4 Lessons About Weight Loss I didn’t Learn in University
Weight loss and building healthy eating habits is a journey for everyone, including dietitians. There’s always that awkward moment when I meet people for the first time over a meal and I get asked “What do you do?” When I say “I’m a dietitian” there has to be a reaction and it’s usually this: They take a quick look at their plate (to remember what they are eating) then their eyes glance at my plate. This is either followed by an embarrassed “Oh, I better watch what I am eating. Heh.” or a judgmental “Oh so as a dietitian, you eat (insert name of food I am eating)?!”
As a dietitian, from the moment you carry that title, you are expected to have your life together in terms of healthy eating and weight management. This cannot be further from the truth and here’s why: developing healthy eating habits and sustainable weight loss requires far more that nutrition knowledge. A Bachelor Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics covers things like the biochemistry of food, nutritional requirements at different stages of the life-cycle and dietary requirements for different diseases. Knowing this information does not necessarily mean that I have worked through my own eating habits that I have developed over the past 20 years or so.
Knowledge is just one component of why we choose the food we eat every day. And while knowledge is empowering and allowing for more educated choices and does help with weight loss, it is only one element of a very complex process. Many of us know that eating a carrot stick is a better snack than a packet of chips, yet we still go for the latter far more often than we would like. Reaching a health goal requires a process of goal setting counseling, coaching, overcoming barriers and motivation. It requires reflection and mindfulness. It also requires acceptance and support – none of which were included in my university degree.
So, after years of focusing on what I am eating – dissecting the ingredients of every meal, counting calories and visualizing dishes as macro-nutrients and developing a love-hate relationship with food (“Oh you taste so good but I really really shouldn’t eat you!”) I was finally able to change my perspective. I can finally say that I’m in a place where I am happy with my food choices, my weight and with my reflection in the mirror. Here are the four lessons I wasn’t taught in a university class about weight loss:
1. Food is to be enjoyed, not counted
Counting calories and weighing my food really took the joy out of my eating experience. I would visualize my plate into proteins, fats and carbohydrates and even kept a journal of every food I ate. This took away a lot of the pleasure from my meals. I slowly learned that nutrition is only one component of our eating experience. And while that was the main focus of my classes at university every day, it should not be given more importance than is necessary. Because eating is also about exploring flavors, going on a journey, learning about a new culture and sharing a sensory experience with people you love. All of the above should be given equal attention.
2. Reconnect with your instincts
Humans are born with the natural instinct to stop eating when our body has had enough. Somewhere along the line, these signals get bombarded with other information from our culture, the media, the food industry – and we lack the ability to listen to our body telling us “I’ve had enough food to fuel.” This is where mindful eating comes in. I discovered it and read more about it this year and it has really helped me transform my food experience to one that involves bringing my full attention to the process of eating and to all the tastes, smells, thoughts, and feelings that arise during a meal. This has helped me eat less while enjoying food more. Something I previously thought was impossible! We have been running workshops about this topic that have been really successful, check out our next one here.
3. Create a Supportive Environment For Weight Loss
I remember the day I sat with my husband and said “Louai, I need your help. I am not happy with my diet, my weight and my lifestyle and I need you to support me. I have a goal and I know that I really can’t reach it without your support.” My husband is a total foodie and exercise and good nutrition weren’t anywhere in his radar. This meant that my expectations were really low in terms of how much this was going to change anything, but I was desperate. To my surprise, he looked at me and said, “Okay, what can I do to help?” A year later, this turned out to be a life changing day for the both of us. That day we discussed a few actionable ways he can help, including signing up to the gym, cooking healthier meals and getting rid of unhealthy snacks around the house. We agreed not to be too strict though, and to still eat less healthy meals on weekends if we wanted to. 2016 was the first year we regularly went to the gym. Today, we both feel lighter, fitter and stronger than ever. My husband had severe back pain and was chronically on pain killers, he now, thanks to stronger muscles and a few lost kg of fat, he only occasionally takes them on days that require some heavy lifting. We also explored healthier cooking and created dishes that we both love and look forward to. (You can read more about my adventures in the kitchen in 2016 in this blog post).
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4. Be more reflective and less judgmental
This is another concept from mindful eat
ing that I learned that absolutely helped in my weight loss journey. It is about being aware without self-criticism or judgement. So instead of eating until I am too full and then feeling guilty, I would take a step back and reflect on the situation and understand the moment that triggered me to eat better. Was I feeling stressed? Angry? Happy? Am I eating for comfort? Convenience? Entertainment? How did I feel afterwards? When we understand the root cause of the emotion that led to the undesirable behavior, we can work on changing the source and only then, can we make sustainable long term changes.
The lessons I learned in university were absolutely valuable to my journey and the work I do with my clients, but it was these four lessons that helped me on my weight loss journey and made me a more understanding, more supportive and more empowering dietitian. Nutrition is a science that impacts the physiological and biochemical processes but it also interacts with psychological and socio-cultural elements of our lives. This is why we all need a personalized, client centered approach for long term success. This is why, as dietitians, we need to seek support from fellow dietitians if we are not happy with our diet and our lifestyle- and that shouldn’t make us feel less competent. I for one regularly see Baraa and Rola to improve my lifestyle, and this has been the highlight of my journey.
These were the lessons I had to learn to reach a #healthierhappierme, what will yours be?
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