The key to fat loss success and sustainability is a little more nuanced than simply “diet and exercise.” Your long-term success will depend greatly on your approach.
Unfortunately, we see women making the same common mistakes in their approach to fat loss, time and time again. Mistakes that prevent them from achieving their goals, or from maintaining their results.
Let’s talk about the top three fat loss mistakes that women make — and how you can avoid them.
Mistake #1: Trying to change everything at once.
If you’re like most normal human beings, when you decide that you want to make changes, your natural inclination is to do a major life overhaul in attempt to meet your goal more quickly. If small changes are good, then huge, sweeping changes must be better. Right? We’ve all been there with one goal or another.
Unfortunately, if you’ve tried this approach before, you know that when it comes to making habit and behavioral changes, it’s nearly impossible to make any of it stick this way. You simply can’t become an entirely different person over night. It is possible to change your habits for the better, but the best strategy for success isn’t the “overhaul” strategy.
Leo Babauta, best-selling author and habit expert, estimates that when you focus on changing one habit at a time, the likelihood of retaining that habit for a year or longer is 80%. However, if you try to change more than one habit at a time, the success rate drops to as low as 20%.
This means that if you are working towards change, your best bet is to focus on changing one thing at a time in order to be successful.
I realize that may not sound exciting or hardcore enough, but this approach has proven to be incredibly effective. (How many times has the hardcore approach worked for you, long-term? Uhh…yeah. That’s what I thought.)
So, you want to make a habit change — where do you start?
Step 1 — Identify your long-term goal
In order to assess where to start, it’s important to establish your long-term goal, and the why behind it. When you’re establishing your goal and your why, you may find it helpful to ask yourself, “How will achieving this goal improve my life, or make me happier?”
For example, maybe your big goal is to improve your body composition by losing some body fat, and the why is so that you are able to move more comfortably and keep up with your kids. Or, perhaps the big goal is to get into better physical shape, and the why is because you want to play recreational sports again for the camaraderie.
Step 2 — Choose a small, specific, action-oriented short-term goal
Your very next step is to consider your starting point, and set a small, specific, action-oriented short-term goal that you’ll practice for the next two weeks. This should be something that is realistic, achievable, and moves you towards your bigger goal. It should be reasonable enough that you’re confident that you can do it consistently.
Approaching your goal in this manner sets you up for success. Achieving small, short-term goals over and over again builds positive momentum, gives you a sense of pride, and allows you to celebrate small wins, which will further motivate you to continue to work towards your bigger goal.
Let’s say that your big goal is to improve your nutrition to help you lose body fat. When you take a look at your current nutrition, your starting point, you notice that the majority of your meals are convenience foods and restaurant meals with a heavy emphasis on carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, bagels, and cereal, and very little protein. This seems like a good place to start.
Remember that protein is paramount for both muscle growth and recovery, and it’s the most satiating of the macronutrients (which are protein, carbohydrate, and dietary fat). How about starting with a protein goal?
You set a short-term goal of consuming one palm-sized serving of protein with at least two of your meals each day, for two weeks. It’s fits the criteria because it’s small, specific, and action-oriented, and most importantly, nothing else in your diet needs to change right now. Your only focus is to incorporate a serving of protein at two of your meals each day, and you’ll practice this new habit for two weeks.
Step 3 — Track your habit practice and evaluate your success to determine your next steps
We use 80% as a “consistency goal” meaning that if you are successfully practicing a new habit 80% of the time, you’re ready to move on to a new habit (and continue practicing this one, of course). If you’re shooting for 2 servings of protein each day, 7 days a week that means that you need to include protein in at least 11 meals each week to achieve 80% consistency.
As you’re evaluating your habit practice for the two-week period, you may encounter one of two scenarios.
At the end of two weeks, you review how it went and realize that you easily got a full serving of protein at two of your meals each day with 80% (or higher) consistency. You made it a priority, and it has become a regular part of your meals. Congratulations! You have created a new habit! This is so exciting! You feel successful, and find yourself ready for more.
