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An Eating Disorder Specialist Explains: If You Want to Lose Weight, You Are Probably Focusing on the Wrong Thing.

Why Weight-loss Cannot be the Goal.

Here’s the deal with weight-loss and scales: There is absolutely no number on the scale that will result in, “Yep, we got it, we hit the mark, now we are done dieting, trying the next “lose weight quick” trick, restricting, bingeing, purging, over exercising, taking laxatives, etc. We have arrived.” Whether you are struggling with an active eating disorder, in recovery from an eating disorder, or have body issues that result in yo-yo dieting, or have body image issues that result in (fill in the blank); it is unlikely there will be much benefit in utilizing your scale under the influence of said body image issues. In other words, go home you’re drunk.

Here’s Why:

  1. Body Image and weight loss are moving targets: Once you hit one, the target changes or moves. One day the goal is weight-loss, another day tighter abs, then more weight-loss, then a juice cleanse for detoxing and/or more weight-loss, and then tighter abs again. You get it, the dissatisfaction with self goes on and on, it morphs into something else, and the stakes are high- your self-acceptance and self-worth are on the line.
  2. Shame as a motivator: The good ole’ “I’ll teach myself not to do that again” weigh-in. This is the morning after weigh-in, it’s purpose is to see the damage or be surprised by the lack thereof, and then dictate how you will eat, exercise and feel about yourself for the rest of the day, week, or month.
  3. Weigh-ins Activate Eating Disordered Thinking: if you are down a few pounds the mind starts racing about what you did this week and how to replicate it for next week and until the end of time. If you are up a few pounds your mind starts racing about what factors impacted the gains, shame about the gains, and plans to rectify the situation. Whatever the number the obsessive thoughts are not effective or useful, period.
  4. The Weight Watchers Effect (WWE): People who have ever been to weight watchers describe being in a constant state of robbing Peter to pay Paul, the restricting before the weigh-in and then the bingeing after the weigh-in. Once you weigh-in you then have the rest of the week to restrict and get back down to your goal weight for your next weigh-in. This cycle is not sustainable for obvious reasons. Also, enough with this hamster wheel, people deserve to be free from this endless cycle.
  5. It Doesn’t work: Bingeing and restricting adhere to a very specific formula, every binge ultimately leads to a restriction and every restriction leads to a binge. And on we go. The weighing and weight loss focus is a symptom of this formula. The bottom line is that it doesn’t work, there is a saying in eating disorder recovery, “Focus on the weight, lose the recovery; focus on the recovery, lose the weight.”

Now What:

Eating Disorder therapists often use blind weights or weigh-ins to refer to the act of weighing someone and not disclosing the number on the scale, this is to decrease obsession with weight and decrease anxiety associated with weight gain. The number can’t impact you if you don’t know what it is. Blind weighing is also useful in eating disorder recovery because it keeps you in the present moment. When the focus isn’t on the number on the scale, we can focus on the more important things like, your recovery and the life you are building.

A big variable in eating disorder treatment is control, trusting your therapist with the weight is exposure to balancing a long-term recovery challenge of trust and control. I tell my clients, “I’ve got it,” my eye on the progress AND their back. I treated a guy years ago who lost over 100 pounds, when his treatment ended he said, “I don’t think I would have lost all my weight if every week I had to think about my ups and downs.” If he knew he was up .5 pounds, down 2 pounds, up 4 pounds, down 2 pounds, etc. it likely would have created huge obstacles in his progress. It causes too much anxiety and distorted thinking (see above). Blind weights take one symptom off the table which can lead to significantly less obsessive thinking and preoccupation with the weight.

The number on the scale is outsourcing self-worth, without the number we learn to find other indicators to determine how we are doing. As a therapist, I am not thrown by the fluctuations, I am not attached to the number, I am in the business of recovery. We focus on the recovery and let weight loss be an outcome rather than a goal. Yes, you will lose weight when you stop bingeing, purging, over exercise, etc.; yes, you will gain weight when you stop restricting, over exercising. Yes, it will be difficult. It will be really hard at times. No, it will not be as painful and difficult as being in an active eating disorder. And full recovery is possible, I am lucky enough to see people transform and build lives free from the grips of their eating disorders.

To My “Yeah But, Naysayers”

There are a few, very rare occasions, when I find weight to be effective metric in eating disorder treatment. There is a reality testing component that is effective in helping to manage body dysmorphia and distorted perception of self. Meaning after an extended period being disconnected from the way one’s body actually is in reality, knowing one’s weight can help keep the recovery and the eating disorder grounded in reality, in real time. The other time is when a client and I contract around them allowing me to weigh them in return for them agreeing not to obsessively weigh themselves at home. I make a commitment to tell them if their weight fluctuates more than 5 pounds in either direction. Other than that, weight and scales really don’t have much utility in eating disorder recovery.

Other Self-Worth Metrics to Focus on:

  1. How you feel: how are you feeling about yourself? Your recovery?
  2. How are you doing: what are your recovery behaviors? What is different about your life today?
  3. Do you feel connected to others and yourself? Do you notice moments of feeling more at peace with yourself?
  4. Do you have energy? Are you sleeping better? Do you have more self-esteem?

If you are struggling with an eating disorder call NEDA Helpline at (800) 931-2237 and get connected with resources, services, and eating disorder specialists in your area. You are not alone.

Originally published at www.meghanbreen.com

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