Lose weight by optimising your relationship with food

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Most of us have an ambiguous, love/hate relationship with food. We love how it brings us instant gratification but we hate what it does for our waistline or health. How do we then lose weight if we are in constant struggle with the aspect of weigh that is critical – food?

– How many of you oscillate between binging on favorite foods and then starve yourself to ‘undo’ what you’ve done?

– How many start on a restrictive ‘diet’, are unable to sustain it and then swing to the other end of the spectrum in frustration and binge-eat or eat everything ‘you are not supposed to’?

– How many feel anxiety and guilt over food?

– How many refuse to actually log in a food journal properly because it’s too difficult, anxiety ridden or painful?

– How many have endless arguments or discussions with your nutritionist, fiercely negotiating what you know you should be avoiding?

– How many have uncontrollable ‘cravings’ for a particular food and withdrawal when you can’t have that particular food (sweets or carbs for instance)?

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Food is not supposed to create all this anxiety and guilt. How did we get to this point? Big food companies and clever marketing strategy by ‘diet gurus’ attempt to create a sensation of unrest within you making you believe you’re not doing it right and that they have the solutions. Then food companies proceed to sell you ‘products’ which are supposed to solve your problem and make life easier, except that they don’t. Instead packaged, processed products like meal supplements, processed protein supplements, quick meals, packaged, easy to eat food-on-the-run are the cause of many health problems to start with. 

In truth, if we truly listen to our own bodies we can identify what is good for us and what is not, how much to eat and when to eat. The problem is, we are unable to or won’t listen to our own body’s signals. These signals have perhaps been anaesthetized from years of being ignored. Childhood programming of eating way beyond what we actually need to, of the wrong kind of food is very common. How many of us were told, ‘clean your plate’ when we were children, irrespective of how much is on the plate! It’s also possible that you have turned to food as a source of comfort to soothe stress or anxiety. This may have become your default setting. You are using food for more than just assuaging hunger. It’s also possible that you don’t recognize real physical hunger for what it is. 

