When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to get stuck in the specifics of what you can and can’t eat, how many calories to consume and when to go to the gym. But even if you follow a diet plan down to the letter, experts agree you may be overlooking the one step critical to your success: getting your brain on board. “When clients want to lose weight, I tell them to ditch the idea of ‘good’ foods they should be eating and the ‘bad’ foods they need to avoid. That shouldn’t be their focus,” explains Bonnie Kane, a certified health coach based in Philadelphia. “I enable my clients to shift their thinking about food and how they take care of themselves. Losing weight can only occur when you’re mentally and emotionally prepared.”
We spoke to dieticians, psychologists and weight loss experts to find out how to get your mind in sync with your weight loss goals—no calorie-counting required.
1) Think to Past Successes:
I never lose weight. Diets don’t work. Do those phrases get frequent playtime in your brain? If so, then you’re sabotaging your attempts to slim down, even if you’re eating all “good” foods. To get your attitude on track, remember the times you have succeeded, explains Marlyn Diaz, a Los Angeles based nutritionist. “The success doesn’t have to be related to weight loss. It could be related to career, parenting, the time you drove cross-country on your own. The skills you used to become your best in that arena are transferrable to weight loss.” Say you planned a huge conference for work. That means you’re a pro at project-management—and what is weight loss if not a project? “Once you know you have the skills and know-how to succeed because you’ve done it before, you’ll have more confidence in whatever weight-loss plan you try,” says Diaz.
2) Set a Healthy Goal That Has Nothing to Do With the Scale:
Maybe it’s running a 10k. Or maybe it’s bringing lunch to your office or getting your family on board with Meatless Monday dinners. This triggers your internal determination, explains Danielle Girdano, a master personal trainer in Dallas, TX. “When people frame goals this way, they focus more on overall health, rather than just a number on the scale or on a clothing tag.” Focusing on something you can control makes it less likely you’ll get discouraged and give up if your weight fluctuates or your weight loss stalls.
READ MORE: What Can a Vegetarian Diet Do for You?
3) Cheat a Little:
Love chocolate? Then don’t throw it all away. Live for Friday pizza night? That’s all right, too. The trick is to give yourself allowances for the stuff you love, so a taste won’t totally derail you from your efforts. “Focusing on restriction will only lead to willpower problems,” explains Katherine Leonard, a holistic nutritionist in San Diego, Calif. If pizza night is a tradition with your family, you don’t have to skip it as your family indulges. Instead, think of ways you can make it healthier—either by starting with a big salad or getting a whole wheat crust and extra veggies, suggests Leonard.
4) Take a Taste of Temptation:
There are donuts in the office kitchen…but you also have a Greek yogurt in the fridge. What do you do? Steve Levinson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of “Following Through,” suggests going for the donut—after you’ve eaten your Greek yogurt. “Giving yourself permission to eat what you want after you eat what you’d planned works because it prevents your cravings from interfering with your efforts to build a healthy new habit,” Levinson explains. “Once you get in the habit of doing the ‘right’ thing, you’ll be less compelled to do the wrong thing.” Not only that, but by delaying grabbing a donut, you may just find the temptation gone when you return to the kitchen.
5) Think Beyond the Gym:
If you already love the gym, then by all means, keep going. But if you haven’t gone since the last millennium, there’s no reason to splurge for a membership. “Nerves or self-consciousness can be a huge hurdle,” says David Goldman, a dietician in Menlo Park, Calif. If the idea of heading into a cardio class makes you break out into a cold sweat (and not the good kind) then it’s unrealistic and unfair to yourself to force yourself into a Zumba class. Instead, take a walk, take the stairs or blast music while cleaning the kitchen. “Our bodies are designed to move, and we can make fitness gains quickly,” explains Rea Frey, a certified personal trainer and author of “Power Vegan.” Once you get comfortable moving your body, then you can assess whether or not a gym membership is right for you.
6) Tame Your Triggers:
“We turn to food for comfort and distraction,” says Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D., a Los Angeles psychoanalyst who specializes in eating disorders. In the past, if your knee-jerk reaction to a project your boss dumps on your desk has been to run to the vending machines, it will require Herculean willpower to ignore the urge—unless you find a new behavior to swap in. Taking a moment and figuring out what causes you to crave sugar can help you swap in a healthier habit. “The more you figure out what you’re hungry for—love, recognition or a moment to breathe, whatever—the less likely you are to turn to food,” says Savelle-Rocklin. Feeling overwhelmed? See if there’s a way to push the project deadline back. Unappreciated? Take time to text a friend who always reminds you you’re awesome.