Ditch Perfect: Seven tips to win the long game at weight loss

Want to achieve perfection? Try sculpting bonsai, playing piano scales, nailing a jump shot. Anything but nutrition.

Nothing sabotages a perfectly good weight loss plan like the perfectionist.

In the short run, no doubt a perfectionist will power through the beginning of a weight loss program. Motivation will be at an all-time high as promises of a “new you” sink in and new-and-improved swimsuit-clad images flicker through the mind.

That motivation will eventually fizzle, though, and the planned or unplanned pizza will be back on the plate, the chocolate bar wrappers strewn about. No matter what. No matter who.

Why? Nobody – not even the super model skinny nor the Olympic-level athlete – is perfect when it comes to food.

“None of us can be completely perfect our entire lives,” said FITSPACE registered dietitians and personal trainers. “If you want long-term success? The difference is if you fall, can you recover?”

So how does one ditch perfect in order to see weight loss progress? Horner and fellow Fitspace registered dietitian Alex Shepp take us through seven steps:

1. Balance and the 80-20 rule. Add nutrition to the list of areas to apply the 80-20 rule. Get nutrition right 80 percent of the time and plan to be less-than-perfect 20 percent of the time, Horner said. Relax a little, whether that means adhering to a nutrition plan during the week, and having a meal out with the family on the weekends, or allowing a so-called slip in the nutrition plan from time to time during the week. Whatever the combination, the key is finding a balance each individual can sustain. 

2. Manage anxiety. “It all comes down to managing anxiety.” The very act of telling a client it’s better to forget perfection in nutrition sometimes alleviates anxiety. Weight loss is a mind game. If the plan is too strict, deprivation will set in, and it will backfire in the form of a feeding frenzy.

3. Look to the long game. Most weight loss programs last a limited amount of time. Fitspace’s Ultimate program, for example, is a 12-week course. Clients plan out those weeks with the help of dietitians and trainers, but should think beyond 12 weeks.

Fitspace co-owner Stephanie Winters, who’s participating in the current Ultimate class, said she knows she could lose weight faster if she aimed for perfection. But she wants the changes she’s making to be ones she can stick to beyond 12 weeks. She could have cut alcohol from her diet completely. Instead, Winters said she limited herself to two drinks a week, something she said she could live with long-term.

4. Set mini goals to reach bigger goals. Shepp suggests chopping up big weight loss goals into realistic, more easily achievable goals and rewarding with something other than food. Shepp said she encourages clients to look beyond the scale and see positive change in lab results, better energy levels, and shrinking body measurements.

5. Recover from a nutrition fail.  The sooner a person can recover from a snack or meal that went off plan, the sooner they’ll see results.

When deviating from the eating plan, it promotes stress and anxiety, both of which can increase cortisol levels and tamper with gut health by creating an inflammatory response. That, in turn, can drive hunger for carb-laden foods because they provide quick energy and help calm anxiety, Shepp said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

To break the cycle and mitigate the inflammation, Shepp suggested recovering with a meal high in protein and healthy fats such as salmon and vegetables cooked in coconut or olive oil, along with fermented foods such as sauerkraut or kimchi.

Horner also suggested learning from what went wrong and asking what went wrong? What were the circumstances? What triggered it? Was the meal planned and could it have been planned better?

6. What about the workout? The same holds true when seeking perfection in a workout. Forget it. Winters said she could spend an hour focusing on a client’s perfect form, but the time would be wasted. The client would be frustrated both by a lack of progress and because he or she likely wouldn’t move much during that hour. “If we spent the entire hour going over form to a T, they wouldn’t sweat,” Winters said.  

So when she’s training a client, Winters aims for pretty good. She needs to correct the client’s form, but not during every repetition of the exercise. Winters also wants to ensure the client has a good time during the workout and feels good about their progress because the positive attitude will lead to better choices throughout the day.

7. Practice makes perfect? Practice isn’t going to get you to perfect in nutrition. But practice will make it easier to eat well more often, Horner said. Where some clients take a week to get back on track, the longer they’ve been trying, the sooner they recover. A week is whittled to days, and days eventually become a recovery that begins at just the next meal. 


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