To re-establish a healthy relationship with food we need to –

  • Pay close attention to the signals the body sends us – Mindful eating, recognising real physical hunger (as opposed to emotional hunger, boredom or stress). This takes training, time and self-awareness. Years of neglect cannot be undone in a matter of days. There will be times when you are still confused about whether you are really hungry or just plain anxious or bored. With patience and attentiveness however, you will start to appreciate your body’s own signals.
  • No need for guilt and shame– Even if you have been binging or eating inappropriately, there is no place for guilt and shame if you want to make a change. Guilt and shame are not helpful emotions.  According to studies done on self compassion and the implications of treating oneself kindly (Leary & Tate 2007), it was found that self –compassion was important to buffer oneself against unproductive negative self-talk. Acknowledge responsibility without feeling overwhelmed with guilt. Guilt and shame prevent growth and openness and instead create a closed mindset and cause you to literally want to hide. So what do you do? You hide and eat some more! Instead own up to your behavior that is not helping you and understand what to do. Be non-judgmental about your habit, but take responsibility for it!
  • Become conscious of your patterns of eating– All of us have certain ingrained patterns and habits., some of which may not be helpful (late night snacking, or indulging in sweets post every meal for instance). Become conscious (not ashamed or guilty, but conscious) of these and observe their connections in relation to your mood and sense of wellbeing. 
  • Don’t be too rigid – Tying yourself to excessively rigid rules and regulations about food can be counterproductive. Having to constantly deprive yourself can be exhausting and will not last. Allow yourself to eat in moderation (and you need to understand what moderation is) and also to occasionally indulge (and you need to understand and define what ‘occasionally’ means). This will give you a feeling of freedom rather than restriction. Over time you will gradually understand that you really do enjoy these occasional, moderately eaten indulgences and feel totally satisfied with them
  • Don’t be dependent on will power all the time – ‘Will power’ is not infinite. Make it easier on yourself to follow healthy eating patterns. For instance, don’t stock up on unhealthy snacks at home and expect your will power to hold you in good stead in avoiding these temptations. There will be times you are more vulnerable to indulgences, especially when you are tired, sleep deprived or stressed. These are not times you want to test your will power over food. The best way to avoid the situation altogether is find great substitutes for your unhealthy snacks and stock them in your pantry instead. 
  • It’s ok to enjoy food – It’s perfectly ok to enjoy food. It’s perfectly ok to love delicious food. If you want to stay healthy and maintain a good, functioning body and mind then food should be more than just about pleasure. Set about creating better and healthier options you can appreciate and enjoy. Understand that while some foods may taste delicious, they may not be optimum in creating health and wellbeing. 
  • Change your perspective – I’ve heard the comment “I’m a foodie, so I cannot diet”. It’s all about perspective. If you view a healthier eating plan (which can be equally if not more delicious), as a torturous ‘diet’ then you will likely not sustain it for long. If you instead start to look as food as nourishment, something that can heal your body and mind, something to value and appreciate for what it does for you, instead of looking at food only as a source of instant gratification, your perspective of food undergoes a sea change. Instead you actually start to enjoy the healthier options. 
  • Eating healthy becomes the default position -Eating healthy does not equal deprivation. There are great healthy options to choose from all the time. It may take some readjustment in your brain to prefer a fruit to cake on a regular basis, but when you make these choices often enough, the amazing thing is, you actually start to prefer the healthy options. You really do. A greasy, overly spiced snack starts to make you feel nauseous. That sinful chocolate cream cake is fine for the first two spoonfuls, then you want to push it away. That huge pile of rice you used to eat is just not appealing any more. Your pattern of eating changes gradually such that, healthier options are your default position. 
  • Recognize that deep-rooted maladaptive behaviors may stem from early life experiences– Your relationship with food goes way back into childhood. It’s important to understand and accept this. Only then can there be healing from these reflex maladaptive behaviors. Important research has found that adverse childhood experiences like physical or sexual abuse (Gustafson & Sarwer, 2004, Felliti, 1993) increases the risk of obesity and disordered eating several fold. Addressing such trauma will of course require therapy with a counselor experienced in this field.
  • Exercise regularly – Regular exercise enhances willpower (Oaten & Cheng 2006). The ability to make better choices with food (or with anything else for that matter) is enhanced with regular exercise. So while cravings may recur from time to time, exercising regularly enhances ones ability to sustain a better diet. 
  • Find your ‘why’ – Its important to acknowledge ‘why’ you want to lose weight, eat better or get healthier. The stronger the inner motivation to do so, the better your results at achieving your objective of healing your relationship with food. If this motivation is vague and undetermined, then you will likely go back to eating any way you want as deep down you really don’t see any reason to change. 

Nutritious food

Your relationship with food is significant and a healthy one is necessary if you want to avoid food related stress. We have enough stress in our day-to-day lives; lets not add food to the list. 

Here’s want I have found from both personal experience and counseling hundreds of women over the years. 

  • When you are busy, fulfilled and occupied in your life, you tend not to obsess about food. You tend to eat to feel good, motivated and energetic not dull, stuffed and lethargic. Food is a means to an end not an end in itself. 
  • When you are honest about your choices in a non-judgmental way, it is much easier to make changes. 
  • When you are open to learning about how food can create of defy health, then you are more likely to follow through with healthier choices. 

Optimise your relationship with food and watch how much easier it is to eat better consistently! How to stay satisfied with the food you eat, how to appreciate the food you eat and as a result how to lose weight effectively and more importantly, how to sustain that weight loss.

Trust in the Process

So you decide to start exercising. Your reasons may range from wanting to lose weight to getting fitter, looking better, running a marathon or perhaps your last visit to your doctor didn’t go too well and you’ve been told you have to knock off the pounds, cut down on your food and so on.

With all good intentions and some trepidation you take yourself to the gym, hire a trainer, perhaps meet a dietician and get started with your newfound virtuous purpose.

You are enthusiastic initially. You want to lose that weight and get with the program. A few weeks to months down the road the initial enthusiasm starts to wane. You start skipping workouts, that diet plan is making you ‘hangry’. (a newly coined word for ‘angry’ because you are hungry!). It’s frustrating and does little for your self esteem.

The most common reasons for lack of compliance with an exercise or healthy      eating program

  • The expectation of unrealistic results and subsequent disappointment.
  • Expecting too much too soon.
  • Doing too much too soon and getting burnt out quickly.
  • Following a diet that does not complement your exercise routine or lifestyle.
  • Listening to endless advice from all quarters about how best you can lose        weight rapidly or this awesome new workout or weight loss aid.
  • Other lifestyle habits that may be hindering weight loss such as lack of sleep      and stress.

