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Why Focusing on Weight is Damaging - and 7 Tips on What to Do Instead

It's hard not to think about weight. It comes up everywhere, and it creeps in more and more all the time.

For instance, due to my family history, I get a breast MRI every year. This year for the first time, they asked my weight when I pre-registered. But they couldn't tell me why, just that it was on the list of things to ask.

Or when you're standing in the checkout line, you’ll see magazines with a weight focus. Or see posts on Facebook about how much weight people have lost. Or ads for Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig - among many other things.

So I get that it's hard to avoid. The problem is, this excessive focus is damaging. Why?

Because what we focus on takes on extra importance.

That doesn’t seem like it should be a problem. Except as social psychologist Robert Cialdini points out in his book Pre-Suasion:

“[We] can be brought to the mistaken belief that something is important merely because we have been led by some irrelevant factor to give it our narrowed attention.”

In other words, we think something is important because we focus on it, not because it is important.

And weight is not the most important thing in your life.

Repeat with me: weight is not the most important thing in your life.

Does this sound like a radical concept? It wouldn't surprise me if it did. After all, as you saw with just my few examples, focus on weight is everywhere.

And to clarity, I don’t mean to suggest you don’t have valid reasons for wanting to live in a smaller body. Given my own history, I definitely understand that.

The trouble comes in when you only pay attention to clothes size or numbers on the scale, and that’s what guides everything you do. Instead of, say, focusing on your energy, your physical ability, or your overall wellbeing.

But consider this. When you're old and looking back on your life, what do you want to remember about yourself?

Do you want your legacy to be that you were a good parent/child/spouse/friend? Maybe someone who helped others? Someone who made people laugh? Someone who lived on their terms and followed their dreams?

Or is it how many diets you were on? That you fit into a certain size? That you could wear your prom dress 30 years after high school?

If option 2 is your goal, then it might make sense to stay focused on weight.

But if you’re like me and prefer option 1, you might want to shift your focus to what's really important to you.

In case this sounds hypocritical from someone who lost a lot of weight, I’ll let you in on a secret.

I’ve gained about 15 pounds back since my lowest weight. This puts me in the “overweight” category.

At first, I admit I was a bit freaked out. What if it kept going? Would I gain back another 115 pounds? I didn’t want that, but not because of numbers. Rather, I worried about what it would mean for doing the things I enjoy.

Then I calmed down. I refocused on mindful eating, and I’ve stabilized. I’ve had to buy a few new clothes, but I can still do the things I want. Like hiking and getting these kinds of views.

And I probably could lose 10-15 pounds if I really wanted. I could go on a crash diet of some kind and be super strict in what I ate.

But honestly, it doesn’t matter to me. I’d rather have a healthy relationship with food. Plus, I’ve learned the hard way how much this detracts from the rest of my life.

Consider your own goals. Do you think you'll succeed as well when you're distracted by hunger... obsessing about food... worried about your clothes size... or hating yourself because of the size of your body? How much energy do you spend on all that, when you could be spending it on more important things?

So now you might be thinking, this sounds good, but how do you shift that focus away from weight? Here are a few ideas.

Tip #1

If you're weighing yourself every day, don't. If you can stop altogether, great, but at least start to limit it. And try to let it just be information, not something with a moral component.

Tip #2

Don't click on articles or posts about weight loss. Social media is very good at targeting what it thinks you want to see. If you tell it you're not interested, those should start to fade.

Tip #3

If you have friends who always post about diets or weight, it might be best to stop following them, at least for now.

Tip #4

Sit down and think about what really IS important to you. Write it down. Put it up on your mirror or monitor or other places where you'll see it and be reminded.

Tip #5

Once you know what's important, write a plan for yourself to think about that instead of weight. For instance: "When I see an ad for a diet, or something else weight-focused, I'm going to remind myself that weight isn't what I want to focus on. What's really important is <X>, so I'll focus on that instead."

Writing is a key part of this, since it makes the plan more real. And Cialdini notes that people who use this approach are more successful than those who simply set an intention.

Tip #6

Stick to your plan from step 5 as much as you can.

Tip #7

If friends try to talk to you about weight or diets, gently explain that it's not your priority and you don't want to discuss it. (You can refer to my post from last week about not feeling left out with mindful eating for more thoughts on this.)

Focus on what matters

As always, this is just a starting point. You may have other ideas, and I'd love to hear them!

Just remember, once you start shifting your focus, you can use your energy for what really matters. And that's what's most important.

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