The one thing I’m certain of since losing more than 23kg (3½st) is there was no one single reason that caused me to gain weight.
It was a mix of many habits, behaviours and mindset, and this equally so applies to my weight loss. It’s been about a year since I lost the weight, and I’m still in the process of getting leaner, healthier and fitter, but there are times I gain weight.
Instead of berating and judging myself harshly when my weight does go up as I’ve previously done, I’ve had to work at understanding what patterns I get stuck in that don’t benefit me and change them. On the plus side, I’ve also found good habits can become as entrenched in my life as bad habits.
When I decided to get healthier in August 2017, I wanted it to be permanent and move away from quick fixes, and no longer feel like exercise or any food was a punishment. I was fed-up feeling overwhelmed with shame, disgust and guilt. Part of how I’ve achieved that is through assessing my behaviours logically every so often, breaking down unhealthy habits and changing them bit by bit.
Yes, move more and eat less is the simple answer to losing weight, but it can be much more complex than that. I’ve tackled some of my bigger unhealthy habits, which included my mindset, binge eating, the cycle of food restriction and then overeating, and looking at exercise as a punishment. I’ve built-up those habits over years, and they are still familiar and comfortable even though they made me deeply unhappy. So the urges to return to them still reappear every so often but being aware and honest about them lessens my drive to give in, and breaking it down to small steps helps me pass them. Focusing on my mindset has been key to me.
Critical self talk
I’ve noticed there are times when I don’t lose weight despite my best efforts and realised it’s perfectly fine, my body just needs time to readjust.
But as the months have gone by, and I’m improving with my critical self talk, and moved away from the feelings of failure when I don’t follow a plan “perfectly”, I’ve given myself a chance to observe some of my less obvious behaviours that cause me to not lose weight and to feel unhealthy.
I'd lost faith in controlling my own body and habits
I’m getting an unexpected quiet satisfaction from being aware of habits that make me feel unhealthy and gain weight, which gives me a sense of control. Even if the scales doesn’t go up, I’m noticing different foods and habits that make me feel sluggish and unhealthy. It’s empowering to work on becoming an expert on my own body. When I was at my heaviest, 34.5kg (5st 6lb) overweight, there were times I longed for someone to just tell me what to eat and exercise to lose the weight. I wanted to give away responsibility for my wellbeing. I didn’t want to think about any of it any more and felt disconnected from my body.
I’d lost faith in controlling my own body and habits. I started to feel worse about my weight every day and, seeing it starting to affect my health, worried I would reach a point of no return. I finally realised time was going to pass any way and tackling each small step, no matter how tiny it seemed, would eventually make a difference. The sense of achievement progressing through each small step helped build my confidence to keep going. Getting guidance and advice from experts is invaluable but nobody knows me as I do and I needed to properly tune into what works and doesn’t work for me. To learn to be confident in my choices and not afraid of “failing” or making mistakes, and to reconnect with my body, which all takes time and plenty of self-compassion.
Lately, I’ve been assessing behaviours I hadn’t noticed before that stop me from losing weight. These are my top five “hidden” habits:
1. I often underestimate the difference it makes when I'm sedentary for the majority of my day. I work in an office sitting down at a desk. One week I looked back on where I thought I was very active but I wasn't. I'd worked out three times that week, one hour each time, and one strength and conditioning class. But the reality of that week was different: I had burned way less calories than normal as I was much more sedentary than usual including I had no walk to my commute, I didn't take the stairs, I was sitting for most of the time and didn't go outside for a break. My incidental exercise was a lot lower than usual, and it made a difference to my weight and how I felt.
My fitness watch showed I burned substantially less calories overall for the week. I wasn’t moving much in my day-to-day life and workouts weren’t enough to offset that. I realised that small bits of movement through the day – which I wouldn’t normally think about but do make a difference for me – stopped my body feeling achy and re-energised me.
2. Mindless eating. I am guilty of eating in front of a television or at the cinema and then barely remembering what I ate instead of enjoying it. I didn't think I did it that much but it can creep in as a habit for me quite easily. I ate dinner watching Game of Thrones and then had no memory of what I ate or of eating it, then having cravings to eat more to feel satiated, thus eating more than I need. I've also realised I'm influenced by food ads more than I thought, going for snacks while watching television that I wouldn't usually have an interest in eating.
Food is a quick way to feel better, and I recognise that from when I used to binge eat
3. I still sometimes use food as a reward without realising. I'm working on changing my mindset to look at food as a fuel, to enjoy it but eat nutrient-dense food my body needs, but I have a lot of ingrained attitudes towards using food to reward myself in celebrations and sad times. Food is a quick way to feel better, and I recognise that from when I used to binge eat. I no longer put myself through that cycle of guilt, shame and disgust but I do use food as a reward more than I was aware. Unfortunately, it's never broccoli I turn to – it's chocolate or some high-calorie, nutritionally-poor food.
4. I'm tea obsessed and often feel the need to eat something while drinking it even if I'm not hungry. This can adds up to quite a substantial amount of calories. Years ago I switched to drinking green tea because I thought, if I'm going to drink so much tea, it might as well be a tea that is better for me. I've ignored the looks of horror as I dip chocolate into my herbal tea. But I was laughing at one person gasping in disgust at my chocolate-dipping habit when I realised I was eating without being hungry, and did this often without thinking. I've often eaten a snack with my tea without giving it a second thought, adding extra calories I don't need.
5. Without having a target or goal, no matter how small, I can sometimes drift away from my healthier habits. I haven't reached the stage yet where I'm a "natural eater" and exercise is my daily routine. I'm much better than I used to be but I need to improve more. Having targets in place, whether in exercise or food, encourages me to prepare and plan properly. Otherwise I can eat on the go, not make an effort with working out, and then I start to feel less healthy and gain weight eventually.
The targets can be a small, but they make a big difference to me in moving more and eating more healthily.
Rachel Flaherty’s column is about getting fitter and healthier
Part 1: I lost 3st and I'm stronger now
Part 2: Stuck in the weight loss plateau
Part 3: Friend called my fitness holiday a fat camp
Part 4: My plan is driving me up the walls
Part 5: It is slow and fluctuates but has stayed off
Part 6: Why are we doing this? This is terrifying
Part 7: I want to form new habits
Part 8: I gained 4lb. My fear of failure returned
Part 9: It's time to face my nemesis – running
Part 10: Losing weight without trying
Part 11: Letting go of the shame and guilt helped
Part 12: Habits have led to weight loss
Part 13: I've fallen in love with running
Part 14: The mountain doesn't care who you are
Part 15: Unhappy relationship with food and my body
Part 16: I stopped trying to be perfect
Part 17: Lunchtime workout worth the hassle?
Part 18: 35,000 steps across Dublin
Part 19: Military fitness camp
Part 20: My relationship with 'clean eating'
Part 21: Holding on to my 'fat' clothes
Part 22: Missing out on opportunities
Part 23: Five 'hidden' reasons
Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!