Whatever your reason for starting an exercise program, once you start; you have to – Trust in the process.

– Eat clean

– Exercise smart

– Make good choices through the day

– Address other aspects of your life

– Be patient

– Reward yourself

&

Repeat.

Most people falter in one or all the above and still expect spectacular results. The science behind weight loss is such that it simply cannot happen overnight. The body has to go through the process of changing gradually. It often plateaus; weight loss stalls and you could get discouraged. This is especially true for those inclined towards instant gratification.

Eat clean – If there were two things you should eliminate from your diet it would be sugar and processed food. Eat mainly whole foods, plenty of vegetables and fruit, including enough protein (especially plant proteins like legumes, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds) and some high quality fats.

While many fad diets abound, you have to find a healthy ‘eating plan’, not necessarily a prescribed, rigorous ‘diet’ that will suit your lifestyle. It has to be adapted to your palate, work hours, travel and recreational activities. It goes without saying that encouraging the entire family to eat clean most days of the week, (with occasional treats) goes a long way in supporting weight loss and health for everyone concerned. Women often tell me that they sorrowfully, stay away from the family dinner table to ‘avoid temptation’. That’s a hard way to live and considering this is supposed to be a lifetime commitment, it doesn’t make much sense. Of course there will be times when you eat out, eat on airplanes or at office lunches. Over time, given enough time, you will learn to eat sensibly even on these occasions. You learn to make the right choices. Eating Clean becomes a lifestyle.

Exercise Regularly – Regular exercise has to be a lifetime commitment. It also has to suit your lifestyle. Planning to workout seven days a week with an already hectic work and family schedule is bound to fail.

Your exercise routine has to include cardio, strength training and flexibility in appropriate proportions to suit your needs. It also has to be of adequate intensity that is gradually increased with time, as you get fitter. Doing the same thing, months on end will cause stagnation and boredom. If you miss a workout, or a couple of workouts, get right back on the saddle and keep going. The mistake many people make is to fall right off the saddle and stay on the floor. They give up too soon at the first signs of trouble.

Exercise smart – You have to be strategic in your exercise. Longer or harder is not always better. There is a time and place for low intensity, long duration exercise. There is also a time and place for high intensity interval training. An exercise routine that you can fit into your day may mean a quick workout on some days and longer ones on others. We have to also think about getting the best out of our investment of time.

Don’t forget the weight training to build muscle mass. If there is one thing that will help you sustain fat loss it is building muscle. I’ve elaborated on this in my book ‘Gain To Lose’.

Make good choices through the day – An hour of exercises does not entitle you to be sedentary through the rest of your day, neither does it warrant eating with abandon. Making good, conscious, mindful choices through the day goes a long way in helping you achieve your goals. Even small interventions like walking as much as you can, taking the stairs, not sitting for long periods of time, managing stress with the appropriate tools like time management, meditation, breathing and maintaining healthy, supportive relationships are important. Stay mindful through the day.

Address other aspects of your life – Sleep deprivation, uncontrolled stress, lack of authentic social relationships, loneliness, depression and presence of toxic relationships can contribute to weight gain or the prevention of weight loss. All the aspects of wellbeing need to be considered if you want long-term solutions. Of course life is never perfect but being cognizant of these things and how they may be playing into your weight and therefore your health is the first step to overcoming a weight issue. Learning to deal with our imperfect lives is more important than trying to make it perfect.

Be patient – The body has to adapt to the new lifestyle of clean eating and regular exercise. A new lifestyle takes a while getting used to not just physically but psychologically and emotionally. If you are accustomed to eating a bag of chips in front of your TV everyday, then, stopping this habit will create cravings that have to be managed with appropriate tools until they can be overcome.

Weight loss takes time. This may vary.

Initial weight loss can be quite drastic and no doubt thrilling, only to find, it stalls. This is the time to increase the intensity of your workouts, change them around, revisit your eating and keep moving.

Keys to maintaining patience & staying the course –

  • Find the motivation to keep at it. Finding a support group like a group class,     walking or running buddies is very helpful to stay on track when you start to feel discouraged.
  • Find a distraction. Stop obsessing about your weight. It will happen if you trust  in the process. Start a hobby or volunteer for a social cause to keep your mind busy and distracted from that weighing scale. I know a woman who started       glass painting to keep busy after we chatted about it. Today she has not only     lost her unwanted weight, but has a flourishing business and is truly busy with  an exciting life.

