I have always struggled with weight.
But it came to a tipping point when my daughter was a few months old and my BMI qualified me as “obese”. I had gained 50 pounds while pregnant, and I did not have what you would call an “easy” baby. I was lonely, my daughter’s incessant purple crying meant I couldn’t leave the house. The combination of stress, difficult emotions and appetite hormones made me devour everything in sight.
I was an emotional eating mess.
Things continued on like this, with stressors being added as we remodeled a house and two and a half days back from maternity leave, the company I had worked for unexpectedly closed.
I wanted to fit back into my pre-pregnancy clothes but would make excuses for not starting a weight loss plan. So I relied on my favorite comfort foods, Ritz crackers and cheese.
How stress hormones were harming my eating habits
There was a point where I was spending most of my days in physical pain and decided enough was enough. That’s when I started working with a naturopath to determine the root cause of the pain and realized that I needed to get a handle on emotional eating as it was leading to more inflammation and pain.
I noticed some of my eating triggers: lack of sleep, stress, anxiety, loneliness, overwhelm… my emotions were making me eat.
These feelings would lead me to throw my hands up and lie to myself thinking, “I don’t care anyways”. It was an excuse so I could comfort eat in order to feel better.
I put my Master’s Degree in Nutrition to work and began to research the biological mechanism of emotional eating, I realized the reason I was giving in to comfort eating was because it worked. I would get a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine, especially if the food I was craving felt “forbidden”. Furthermore, the stress, inflammation, blood sugar imbalance from inconsistent eating and lack of sleep were all leading to an imbalance in the stress hormone cortisol. That cortisol imbalance was also driving some of my food cravings.
After helping over 60 women balance cortisol to heal emotional eating, I now know that cortisol can cause two types of cravings:
- The Cookie Monster: You feel addicted to food, you feel impulsive or compulsive, powerless to stop. You may find yourself mindlessly eating, or may not even be aware of it at all.
- The Demon on Your Shoulder: You spend your days reasoning and talking yourself out of eating. But food is always on your mind. You are constantly using willpower to avoid eating.
Addressing my stress hormone imbalance gave me the mental clarity and energy (because let’s face it all that stress is exhausting!) to untangle the feelings that led to eating.
Why I needed to learn self-care and self-compassion to heal emotional eating
I began working through my anxiety with a counselor, and practicing self-compassion. And I realized my rigid all or nothing thinking about what’s “good” to eat and what’s “bad” was causing more harm than good.
My mental self-criticism after eating was only fueling more eating, because I needed to comfort myself after the unkindness. Self-kindness gave me the freedom to care for myself well.
I let go of my internalized beliefs that my newborn, husband, family and community were more worthy of care and love than I was. So I began practicing radical self-care. I valued and cared for myself because I am a child of God, not so that I could serve others well.
(Side note: while serving others well is important to me, I believe it sends the message that women aren’t deserving enough on their own of care when we justify prioritizing ourselves because it allows us to do more for others.)
When I properly cared for myself, my emotions and paid attention to the thoughts that were leading to eating – I was able to easily make healthy choices.
Why I struggled to commit to losing weight before I found weight mastery
My emotional eating was healed, but I was still overweight.
I was embarrassed by my excess belly fat. As a previous pear shape, I felt uncomfortable in all of my shirts. And I had a closet full of beautiful clothes I couldn’t wear anymore.
As a Registered Dietitian, I know the science behind weight loss. Moreover, I know how to coach people through it in a way that doesn’t harm their hearts or their minds. (I believe weight loss can be very destructive if not approached correctly).
I have the testimonials to prove I am good at helping other people lose weight.
Like this one:
Or this one:
And yet, I had trouble committing to my own weight loss.
As I explored why, I realized my desire to lose weight was so others wouldn’t see me as undesirable. That others wouldn’t judge my belly fat when my shirt hung wrong.
It was also for more practical reasons:
- So subsequent pregnancies might not be so uncomfortable
- Less foot pain
- Less strain on my body
I wanted to lose weight so I could feel acceptable and worthy. And that darkness was not motivating.
So, I decided to stop hating my body. I decided my elderly family member’s opinion of my body means nothing to me. Then, I decided to figure out how to love and celebrate my body, no matter what size.
I used this newfound clarity about my own weight loss motivations and my experience as a Registered Dietitian helping over one hundred men and women lose weight to develop what I call Weight Mastery, a pillar of the my 14-week program the Stress Less Weight Mastery.
The 3 important tenets of healthy Weight Mastery
1) Empowered Decisions
You are the expert on your body and mind. Therefore, you get to decide if you even want to pursue weight loss and how much you’d like to lose.
Many of the women I work with feel a lot of shame around their weight. They have been told that losing weight is the only way to be healthier and worthy of love.
If you think worthiness doesn’t apply to you, I ask you to consider the connection between thinking losing weight will help you feel more “confident” or have better “self-esteem” and believing you are worthy of attention and good regard from others (ie. worthiness).
