Screenshot from Spirited Away

How to embark on your own journey to weight-loss and a healthy body

How to make meaningful improvements to your life by reprogramming your habits

It’s not about dieting

Weight-loss is no easy subject to talk about. While public figures such as Donald Trump’s racist and sexist comments are widely criticized, his fat shaming of former Miss Universe was only branded as disrespect for women. The $60+ Billion diet industry is also built on fat-shaming, not health-seeking. This trend cannot go on.

Image from Washington Post; quotes from New York Times

Finding a way to be at peace with our bodies while still making improvements to our health is what we need. And each one of us need to find his/her own way to peace.

How do we get there? — you ask? I cannot tell you your answer. But I can break the problem down and show you strategies to solving each part of it. It’s not about the hacks or tricks; it’s about equipping yourself with the right skills and mindset.

We need to solve 4 main problems to build healthier habits and bodies:

  1. Starting with a realistic mindset
  2. Finding the right source of knowledge
  3. Keeping track of progress and learnings
  4. Coaching and healing the heart

1. Starting with a realistic mindset

Do not underestimate the difficulty of adjusting your mindset when it comes to changing your body. I was only able to get rid of unhealthy mindsets through years of yo-yo dieting and failed attempts.

Here are the bad mindsets I got rid of:

  • Expecting weight loss to be fast
  • Blaming my determination and self-discipline solely for failures
  • Demonizing certain foods (e.g. carbohydrates, fats, etc.)
  • Expecting the need to change habits to be temporary
  • That my self worth is tied to how others like my body image
  • Blindly believing in every single piece of advice professionals and non-professionals gave me

Here are the healthy beliefs I gained through analyzing my failures:

  • Habit changing is life-long
  • Sustainable habits are more important than being strict to myself
  • Food is to be eaten in an enjoyable and balanced way
  • All valid advice are ideas to be tested and proven for my own body
  • The process of taking charge of my life and habits is more important than the resulting weight
  • It’s okay to not be able to completely ignore society and other people’s view of me — I just need to re-focus on myself and my ambitions whenever society gets in the way

You need to find your own ways to avoid the unhealthy and gain the healthy beliefs. One strategy is to learn from past successful habit changes. What did you believe in and how were you feeling when you made the habit switch? What helped you stay on track? Have you had failed attempts to change yourself / habits like my yo-yo dieting? What can you learn from those experiences?

Another good strategy is to find role models among your peers and social circle. The role models come in two types: 1) the champion who changed his/her lifelong habits sustainably; 2) the guru who is in-tune with his/her own body. I was fortunate to have role models in both of these categories. Instead of copying what they do exactly, I observed their mindsets and beliefs, which in turn taught me how to become like them.

2. Finding the right source of knowledge

Besides mindset, we also need reliable knowledge to judge what is a healthy habit for ourselves. The science here is important, but what’s more important to you is using the science / knowledge to find your own balance and equilibrium. Here’s what you need to figure out how to do:

  1. Using general science as a starting point of guidance

General knowledge on how to distinguish groups of foods (protein, carbohydrates, veggies, fats) is very helpful. Understanding basic concepts of blood sugar level, how hunger is triggered, etc. is also very helpful. The good news is that there are plenty of good sources of basic information such as the Harvard School of Public Health site. The most helpful general knowledge I received was the general plate composition (~50% veggie, 25% protein, 25% complex carbohydrates).

2. Avoid silver bullet hacks

Equipping yourself with the basic knowledge doesn’t mean seeking the cheap hacks that are oversimplified or simply wrong. It also doesn’t mean that you follow exactly what textbooks tell you to do. I’m sure you’d hate to be influenced by someone with a political or business agenda. I’ve summarized a list of the types of resources you should avoid:

a) The one-off one true answer (e.g. “Eat bananas only and you’ll be thin”, “the don’t eat any carbs diet”, etc.)

b) The I know exactly what you should eat diets (e.g. “Follow this recipe exactly and you’ll lose 10 lbs in a week”, “replace all your meals with my milk shakes and you’ll be all set”, “follow Kim Kardashian to lose 30 lbs”, “you should quit dinner because my daughter lost 10lbs by skipping dinner every day”, etc.)

c) The I count calories to death diets (e.g. “you can eat anything as long as you burn all the calories you eat” advice)

d) The temporary solutions (e.g. “summer diets to lose 10 lbs before the beach”)