Reward yourself appropriately –The human body appreciates reward. So you have to set up a system whereby when you achieve small goals you reward yourself (not with a sweet treat, because that would be self-sabotage), on a regular basis. It has been found that by doing that you establish motivation to continue. Perhaps a massage, new workout clothes and so on.

You have to stay on course. A couple of detours are inevitable and to be expected. It does take effort and a willingness to commit to a lifetime of lifestyle change. Many people go right back to their old habits after they have lost their weight only to find it creeping back. How can you expect it not to?

All of the above may seem rather mundane. Where is the magic pill you ask? Where is that solution for an instant and permanent fix? Truth is, there isn’t one! You have to trust in the process and wait for your body to respond, which it will, if you do it right.

Dr. Sheela Nambiar MD, Obgyn

Lifestyle Medicine Physician Dip LM BSLM

Fitness Consultant NAFC

Author of – Get Size Wise, Gain To Lose & Fit After 40

 

Mindfulness for Well-Being

This article was first published in The Rotary News in March 2019.

Most religions and spiritual practices have their own repertoire of a variety of meditative practices. Mindful meditation and mindfulness however have no religious trappings and anyone, from any walk of life can (and should) incorporate mindfulness and mindful meditation into their life for just a few minutes in a day to perceive the benefits.

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The practice of mindfulness and the corresponding meditative practices have gained scientific attention after several studies; especially from the Center For Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts have explored the benefits. S.N Goenka, a Burmese-Indian, the founder of Vipasana Meditation and more recently, John Kabat-Zinn from University of Massachusetts have been instrumental in popularizing Mindfulness.

Improvement in physical ailments through this mind-body method is now accepted as a very important complement to mainline management of disease. The improvement in psychological health, cognition, decision-making capability, social relationships and general wellbeing are recognised as some of the benefits of mindfulness.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is nothing but the non-judgmental conscious and purposeful awareness of the present moment. So what’s so wonderful about that you may ask! If you think about it, there is nothing but the present moment. The past is over and the future is not yet here. Being aware of the present moment keeps us more engaged and involved with our lives as it plays out in real time.

Have you been with your kids while distracted and wishing to be elsewhere? Have you driven home reliving an argument with a co-worker, angry and resentful, unable to even recalled your drive? Have you sometimes looked back and wondered where the day had disappeared, having no memory of it? Have you sat in front of your TV and gone through an enormous bag of chips with no real recollection of having eaten it? These are all examples of mindlessness that are typical and not helpful. They rob us of the present moment and spin us into a realm that does not even currently exist.

– Anxious worrying or rumination can cause you to eat mindlessly, leading to obesity and all the subsequent repercussions.

– Lack of mindfulness can keep you disconnected from your body and the continuous signals your body sends you. So you may be unaware for instance that what you are really feeling is fatigue or thirst and not hunger and reach for food in a distracted and mindless manner.

– Lack of mindfulness can manifest as a lack of awareness of social cues, another person’s body language or even an understanding what they are really saying leading to misunderstanding and grief.

Mindfulness is also the ability to observe without judgment the present moment with its pain, suffering, joy, happiness or feelings of insecurity and recognize it for what it is. Being mindful of the situation as it is helps us firstly concede it and then, when required, make the necessary changes to improve it. So, for instance, if you are angry or disappointed with someone, observing and recognizing that emotion for what it is and then questioning oneself to reveal the source of the anger/disappointment will help us deal with it far better that just acting out on impulse, mindlessly. In fact, embracing the feeling of anxiety or pain instead of trying to escape from it can tell us much about ourselves, increasing self-awareness.

This habit of being present without judgment and being open to acknowledging what is happening in real time transforms our relationship with ourselves, creating a higher level of self-awareness that most of us lack. Our bodies and minds have an innate wisdom and capacity to, for instance, indicate to us what is truly wrong and what is going on within. The only trouble is, we don’t listen because we are too busy living life at high speed and mostly through virtual reality with photographs and social media, comparing, wishing and judging.

Being mindful is a habit. The thoughts in our head can actually cause or aggravate disease or precipitate emotion; our thoughts matter.

