Like many 20-somethings, I started dieting at a young age. Junior high and high school were a succession of one diet after another. I tried the Atkins Diet, signed up for Weight Watchers, and counted calories off and on for nearly a decade. As a teen and a young adult, how I felt about my body was largely dependent how my jeans felt when I put them on or how I looked in a bathing suit.
As I grew older, got married and added three children to our family, things started to change. My desire to be thin wasn’t a strong enough foundation to build a healthy lifestyle on. When my days were demanding and busy or if my circumstances were difficult, my weight wasn’t reason enough to keep caring for myself. So, I got into this pattern of trying the old diets I had relied on when I was younger and then getting overwhelmed or worn out and completely letting go of all healthy ideals for a week or two.
It was an unhealthy pattern of salads and grilled chicken followed by over-indulging on chocolate chip cookies or making an impulse run to Taco Bell. I grew tired of the cycle. I grew tired of starting over, of making empty promises to stick with it, of goal weights and off-limits foods. So I swore off dieting forever.
It was the best decision I could have made. I took a year off from worrying about my weight and gave myself permission to just be myself. I ate what sounded good and focused on avoiding overeating or negative self-talk about my body. After a little over a year, I could tell that I needed a more balanced relationship with food. As great as it was not thinking about what I ate, it wasn’t cutting it as a lifelong strategy for my health. I needed to be thinking about what I ate because I needed foods that fueled my body. I was exhausted, feeling run down, and I needed a healthy diet and some physical activity if I wanted to have the energy I needed to keep up with the demands of my life.
So, late last year, I connected with an old friend who is a nutritionist and health coach. I was honest with her that I wanted to feel better, to have more energy to care for the people in my life, and to keep up with work. But I was really worried about falling back into my old pattern of dieting. She encouraged me to focus more on what I should eat — plenty of vegetables and protein — than being worried about off-limits foods. Instead of a list of things I couldn’t eat, she helped me to find balance, eating plenty of good foods and incorporating healthy treats such as homemade muffins or chocolate smoothies.
My visit with her and a few follow-up calls were the pivot point for a change. It was the beginning of a focus on my health for the first time in my life, not my weight. It wasn’t a quick and easy change, and I still struggle to care for myself well when I am very busy, but it has been a slow, day-by-day transformation of how I think about food and my body.
The most beneficial habit I have created is being more mindful of how food and exercise make me feel. If I’m exhausted, I try to stop and evaluate what I ate that day or the day before. Have I had indulged in a few too many cookies? Have I had enough protein, fruits, and vegetables to fuel my busy days?
When it comes to exercise, I also try to take a more mindful approach. I am learning to find movement that feels good and brings me joy. Honestly, I hate working out indoors. I don’t want to watch videos or do laps around a gym. What I love is being outside, taking a hike or going on a long evening walk. So those are the things I am doing right now. Am I getting super strong or dropping a lot of weight? No, not really, but I feel healthy and well cared for when I focus less on those things and more on what makes me feel good.
Of course, it hasn’t been a seamless change. Sometimes I fall back into old ways of focusing too much on my weight. I start getting caught up in calorie counts instead of simply feeding my body a lot of healthy foods and avoiding processed foods that make me feel slow and tired. I start to feel like I’m not doing enough exercise, and I get overzealous, wearing myself out with a training program that isn’t sustainable and doesn’t bring me joy.
Like any major shift in thinking, this process is taking me time, and that’s OK. Knowing what I know now, about how important it is to look at my health as a big picture and not a number on a scale, I am willing to commit to a lifetime of better caring for myself.