Is Your Weight Loss Goal Realistic?

Learn how to set (and meet) healthy goals

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, LD, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

I once read a story about a woman who complained to her doctor about her frustration with weight loss. The woman had lost 25 pounds but was not satisfied. "I will not be happy until I lose 25 more pounds," she declared.

Her doctor then asked her a series of questions: Are you feeling better? Do you sleep better? Is it easier to climb a flight of stairs? Can you bend over and tie your shoes? Do you feel better about yourself? The patient answered "yes" to all of the questions.

Her doctor was incredulous. The 25-pound weight loss had substantially improved her health and her quality of life, yet the woman was still not satisfied.

It's not uncommon for dieters to set lofty weight loss goals for themselves. Some reach back umpteen years to their wedding day or college weights. Others fantasize about looking like a supermodel, even though their naturally large frames may make this an impossible goal.

A 2001 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that on average, overweight people set a goal of losing 32% of their body mass. That's three times the amount needed to achieve better health. The truth is, it's unlikely that most dieters will be able to lose one-third of their body weight. Setting extreme goals is a setup for disappointment and failure.

You can achieve your goal weight -- as long as it is reasonable and attainable. Remember that you're on a journey to improve your life and health and gain control over your weight. It's not about perfection.

Set Mini-Goals

Instead of shooting for a size that has not been seen in your closet for 10 years, set more attainable goals. Even modest weight loss can improve your blood pressure and your cholesterol, blood sugar, and triglyceride levels. Losing as little as 10 pounds can put the zip back in your step and make you feel terrific about yourself.

To help keep you motivated toward meeting your ultimate goal, set mini-goals you can reach within a month or so. Track your progress, and reward yourself along the way for improving your eating and exercise habits.

For example, on weeks when you get to the gym five times, treat yourself to flowers, a movie, or a ball game -- whatever feels like a reward to you. This will help keep your attitude positive and remind you of the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.

Changes You Can Live With

You can lose weight on virtually any diet. But to send those extra pounds packing without a round-trip ticket, you must find healthful strategies that you can stay with forever.

The reason we call the food component of the Weight Loss Clinic program an "eating plan" is because it is not a diet. A diet is something you can go on and off of; an eating plan is for life.

Adopting a new lifestyle means finding the behaviors and attitudes that led to weight gain and, once you've figured out your bad habits, gradually changing them into healthier patterns.

For example, are you a member of the "clean plate club"? Do you mindlessly consume your food in record time? Do you eat in front of the television? Are you always eating or drinking something?

Start to adopt more healthful behaviors such as leaving a few bites of food on your plate at each meal, slowing down and tasting every bite, eliminating interruptions to your meals, and filling your spare time with activities other than eating.

Or your own "better behaviors" might include wearing a pedometer and walking 5,000-10,000 steps each day; switching to fat-free or light food products; giving up fried foods; starting each day with a nutritious breakfast -- the options are endless. The trick is finding changes that are easy for you to incorporate into your life. And when you do something repeatedly, it soon becomes automatic.

So set "process goals" (such as eating five servings of vegetables each day or logging 10,000 steps three days in a row) instead of "outcome goals" (such as losing 30 pounds). Process goals are key to changing behaviors, and that's what will ultimately lead to permanent weight loss. Besides, a healthier lifestyle is more important in the long run than the number of pounds you shed.

The Top of the Mountain

In the beginning of your program, everyone is noticing your weight loss, passing out compliments and cheering you on. But get to the third month or so, and the cheerleaders often all but disappear.

Yet studies show that three to six months after making behavioral changes is an important time for reassessing your strategies. It's a critical point to continue moving forward while maintaining the new habits that got you there.

Think of this time as the top of the mountain -- and you need to get over the top for the new, healthier habits to become routine. Challenge yourself to find ways stay energized during this time: Experiment with new recipes, find a diet or exercise buddy, or try a new type of physical activity.

Take Stock

Take a minute right now to rethink your weight loss goals, and remember you are in this journey for the long haul. Accept that healthy weight loss is slow and steady. Your goal is to lose a pound or two a week. And even if you only lose half a pound, isn't that better than gaining?

Make a list of all the ways your life has improved because of your weight loss so far. Celebrate these victories, write them down, and revisit them often.

Realistic goals will improve your self-esteem and provide the reinforcement you need to help you continue the journey.

Originally published February 2005.
Reviewed and updated January 2006 by Kathleen Zelman.


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