Being aware of what they are therefore is critical to our wellbeing. Research from the University of Massachusetts Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR program have shown the benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness-based practices for a variety of medical conditions such as anxiety (Otner 2007), pain (Zeidan 2016) and even skin conditions like psoriasis (Kabat-Zinn 1998). The improvement in such conditions, using mindful meditation appears to be the result of the deepening awareness of our own thought processes related to the disease or pain we suffer. Thinking in a particular manner about our pain or disease can actually increase that pain or alter the course of the disease. Being aware of just how we react to or think about/view our pain or disease will help us modify those thoughts when required thereby altering the pain or disease. Being conscious when we start to ruminate about a negative outcome or recognizing that our pain in the back is aggravated when we are stressed (not necessarily physically) is helpful to alter the course of the physical condition.  Mindfulness also has several benefits for our emotional and thinking brain –

    • Mindfulness calms the brain by quieting the parts of the brain (the Amygdyla) responsible for the fight-or-flight response (Lutz, Davidson et al 2008)
    • It aids in stress reduction (Goldin et al 2010)
    • It helps regulating emotions to improve emotional intelligence (Chiesa et al 2010)
    • Improves attention and focus (Baijal et al 2011)
  • Reduction in depression (Napoli et al 2005)

Steps to being more mindful –

    • Pay attention to simple things – it could be something as simple as taking a shower. Be conscious of the water, the temperature, the sound and feel of the experience. It does not matter if you are enjoying it or otherwise. Just be conscious of the sensations and moment. Make it a habit
    • Breathe – Sounds so simple. Rarely are we conscious of our breathing. Make it a habit to become aware of your breath at frequent intervals through the day. It could be every time you move from one project to another, or one client to another or when you walk down a corridor or get yourself a glass of water; stop and breathe.
  • Listen to your body – Sometimes we are aware that there is some vague pain or discomfort in our bodies. We may not however really pay attention to how the body moves or how we sit, stand, eat or engage.

How do we position our hips, feet, back, arms? Is there tension in some part of the body? Is it aggravated by the way we move or sit? Do we favor one side more than the other? Is one side weaker? Is our core engaged? These are not always aspects of ourselves we pay attention to. Doing so will bring a deeper awareness of our own bodies. This in turn keeps us tuned into our bodies, working with it instead of against it. Doing things to keep it well.

    • Be aware of your thoughts –recognize your thoughts as they play out in your head. Don’t judge or be upset by them. Just be aware of them.
    • Use all your senses – try to use all your senses from time to time. When you go for a walk outside for instance be conscious of the sights, smells and sounds. When you are cooking, be conscious of the color of the vegetables, the feel of them as the knife goes through them, the changing smells when you cook and so on. Even cutting vegetables can be a mindfully meditative process!
    • Engage fully – This is especially important when you interact with people. Engaging with them fully allows not only for better understanding and relationship but also makes them feel valued when you are present and completely involved. In our fast paced world we tend to skim through interactions without much thought leaving everyone concerned feeling inconsequential and the whole interaction quite superficial.
    • Practice – Mindfulness based meditative practices may last for as short as ten minutes. You can source many of them online on YouTube. You could try the courses offered ones by Kabat-Zinn or Vipasana meditation by Goenka..
  • Do yoga – Yoga practices linking movement and the breath are great to help us become more mindful.

How does meditating for ten minutes help you may ask! Practicing this form of meditation for even ten minutes every day will allow the habit of mindfulness to seep into the rest of your day. The practice may be anything from Breath meditation to Body Scans or an actual Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction – MBSR session.  Create a regular practice that you commit to every day, preferably at the same time of the day. Over time, this becomes your way of ‘being’ not just ‘doing’.

Mindfulness has a wide range of benefits from disease management to a general improved sense of wellbeing and increased productivity. Do you wonder sometimes why you are not able to get things done? Why you can’t focus your attention when needed? Why you find it difficult to express yourself properly as your thoughts careen from one thing to another? Why you overeat when you know you shouldn’t or why you can’t sleep with those thoughts spinning around in your head in an endless loop of melodrama? Mindful meditation and a continued practice of mindfulness on a consistent basis may be the answer to calming the mind and creating a more peaceful focused and meaningful life experience.  

