I’ll do that when I lose 10 (or 20 or 30) pounds…

If you’ve ever said that (or something similar) to yourself, you’re not alone. So many of us postpone things we want to do—from buying a new pair of pants to going on a beach vacation—all because we’re dissatisfied with our bodies. 

The trap: Because the overwhelming majority of dieters eventually gain back the weight they lose, it’s becoming increasingly clear that dieting is not the answer. Instead, research now shows that you are more likely to maintain a healthy body weight and eating habits when you focus your efforts on “befriending” your body instead of constantly striving to make it “just right.” 

For a fresh perspective and real-world advice on how to achieve this, Bottom Line Health spoke with Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, a nutrition therapist and leading authority on overcoming dieting cycles and poor eating habits.

Why do so many people focus so intently on the ideal body? Ironically, we can learn something about this from toddlers. Obviously, they aren’t worried about their appearance. If you watch young children before they have any ideas imposed on them about what they should or shouldn’t eat, they’ll have just a bite of a cookie and won’t eat any more if there is something else more entertaining to do. Most adults, however, have a hard time not finishing a treat. 

Research shows that if we offer children a variety of foods, they’ll intuitively choose a well-balanced diet over time even if they focus on one type of food at a given meal. This just goes to show that the focus on an ideal body and an ideal way to eat is culturally imposed.

When people don’t like their bodies, doesn’t that mean they have body dysmorphia? Not necessarily. Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental illness in which a person has a distorted perception of his/her own body. It could be related to an eating disorder, such as anorexia, in which you’re not seeing your body size accurately, or you may believe that there’s something wrong with some part of your body—your nose is too big or your shoulders are crooked—and everyone else notices. When people have BDD, they struggle deeply in their work life and relationships because of these intrusive thoughts about their bodies.

Far more people simply go about their daily lives without fully accepting their bodies. As a result, they put parts of their lives on hold by denying themselves the opportunity to fully enjoy themselves—to go swimming, get dressed up for special occasions or even have sex. This lack of acceptance and self-denial, too, can be a huge burden.   

So why doesn’t dieting work for adults? As anyone who’s ever dieted knows all too well, avoiding entire food groups or severely limiting food intake creates a deprivation mind-set. When we feel deprived, we become more anxious and are less likely to make choices from a feeling of being in charge. It’s also an innate survival mechanism to resist starvation of any type. Our bodies are wired so that our metabolism naturally slows down when we’re not eating enough in order to keep us from starving.

It takes a conscious effort—and practice—to get back to a self-connected way of eating that most toddlers do instinctively. It involves slowing down and paying close attention to your body and what it’s asking for. It involves listening closely for cues of hunger and fullness and choosing to respond to them appropriately. Sometimes it also requires asking, “What’s eating me?” and getting to the feelings underneath. 

It also helps to be sure that meals and snacks contain carbohydrates, proteins and fats so that we feel satisfied and are able to make it to the next eating episode without significant cravings.

What other factors affect our weight aside from our diet and activity levels? A well-known study from the Netherlands looked at infants born to women during a famine. Ironically, as those infants grew up, they struggled more with being “overweight” than their siblings did. Scientists theorize that because the moms were starving when the babies were in utero, something activated their genes to make them more likely to store energy as fat. 

Hormones also play a role in our body size. For example, women who have gone through menopause are more likely to store body fat on their abdomens, while younger women with more circulating estrogen are more likely to store fat on their hips, thighs and buttocks. Poor sleep increases cortisol levels, and this can increase appetite and, therefore, body weight. 

We need to stop blaming ourselves for our body size. Not only is it unfair, but when we don’t feel good about our bodies, we often don’t take care of them, either. 

Even if people accept their bodies, shouldn’t they lose weight if they are clearly overweight? According to many studies, weight loss itself does not bring good health—but certain habits do. Those habits center around eating fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly. This supports the thinking that a focus on healthy lifestyle habits is more productive than a singular focus on an ideal body weight. 

To help you accept your body and improve your relationship with food…

• Toss the scale. The only time you need to step on a scale is at the doctor’s office. The number itself is unimportant, and reinforcing it every day can be destructive. Is that how you want to frame your identity every morning?

• Keep a journal. A “food and feelings” journal can move you toward crucial awareness. Don’t obsess about portion, amounts or calories. Instead, rank your hunger level from zero to 10 before and after a meal. Finish each day’s entry by noting your physical activity levels, self-care practices (including good sleep and downtime) and what you felt good about. Even after just a few days of this, take notice of your food and exercise habits and your relationship with food. Do you skip meals only to be ravenous and overeat? Do you crave food when you feel bored, lonely or tired?

• Eat your meals mindfully. Pay close attention to your hunger and fullness levels (see above) and then respond to these cues. They are far better guides to your eating than habitual times of day, emotions or other external signals that often prompt us to eat. 

• Clarify your goals. When you know what you really want to accomplish in life, whether personally or professionally, you begin to understand what really fills you up. Create a values checklist of traits that are important to you, such as being adventurous, authenticity, curiosity, forgiveness, humility, persistence or spirituality. Food tends to fall into place when you connect with what really matters and spend less time obsessing about changing your body.

• See yourself through ­others’ eyes. Ask yourself why your family and friends like being around you—is it your sense of humor, your quiet determination or your zany fashion sense that they admire? Recognizing your innate qualities will help you shift your focus away from an idealized body.