With political “Wars on Obesity”, public health focus on weight loss and “fattertainment” in the media, those living in larger bodies are persistently getting the message that they need to lose weight.
In my experience helping over 60 women find Weight Mastery since the inception of the Stress Less Weight Mastery, being motivated to change your habits because of negative messaging usually results in a disordered and disempowered relationship with food and your body.
Sources of disempowerment around weight loss and the consequences:
Weight stigma is the social rejection and devaluing that occurs to people living in larger bodies. For many women I work with, this devaluing starts from a young age from their parents. My clients often tell stories of being put on their first diet at 8 or 10 years old. Most are hearing frequent comments about their body size from family members.
The negative emotional impacts of weight stigma, like anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, are often blamed on obesity. In reality these emotional side effects of living in a larger body are not about weight, but rather cultural discrimination and oppression.
Misinformation about the importance of BMI
Body Mass Index, or BMI, is a calculation used to assess risk of poor health in populations. It is frequently misused to assess individual risk, but should not be used as a sole indicator of health.
The truth is, there is a lot of data that correlates having a higher BMI (and therefore a larger body) to poor health. And yet:
- If you want to reduce your risk of certain diseases there are often behavior based interventions (meaning specific actions you can take besides weight loss) that are also effective at reducing disease risk.
For example, the prevailing lifestyle advice to people who want to lower cholesterol is weight loss, and yet there are several evidence based nutrition and lifestyle changes that can have a significant impact.
- If you do decide to lose weight, you may not need to lose as much weight as you think. The Diabetes Prevention Program, a CDC-led national program, showed that losing 5-7% of body weight (10-14 lbs for a 200 lbs person) led to dramatic reductions in diabetes risk for people diagnosed with pre-diabetes.
Similarly, a 5-10% weight loss can result in significant improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure and insulin sensitivity as well. You do not need to target a “normal BMI” if you want to lose weight.
History of yo yo dieting
Yo yo dieting, also known as weight cycling, has an inconclusive impact on physical and mental health. Some studies show weight cycling increases weight and belly fat, and risk for high blood pressure and diabetes.
Other studies link weight cycling with binge eating, anxiety, depression and poorer quality of life. And still other studies show no link to poorer health at all.
I suspect the method of weight loss (meaning calorie restriction, fasting, etc.) determines health consequences after weight regain (with more extreme methods impacting metabolism, as we saw in the Biggest Loser studies).
In my experience, women often feel like a failure after regaining weight. And all or nothing thinking leads them to believe they will continue to be a failure because they can not conceive of sticking perfectly to a diet for the rest of their lives.
All this to say: gaining weight back after dieting can make you feel bad about yourself and may be bad for your health.
2) Focus on boosting metabolism over restriction.
Whether you want to lose weight, or avoid weight gain, boosting your metabolism will allow you to eat nourishing foods without feeling deprived.
I have worked with many women who previously were unable to lose weight if they ate above 1000 calories. This isn’t enough food to meet daily nutritional needs. After boosting their metabolisms they are able to either maintain or lose .5-2 lbs a week (as opposed to gaining weight).
By boosting her metabolism, one woman was able to reach many of her goals by week 10 in the Stress Less Weight Mastery:
3 ways to increase metabolism for weight mastery:
- Nutrition: Protein and fiber are two dietary components that can kick your metabolism into high gear.
- Movement: High Intensity Interval Training and Strength Training are both types of movement that allow you to burn more calories without restricting food intake.
- Hormone balance: Cortisol imbalance keeps your body in a state of hormonal fat storage mode, so balancing stress hormones can make weight loss or maintenance much easier.
3) Body Acceptance and Self-Care
Whether you want to lose weight or not, developing compassion and acceptance for your body, no matter the size, results in a better quality of life.
Letting go of beliefs about what size you “should” be and learning to embrace who you are, allows you to freely don your bathing suit and play at the pool with your grandkids, rather than missing out on the fun because of your size.
Focusing on caring for yourself because it allows you to feel good, rather than as a means to lose weight, makes it easy to make the healthiest choice for yourself.
For Jenny, a graduate of the Stress Less Weight Mastery, body acceptance was the key to enjoying life again:
For Annette, another graduate of the program, body acceptance allows her to confidently look in the mirror:
How I Achieved Freedom from Overeating Without Feeling Deprived and Learned to Love My Body Again
Weight Mastery is what allowed me to maintain my weight during the pandemic rather than slip back into old comfort eating patterns and unintentionally gain.It’s allowed me to see my “obese” reflection in the mirror as I go back to my group fitness classes and think “looking sexy!” rather than “uggggh” (most days… let’s be honest, I’m human and have the occasional bad body day).
Weight loss isn’t off the table for me, but it’s not the focus for me right now. Instead, I am focused on radical self-care and weight mastery so I can get strong enough to backpack through the Enchantments later this summer.