Dr. Sheela Nambiar MD ObGyn

Lifestyle Medicine Physician DipLM BSLM

Fitness Consultant NAFC

Author of – Get Size Wise, Gain To Lose & Fit After 40.

www.drsheelanambiar.com

Body Image

Body image is not quite literally what we see in the mirror. It is really the interpretation of what we see, influenced by our own perception of how we view and feel about ourselves.

art-bright-color-1547970All of us with decent eyesight are able to see that perhaps we are a bit over weight, we may like the look of our legs, we may appreciate that our arms appear toned, love our hair but concede perhaps, that the waistline could do with some work. Most of us tend to make judgment calls about what we see in that mirror. How these judgment calls affect us emotionally and what we then proceed to do as a result of these emotions is the real relevance of body image.

Take for instance a teenage girl who looks at herself and sees a plump young woman. How she responds to seeing that plump young woman will depend largely on what she really feels about her body. This feeling often comes from subconscious information she has gathered and retained about her body and herself as a whole since childhood.

A teenager who, as a child, was loved and nurtured, who was praised for what she did rather than what she looked like is more likely to see her image, register that she is a little plump and perhaps should do something about it, such as exercise or cut out the sweetened soda. On the other hand, a young woman who has a mother who is critical about her complexion or weight, a father who comments on her looks, peers/siblings who tease her about her size would relate to the image of herself differently. She has already imbibed some distaste for her body. The pain she experienced at the comments or the judgment from family and close friends will remain with her, as a negative body image. My heart goes out to the teenagers brought to me by their (well-meaning) mothers who proceed to tell me their daughter is too fat and needs to lose weight while she sits there with downcast eyes!

How does body image translate in real life?

Having seen that image and interpreted it, what we then proceed to do about it is important.

People with poor body image:

  • May do noting about it, but continue to dislike, even hate their bodies.
  • They may continue to gain weight, overeat, eat indiscriminately or develop addictions.
  • They may turn to extreme measures, fad diets, starvation or extreme exercise to lose weight.
  • They may develop eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or binge eating.
  • They may succumb to the surgeon’s knife and other procedures in an attempt make themselves ‘look’ better.

Improving body image is possible. Preventing poor body image to begin with, is also possible. Here are some pointers for parents, caregivers, fitness instructors, doctors and for oneself.

Parental pressure plays a crucial role – A child’s self-esteem rests with how he/she is viewed by his/her loved ones and is important to his/her wellbeing. Being critical about a child’s appearance only lays the foundation for future angst and poor self-esteem. The emphasis should be on health and wellness rather than size or appearance.

The focus should also be on what the child does rather than what she/he looks like. Praising a child for being himself/herself, his/her accomplishments and hobbies rather than praising his/her looks keeps the perspective on what is truly important for emotional wellbeing. Loving him/her (and expressing it) irrespective of his/her height, weight or complexion is crucial for her emotional health.

Lead by example – Parents who practice healthy behavior such as regular exercise and healthy balanced eating are more likely to communicate that to their children. If the parent him or herself has issues with body image, is overly self-critical or self-abusive, the child is likely to imbibe similar behaviou. This then becomes their narrative as they grow older.

Avoid stereotypes – Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Thin is not always better or more beautiful. Thin is not always healthier. Focus on fitness rather than fatness or thinness. Most cultures have their own stereotypes of beauty and tend to idolize it. Not everyone fits into that mold and neither should they need to. Fairness creams are a typical example of how people are made to believe that ‘being fair’ is somehow aspirational.

Avoid comparisons of any kind – Comparing your own body to that of your best friend or that glamorous film star is simply setting yourself up. Your friend is genetically different, so her body is different. The film star has an entourage of beauticians, dieticians, trainers and hairdressers not to mention, the photo-shopped, airbrushed magazine images.

Parents comparing their children to siblings or friends will only injure their self-esteem setting the stage for poor body image and a host of other psychological problems and maladaptive behaviors.

Emphasize health and fitness rather than physical appearance – Focus on health and fitness rather than just appearance when you (or your child) start to exercise. This improves persistence with an exercise program. Weight loss takes time. An obsession with the mirror or weighing scale will prove counterproductive in the long term as weight does not always come off the way we want or expect it to. Persistence and focus on what we do, (that is, with the exercise and healthy, balanced eating) rather than the scale or how we appear on the other hand empowers us. We have control over what we do; we don’t always have control over how that translates in weight or appearance. Not everyone loses weight at the same rate for instance. Your genetic propensity plays a role in physical appearance. When the focus shifts to being disciplined to our exercise routine instead, the endorphins released with regular exercise make you feel good about yourself, increasing self-esteem and improving body image.

