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Weight loss is a three-part process: Exercising and cutting calories are vital, but your mental outlook can mean the difference between success and failure.
"Self-defeating thoughts are often the most overlooked factors when a dieter gets off track," says Jeffrey Wilbert, PhD, author of Fattitudes: Beat Self-Defeat and Win Your War with Weight (St. Martin's Press, 2000). "You feel disappointed when a quick fix turns out to be anything but, or weak if you succumb to an intense craving for ice cream." Without the resolve to overcome such thoughts, sticking with any major lifestyle change can be difficult, if not impossible.
The key is to adopt the right attitude before you start your plan. "If you're really serious about slimming down, you need to think long-term. That's why it helps to ready yourself emotionally to take on the challenge," says Daniel C. Stettner, PhD, a behavioral-medicine specialist at Northpointe Health Center in Berkley, Michigan. These eight strategies will help strengthen your mind-set.
You probably have lots of reasons for wanting to lose weight. Not all, however, may be good ones. "If your decision develops primarily out of pressure from someone else, your conviction to succeed could diminish over time," says Stettner. "To ensure success, you need to develop the will to improve your life, not someone else's vision of it."
Start by listing all the reasons you can think of for slimming down. Highlight any that include other people. Rewrite the list, omitting the highlighted items. Next, inspect each one for phrases like "have to" or "must." Such words imply obligation, not desire; eventually, they'll also invite the instinct to rebel. (Test the theory: Stand in front of a piece of chocolate cake and tell yourself over and over that you must refuse it. You'll instantly want to dig in.) Translate each "have to" into a "want to." If your reasons lose their relevance, pare down the list again, until you find two or three of the most compelling motivations.
"Studies show that most dieters expect to lose as much as four times what they really can in a six-month period," says Stettner.
Think smaller: Count on losing just 10 percent of your weight within six months, and focus on keeping it off for more than a year. But be careful about relying solely on figures. "A number on the scale isn't a goal; it's a measurement of success," says Bonnie Goodman, a psychotherapist based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who specializes in behavioral therapy. Instead, focus on behaviors you wish to change: to reduce your daily fat intake to below 35 percent, or to cut out your afternoon soda or vending-machine snack. Also, consider setting non-weight-related goals, such as entering a 5K race. The pounds you'll automatically lose in the process will seem like a bonus.
Rather than trying every new diet fad, create your own plan that will fit your lifestyle. You need to cut out only 150 calories a day to lose 15 pounds in a year, so start small.
"Little changes to your current eating style, like downsizing portions or preparing foods differently, can add up to big results," says Stettner.
Think about the foods you can -- and can't -- live without, then try to work your diet around them. Love chocolate? Have a small piece every day. If you're a born snacker, divide your daily calories into six or seven mini meals so you always feel like you're having a nibble. Whatever you do, don't give up your favorite foods. You'll inevitably feel deprived, which will only make your cravings stronger -- and your willpower weaker.
A mental dress rehearsal prepares you to recognize and accept success. "Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and picture yourself healthier and slimmer," suggests Goodman. How do you walk? With your head held high. How do you dress? More boldly. How do you feel? More confident, energized, and proud of your achievements.
Start by making "commitment appointments." First thing in the morning, set your goal for the day, whether it's to spend an hour at the gym or to cook a healthy meal. Before the beginning of every month, decide which days you'll work out and what you'll do. Shop for healthy foods once a week, always on the same day if possible.
Stettner also recommends planning ahead for any obstacles you might encounter, such as a visit from the in-laws or a weekend getaway. If your mother-in-law stresses you out (and leaves you raiding the fridge after everyone's gone to bed), schedule private time during her visit to unwind. Going away? Book a hotel with a fitness center, or plan an active outing. Keep an exercise record and a food diary (noting not just what you eat, but when and why), and schedule a time to make entries.
Sadness and anger are two of the most common reasons women overeat, but food won't quell either one. Your diary can provide valuable insights into what may be causing you to binge occasionally. Once you start evaluating your eating triggers, you'll be able to develop more effective strategies to deal with the underlying emotions. Keep in mind, too, that the very act of committing to a diet plan can bring its own challenges.
"Fear of change is a particularly formidable enemy," says Wilbert. "Altering your lifestyle involves taking a risk, and that can dredge up insecurity."
As your body changes, so will the way others perceive you, which can be unnerving. The best way to combat any type of fear is to face it head-on. Keep reminding yourself that every change you make brings you one step closer to becoming a bolder, more confident woman.
"Rewards reinforce positive behavior, but only if they're meaningful," says Goodman. "When you reach a milestone in your weight-loss or exercise routine, treat yourself to something that celebrates the particular goal you achieved and helps further your progress."
Logging an extra mile a week on the treadmill? Invest in a pair of top-of-the-line running shoes. If you've dropped a dress size, buy an outfit that highlights your new figure.
"If you make an unhealthy diet choice, admit that you're fallible, but don't drown in a sea of judgmental thoughts," says Wilbert.
Berating yourself won't foster the courage you need to dust off those cookie crumbs and move on. A momentary slip won't register on the scale. An egregious misstep, like a no-holds-barred vacation binge, may delay your weight loss slightly, but it isn't likely to undo every bit of progress you've made. Think about what else you did on vacation, then focus on the positive. For instance, lounging by the pool relieved stress, while sampling the buffets exposed you to new flavors you can incorporate into your own low-cal cooking. Turning negative thoughts into encouraging ones will propel you to keep at it until you finally reach your goal weight.