The correct answer is … whichever one you need to lose.
No seriously, it’s true. They’re both challenging, but for very different reasons. And wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, that’s the one that’s the most difficult.
Here’s what I mean…
Let’s say you are in your mid-40s and find yourself 50+ pounds overweight. It didn’t happen overnight, but over the years – due to a hectic schedule, relentless stress and (let’s be honest) poor eating and exercise habits – you turned to food to as a pressure relief value and you gained weight.
Lots of weight.
You’ve tried dozens (me = hundreds, maybe thousands) of times to lose weight on various diets. You find you can lose 5 – 10 pounds, but then life happens and you once again turn to your coping mechanism of choice … and you’re right back where you started.
For me, I could lose those 5 – 10 pounds, but at a very high price. I had to steel myself, grit my teeth and exert a huge amount of mental energy to adhere to whatever diet I was on that week. I call this “white-knuckle dieting” because it’s like gripping the steering wheel of your car when you’re driving through a blinding snowstorm. You’re anxious, terrified and completed stressed out doing it. No surprise, trying to lose weight this way is completely unsustainable.
So what makes the first ten pounds and the last ten pounds uniquely challenging and how the hell do you accomplish either one in a way that actually works???
Let’s take a look…
The first ten pounds for someone who has a lot of weight to lose (more than 25 – 30 pounds) is especially difficult because: (Forgive me, and I say this with the compassion of someone who knows this demon, but …)
- You’re an emotional eater. Unchecked emotional eating and an underlying food addiction (see #2 below) drove my own compulsive overeating. Both of these factors make dieting next to impossible, requiring herculean willpower, which, as we all know, is fleeting and unreliable. When I was in the throes of this dieting behavior I always described it as if I were underwater, holding my breath; that is to say, I could do it for a while, but sooner or later I had to come up for air. Food was my air.
The reason the first ten pounds are so challenging is that you’ve got to begin to unravel emotional eating and come to terms with food addiction. (And though these two things are interrelated, they’re distinct problems requiring different solutions.)
For me, I gained control over emotional eating by learning to give voice to the feelings I’d spent a lifetime stuffing down with food. I accomplished this over a period of time, with the support of a professional therapist and my (very patient) friends and family.
- You’ve got an underlying food addiction. As a lifelong food addict now living in active recovery, I’m convinced that this is the reason most people cannot lose weight and/or stick to a healthy eating plan. How in the hell can we if we’re unaware of the cue->urge->reward->habit cycle that we live out every day?
Overcoming food addiction requires a structured approach to eating, along with an active support network and strategies to modify conditioned responses to stimulating triggers. If you too find yourself compulsively overeating and thinking obsessively about unhealthy foods, take my food addiction quiz to find out if you might have an underlying food addiction.
- You’re not managing your stress very well. Unless you’re a Zen master it’s unlikely you won’t have stress in your life. But the way we manage stress plays an important role in losing those first ten pounds. Having healthy relationships, giving voice to your feelings, pursuing goals you value, having hope for the future, finding satisfaction in your work … all of these things help us feel optimistic and grounded, which help us manage stress.
Successfully losing the first ten pounds – and keeping them off – only happens when we’ve dealt with these three hurdles.
I’m not gonna lie, they’re huge and extremely challenging.
After all of that it would seem that the last ten pounds would be a breeze, right?
If you’ve only got ten pounds to lose you’re pretty close to your ideal weight (and frankly it’s worth challenging the validity of such a concept as an “ideal weight,” but for today’s discussion let’s go with what your doctor would call ideal). You probably already eat healthy most of the time and exercise pretty regularly. It’s possible you have always been pretty lean but find that you’ve gained a few pounds recently.
Though “the last ten pounds” can seem like a nice problem to have if your doctor’s telling you that you need to lose fifty, those ten pounds can be extremely stubborn, and here’s why …
If you’re already eating pretty well and exercising regularly there’s relatively little wiggle room. That is to say, you’ve already cut out all the obvious unhealthy foods from your diet. You don’t drink soda, you don’t drink fruit juice (please tell me you don’t), and you skip the whip on top of your skinny latte. You choose the tuna melt instead of the double bacon cheeseburger and you work out 3 days per week (most weeks).
Unless you’re blessed with a naturally high metabolism and/or are a 20-year-old male, if you want to nail your goal weight you’re going to have to bring some intensity to your lifestyle.
To lose the last ten pounds and live at your goal weight you’re going to have to do 3 things, and do them consistently (read: every day):
- Eat clean. Translation: no (or next to no) processed foods. Eating clean means you eat lean proteins, healthy fats and high fiber vegetables at regular intervals throughout the day to stabilize blood sugar and control the body’s insulin response. You eat no added sugar or simple carbs, and very rarely drink alcohol.
- Exercise often and at high intensity. To live at an ideal body weight, most of us will need to work out vigorously 5-6 days per week, at a high level of intensity for about an hour.
- Conquer emotional eating and food addiction, manage stress and get enough rest. In other words, you need to have mastered everything that the first-ten-pounds people are working on plus eat clean, plus exercise at a high level, plus get enough rest. And do it day in and day out, without fail.
Now you see why the last ten pounds are so hard.
Having lost 120 pounds, I’ve done both … lost the first and the last ten pounds. Losing the first ten pounds was a process that didn’t just include my ultimate success; I consider all of my failed attempts at dieting as part of that process. For me that was a journey of more than 20 years.
So yeah, the first ten pounds took quite a while.
The last ten pounds is essentially maintenance or what I now just consider my normal lifestyle. There is precious little wiggle room in my diet and I exercise vigorously six days per week for an hour or more. Yes, it’s time consuming and frankly sometimes a total pain in the ass, but I know what it’s like to not live this way and I have no interest in going back to that.
At least as important as the way I eat and exercise though is all the other stuff: living in a place of authenticity, self-acceptance and compassion. These are ultimately the secret weapons for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and – I guess you could say – living happily ever after.