik. “When you are [dieting or exercising] out of emotions like desperation and self-hatred, you glom onto extreme measures and it’s harder for you to come up with a rational step-by-step plan that includes appropriate self-reward and sensible goals. If you really do need to lose weight for health reasons, it takes energy, determination, resilience and optimism”—and you’re more likely to successfully lose weight if you start from a place of solid self-esteem and body acceptance, notes Bulik.
Perhaps the best way to think about healthy weight loss is to recognize that it’s not just about achieving a certain number on the scale. It’s about accepting your natural shape (rather than striving for a skinny look that only a few are truly built for), and giving yourself the compassion, time and support you need to find your healthy, happy shape—whatever that turns out to be.
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