Instructor’s body image – Instructors and trainers should identify and deal with their own body image issues before trying to influence clients. Some instructors are overly critical about their own bodies. This can transfer to or be imposed on the clients. A thin instructor is not always healthier.

Emphasize “form” of exercise – While exercising, rather than focusing on just burning calories, emphasize performing the exercise correctly, improving coordination and balance. This relieves the pressure from appearance to actual performance. It also develops a healthier relationship with exercise and ones own body.  It also helps you find a greater respect for your body and the phenomenal things it can achieve.

Beware of communication in training/teaching/treating areas – Instructors and trainers need to beware of what they communicate with a client. Judging the client’s body is not the trainer’s prerogative. The role of a trainer is simply to guide and encourage, not to ridicule or criticize. Similarly a doctor judging a patients body is not a smart move. Even if well intended, it is never a good idea to be critical of weight and size. Instead keep the focus on what is possible in terms of behavioral change for better health and wellbeing.

Balanced eating – Focus on healthy eating and don’t obsess over micronutrients and calories. This obsession could very well lead to an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia that is nothing but an endorsement of poor body image.

Take necessary steps to overcome emotional baggage. Understand that sometimes, ‘looking better’, does not always translate into ‘feeling better’ if the ingrained thoughts about one’s self is deeply negative. Changing self-worth takes more than the surgeon’s knife, weight loss or even exercise. It takes the understanding that feeling good has to start from within and will take work. It will also take the effort required to deal with all the negative thoughts, resentment, anger or envy that we harbor. It may require prolonged therapy for some, especially if they develop maladaptive behaviors like eating disorders, self-cutting, addictions and so on. It also requires compassionate support and discipline.

Finally, body image is a perception. Poor body image is preventable. It can be changed into a positive body image with the right tools. Great body image is important for self-esteem/self-worth and good self-esteem is greatly important for emotional wellbeing.  

Exercising Is about More than Just Weight Loss…

I come from a family of big noses and big bellies! Since the belly is the only thing within my control, I’ve always been vigilant about it. Luckily, being athletic in school helped me not succumb to the belly when I was younger, but progressive physical dormancy and poor eating habits during my medical college days made me a victim.

Exercising is about more than just weight lossOn the contrary, every time I came home for the holidays I would see my parents getting fitter. My dad, a surgeon, went regularly to the gym and my mother, a paediatrician, attended the TFL classes enthusiastically everyday of the week. Their transformation has been awe-inspiring. If my parents could find time in their terribly busy schedule for fitness I certainly had no excuse! So, this time when I came home for my study holidays I joined the TFL classes.

All it took was one class to get me hooked. I am so much more energised, active and finally, feel like myself again.The racing heart and sore muscles are strangely satisfying. It gives me the much needed break from studying during the day and the fuel to keep me going.

Previously I was a cardio freak. Now TFL has helped me understand how important weight training and flexibly are for holistic fitness. I am now more aware of what I eat and have stopped treating my stomach like a garbage bin.

Like Dr. Sheela always says “Do it for your health, looking good is just a great side effect!”

– Dr. Ashwini Krishnamoorti

Click here for more TFL client testimonials.

Ask Yourself Why You Want to Lose Weight

This article was first published in The Hindu in March 2010.

Having dealt with women wanting to lose weight over the last 15 years, I often ask and am asked these questions:

How does being overweight affect society at large and vice versa?

How does society react to you individually when you lose weight?

How does social pressure influence your decisions to lose weight?

The whole idea of losing weight to fit into social norms has taken on a whole new dimension. What with some airlines ruling that obese passengers need to pay for two seats if the flight is full, to insurance companies insisting on a higher premium for clinically obese people who are known to have a higher health risk, being overweight is now not only unacceptable but also expensive. There is more pressure to lose the extra weight for social and economic reasons as well as cosmetic and wellbeing.

Women of the higher socio-economic strata in developed countries are less likely to be obese perhaps due to social pressure to remain slim and also the availability and affordability of nutritious rather than junk food.

The social response 

Some women tell me that losing weight is hard enough; they also have to contend with (well meaning?) friends and relatives who take the liberty of commenting on their new improved appearance, sometimes not very encouragingly.

