Excuses are so common in the weight-loss world that there’s actually a website where users can rank them (Fatexcuses.com). Of course, some excuses for being overweight are legit. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on healthy living altogether, says Dr. Tim Pychyl, author of The Procrastinator’s Digest and professor of psychology at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. “The best mantra is, just get started. Change your behavior, not your attitude,” he says. “Just get started and the world changes. A little bit of progress on our goals fuels our well-being, and fueling our well-being builds motivation. It is an upward spiral.”
What do you say, though, to those voices in your head trying to let you off the hook? Here are the top excuses, and how to keep them from sabotaging your weight-loss efforts.
I have fat genes—my whole family is fat. It’s true that obesity does run in families, and those “fat” genes make it harder for you to maintain a normal weight, says Dr. Barbara Gower, professor of physiology and metabolism at the University of Alabama. She believes these genes create a vicious cycle: high insulin levels that lead to low blood sugar, carb cravings, overeating and more high insulin. Insulin makes the body store fat, and locks it up so you can’t burn it for fuel. “It’s very frustrating. People say they are always hungry, and they really are. They can’t get at their fuel reserve the same way a healthy person can,” she says. If you’re one of these, your best strategy is to stay away from highly processed carbohydrates like bread and sugar, she says. Instead, have healthy fats, lean protein, big salads, eggs, chicken, fish, avocadoes. “The carb craving is a conditioned response,” she says. “Staying away from them gets easier over time.”
My metabolism is slow. Ask your doctor to check your thyroid function, Gower suggests. Women age 50 or older should have a baseline screening of thyroid stimulating hormone, or TSH. If it’s low, or even borderline low, you may need to take thyroid hormone such as Synthroid. Proper thyroid function is important for proper metabolism.
If your thyroid is normal, but you’re convinced your problem is low metabolism, you can get your metabolic rate tested at a university hospital. This test measures how much oxygen you are using and how much carbon dioxide you are exhaling. However, don’t expect to be vindicated. “We do this all the time, and the truth is, we almost never see people with a metabolism problem,” Gower says.
Whatever your test results, there are ways to boost your metabolism, Gower says. First, and foremost, exercise regularly, which will increase your metabolism during and afterwards. Crank up casual walking into the huff-and-puff range, and do strength training to build muscle mass and help you burn calories 24/7.
I just don’t have the willpower. Willpower is a limited resource and needs to be used strategically, Pychyl says. “We don’t have endless amounts of it, and we can use it up, so if I spend a lot of my willpower in one area of my life I am not likely to have a lot left for another area,” he explains. One trick is to structure your environment so less willpower is required. Replace the plate of cookies on the counter with a bowl of fruit. Have your bike ready at the front door when you get home from work. Keep your gym bag in the car. Make plans to walk with a friend. Plan ahead what you will order when you eat out. When you do need willpower, and it’s waning, use an affirmation to shore it up, such as “I choose to eat only healthy foods.”
I’m too busy/tired to exercise. “Of course you are busy. Everyone is busy. This just means you haven’t made it a priority,” Pychyl says. It’s fairly easy–and does not seem unreasonable–to say that you are going to skip exercise for one day, or a couple of days. But a consistent lack of physical activity will eventually take its toll, and the more you skip it, the easier it becomes to keep skipping it, he says. “The trick is to think about your future self, and your future self desperately needs this exercise,” he says. Draw a “bright line” that limits what you will and will not do around those future goals, so you are less likely to skip days, and forgive yourself when you do cross the line.
I eat when I’m stressed. It’s true that calorie-restricters tend to eat more when stressed, while people who aren’t watching calories eat less. In fact, carbohydrates do lower stress hormones and provide temporary calm. But in the long run, stress-related eating just creates more problems. Find other good ways to chill out, Gower says. Her choice: exercise, which also reduces stress hormone levels and offers a shot of feel-good endorphins. If you can’t exercise, try meditation, simple breathing exercises or yoga. In a pinch, have a small piece of dark chocolate, also a proven stress reliever.
I’m OK during the day, but at night I raid the fridge. People who restrict calories too much during the day are most likely to be those who binge at night, but, like most of us, they remain hopeful that this same strategy will somehow, some day, work, Pychyl says. Instead, learn from your previous behavior and set up your day so that you are less likely to overeat at night. Eat protein foods early in the day, and throughout the day. Try eating your biggest meal at noon. Plan less-stressful activities for after dinner, like a family walk or board game. Cut back on TV and web surfing and get to bed on time. It will cut back on late-night eating and make you likely to indulge in stress eating.
I’m over 40 and going through menopause. It’s true that our metabolism does slow down as we age, so it’s harder to lose weight, and we tend to shift from muscle to fat. Fluctuating hormones can also disrupt the normal body systems that help keep us on track, so this is a particularly challenging time for women, Gower says. We may need to cut back on calories just to maintain our weight. But the best way to approach mid-life-plus weight gain is, once again, regular exercise.“You can counteract this at least partially with both aerobic and muscle-building exercise,” Gower says. “Staying active is critically important for many aspects of aging, not just obesity.”
I’ll lose weight when you shut up about it. People can change, but they don’t like being ordered to change, and the more you tell them what they should do, the more they are likely to say, forget it, I am not doing what you say. If you’re one of these, look for your own real motivators for change. Is it to avoid the diabetes that runs in your family? To find a mate? To be able to do exciting travel? Ask friends and family for real support, not preaching or advice. Make specific requests about chores, food and ways to reduce stress.
I feel like I am addicted to certain foods. Some research does suggest that just seeing certain foods can trigger a response in the brain similar to drug addiction. Being around the food hijacks your thinking brain and makes you want the food. Food manufacturers may try to optimize these cravings with their food formulations. To complicate matters even more, some foods contain naturally occurring opiate-like molecules that can stimulate consumption. Wheat is one of these foods; dairy is another. The solution? Don’t have these foods around the house. Be mindful of how you react to them, even on television. If you “can’t eat just one,” then just say no. Avoid the food completely.