3. Experiment with food ideas to see what fits your body

Experimentation is the most fun part of the process. The idea is that we start with general knowledge about food and nutrition and experiment to find ways that we could make it work for our own bodies. The famous BBC documentary, The Truth about Exercise, is a great example of putting experimentation in action to find what works. Here’s one example of how I experimented with breakfast ideas:

Experiment: breakfast

Goal: to find a good healthy breakfasts that I enjoy and can sustainably prepare for myself

General knowledge at start: I need to eat breakfast to be healthy; breakfast should be mostly lean protein and whole grains

Experiment variants: 1) 2 eggs and tomato stirfry Chinese style plus 1 slice whole wheat bread; 2) 1 slice sprouted whole wheat bread and 1 tbs peanut butter; 3) greek yogurt plus fruit

Result: Variant 2 won because of three factors: 1) how much I enjoy the food; 2) convenience of preparation which correlates to building this into a sustainable habit

I’m not getting paid to write about Rise

There are many fine points of tuning food habits using researched knowledge that makes this process much harder than I sound. I chose to use a mobile app called Rise where I get meal-by-meal advice from a professional dietician. My nutritionist, Hilary, has been extremely helpful in guiding me through the finer details. I was able to avoid most of what I call “the dieter’s anxiety” thanks to Hilary. Ultimately you will have to figure out this knowledge + experimentation stage for yourself. I highly recommend working with a professional, but all the power to you if you can manage it yourself!

3. Keeping track of progress and learnings

Keeping track of progress is critical to learning and improving your habits. The experiments you do with food will be a waste of time if you can’t verify or remember the results. The types of data you’d ideally track include weight, body fat percentage, each meal, your feelings of hunger / other emotions and exercise / sleep levels. I use the following criteria to judge what’s a good tool for tracking data:

a) Input effort (low effort = sustainable habit)

b) Accuracy / reliability (high reliability = less anxiety)

The list of tracking tools that are integral to my journey are:

My favorite post run brunch
  1. Withings wifi scale: the wifi is so crucial here because it makes logging weight and body-fat composition so much easier
  2. Rise: recording each meal just by snapping a picture. This method is both the easiest (no stressful calorie counting) and reliable (checked by a professional nutritionist; clear feedback loop)
  3. Fitbit watch: easy and generally reliable steps tracking for my activities
  4. Strava: I’m training to run long distance and a GPS enabled tracker like Strava is generally reliable and makes my life much easier

4. Coaching and healing the heart

Each one of us is unique and incredibly complex. I’m not able to discern what’s important to you, what motivates you or what makes you happy. But at the least I can share my story and hope that it offers some form of inspiration for your journey.

My journey consists of walking away from others’ expectations and living my life for myself. I grew up in a happy and large Chinese family as the oldest child of my generation. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to eat as much as I can out of their desire to see me grow up healthy. Combined with my own love for good food, I managed to never disappoint my family. Starting my teenage years, my family (and myself) had high hopes for my becoming a star high-achieving child. It was okay for me to prioritize school and extracurriculars over my health, friends, family and any other aspects of my life. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get into a great college that changed my life trajectory. But the price I paid was heavy. So heavy that I never built some of the most crucial good habits to make me happy. I never had a “life”.

The unsustainable life I lead finally crashed during the first year after college. To make myself happier, stronger and more independent, I decided to work on piecing together the healthy life I want. The work here included re-thinking what career makes me happy, how I want to make friends, my approach to dating, and last but not least, my way of building a healthier body.

My journey has many ups and downs. Whenever I have a setback, I remind myself where I came from and that I chose this journey to live the life I wanted. My nutritionist at Rise also helps me by asking the right questions and reassuring me when I need peace of mind. I’m also lucky to have close friends and family to count on when I need support. The key lesson I learned is that we’re never alone. I hope you will feel comfortable to seek the resources and help when you need to as well.

I hope my story can inspire you to believe that you too have the power to change your life and habits, and that your own self-determination can triumph over the expectations of the society and other people. To get started on coaching your own heart, read Dr. Jan Bays’s book on Mindful Eating.

What’s next?

Life throws bigger challenges at us the more problems we solve. My journey continues. I am now at a plateau stage where I’m learning how to break homeostasis, balance workout vs. eating and most importantly reduce stress that comes with bigger challenges. I will keep you updated on what I discover next.