Some of the comments take on a complicated edge, “you look gaunt’, “you have lost too much weight” and, sometimes even, “you have lost your charm”. Other optimistic confidants insist that being plump suits you or reason that, after all, being overweight runs in the family and so there really isn’t much you can do about changing your genetic inclination.

What could possibly provoke these comments? Perhaps discomfort with one woman’s aptitude for change, to sty motivated and the admittance of one’s own inability to do so.

As one of my clients said, the fact that some of us are “approval addicts” can make it an arduous task to disregard such comments and forge ahead in pursuit of a healthier body.

On the other hand, gaining the admiration of those around you is definitely a catalyst for further improvement. We are all social beings. Appreciation from significant (and sometimes even not so significant) others is meaningful. This is where the right kind of encouragement during the process of change is critical to success.

How do you see yourself? 

It’s an ongoing process of self-discovery. Losing weight is not just about losing the layers of fat. There is also a certain unravelling of one’s persona along with it.

We need to first appreciate our own sense of self, both from a physical and emotional perspective. How we categorise our own selves is crucial to our growth. Sometimes we see ourselves solely as “a fat person”, or “a physically unattractive person” forgetting there is more to that “person” than size and appearance. You ARE not fat. You HAVE fat. YOU are still YOU.

As Gloria Steinem once said, “In my own mind, I am still a fat brunette from Toledo, and I always will be”. Chances are you too continue to think like you did before you lost all the weight and can barely see your altered self. This myopic vision is often a way of trying to ease the trauma of ‘change’ from within in addition to the distorted or altered behaviour of people around you.

Changing how we look also requires that we change how we think about ourselves. We need to recognise whether our entire identity resides with our physical appearance or if we have other outlets for our creativity and selfhood.

As women, I believe the pressure to be attractive is enormous. Wanting and trying to improve one’s appearance is different from depending totally on physical attributes to quantify oneself. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong or self-indulgent about desiring to look better, how and why you go about it is fundamental to determining if the change will be lasting and satisfying or only another step towards further turmoil.

In this context, unhealthy starvation diets, abusing and disrespecting the body will be counter-productive not only to health but also to one’s self-esteem.

It is true (and research has proven), that being emotionally troubled or stressed has a critical impact on our physical selves and vice versa. Women, in particular, are susceptible to external factors like opinions of others, suggestions and advice. Perhaps we are more insecure as a species or just more accommodating to social pressure.

There is often a deep-rooted difficult psychological background for most overweight women. It is not as simple as “jump on the treadmill and shed those pounds”. Although doing just that solves half the problems, including elevating one’s mood, following through is not as straightforward as it may seem. This is why, psychological counselling along the way helps stay on track.

Motivation, approval, denial, low self-esteem etc play a role in the state of one’s body.

Motive

So it comes down to this: What (or who) are you losing weight for?

Identification of your own motive is the first and foremost pre-requisite before starting on any kind of self improvement campaign, be it weight loss, improving posture, eating healthy, giving up alcohol and nicotine and so on. Often the very objective of the exercise is questionable.

Social pressure aside, it is necessary to delve into one’s own mind to identify reasons for wanting change. If these reasons don’t stand up to scrutiny, the results are often not sustainable. So for instance trying to lose weight for a boyfriend is never the best idea in the long term (the boyfriend may not last for instance, then what happens to your weight?). Wanting to lose weight to look good is perfectly fine as a motivating factor. Along the way, more self discovery often happens and you also start to feel good. Wanting to lose weight because it’s good for your health  or to better manage a disease is a great idea too. Your focus is then more than just on weight but also on fitness levels and health parameters. As you start to reverse a disease (like diabetes) with a good exercise plan and diet, you start to feel really motivated to continue and sustain it.

Self sabotage

One’s own actions and thoughts sometimes prevent change. Fear of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, in this case, being overweight and being accepted as or labelled as an “overweight person” may find one self-sabotaging one’s diet or attempts at regular exercise.

Question your reasoning when you find yourself making excuses to exercise. Is it fear of failure or fear of success?

Losing weight does not happen in a vacuum. There will be repercussions from within yourself and those around you. Knowing what you really want is important to keep you focused and motivated and understanding your true requirements will help you perhaps be more indulgent of uncalled for advice. As you know change is never easy, even if for the better.