At this point, you go back to Step 2. Choose another small, short-term goal and work toward it, by first analyzing your current starting point again. For example, you notice that your vegetable intake is rather paltry. Knowing that vegetables are packed with nutrients you need for good health, and the food volume from eating vegetables can help keep you satisfied longer after a meal, your decide your next goal is to work on your vegetable intake.
This time, you continue having two servings of protein per day and aim to also incorporate two servings of vegetables each day for two weeks. Nothing else has to change. Eating a serving of protein at two meals should be feeling pretty normal and automated by now, so you’ll work on having two servings of veggies each day, and evaluate your progress again in two weeks.
Sometimes things don’t go as smoothly. Perhaps you had a hard time consistently having two servings of protein each day. At the end of the two weeks, you’ve achieved only 65% consistency, and the habit still doesn’t feel normal and natural. You have two options in this scenario:
- Continue practicing this same small goal for two more weeks and shoot for 80% consistency — you’re almost there! Sometimes, we just need a bit more time to work on our small goal, and that’s OK. The key is to work on it until it’s cemented as a habit, and feels easy to do.
- If it feels like too much, back it down a little bit. Shoot for a serving of protein at one meal a day. If you nail it for two meals in any given day, that’s awesome! But for now, make the goal just one. Scaling your habit back is not failure. It’s quite the opposite. It’s setting yourself up for long-term success. Eating protein at one meal every day is still an improvement compared to how you were eating just a few weeks ago. Plus, racking up wins, no matter how small, is a key to your long-term success. Shoot for 80% consistency with just one serving of protein per day — that’s 6 servings that week, instead of 11.
All of these small goals push you towards your bigger goal, and as long as you focus on one thing at a time, your chances for success are substantially higher than if you dive head-first into a massive overhaul.
“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” This is one of my favorite quotes is, and it’s a great reminder of how we should approach a goal.
Mistake #2: Having unrealistic expectations.
Nothing is more demotivating than setting unrealistic expectations and then not being able to meet them. When you set your goals, it’s important to make them reasonable and realistic, based on where you’re starting, and what you’re willing to do (or not do) to achieve them.
Molly Galbraith’s abs and my legs are a great example of this.
Molly has visible abs whether she is at 25% body fat or 15% body fat. Her abdominal muscles show because that’s her genetic makeup. However, Molly has said that in order for her lower body to look very lean, she has to diet extremely hard and do a lot of exercise.
I’m the exact opposite. My legs stay very lean whether my body fat is 15% or 25%, but my abdominal muscles will only show if my body fat is less than about 13%. I have to diet very, very hard, and do a lot of exercise in order to show some ripped abs.
I’m not willing to participate in another extreme diet to have a shredded midsection, nor is Molly willing to diet like crazy in order to have super lean legs. In fact, we’ve both “been there and done that” when we competed in Figure, and suffered some extreme health consequences when we pushed our bodies that hard.
We understand what our bodies are naturally capable of, and what a healthy body fat percentage looks like for us, so we set our goals based on realistic expectations, what we are willing to do, and what we most certainly are not going to do.
After you set your goals based on realistic expectations, it’s important to understand that even with fantastic nutrition and a solid training plan, progress is unpredictable. It depends on many things beyond what you eat and how you move your body.
Your hormones, sleep quality and quantity, and chronic stress all play a huge role in how quickly and how much progress you’ll make.
Even if you make consistent progress over the course of six weeks, it’s very common to go through a period where everything comes to a screeching halt for a few weeks. Then, suddenly — WHOOSH! Things are on the move again!
Fat loss, muscle growth, and strength gains will all ebb and flow throughout your journey. This is natural. Expect it. The most important things that you can do are remain consistent and focus on enjoying the process.
Speaking of enjoying the process…
Mistake #3: Believing you have to suffer in order to see results.
For some reason the idea persists that in order for a nutrition strategy to “work,” eating for fat loss means the food must be miserable and the process, completely unenjoyable. Many people believe that enjoyment couldn’t possibly deliver desirable results.
“Oh, I have to start dieting tomorrow. Nothing but cod and spinach for me for a while,” she says with disgust.
The problem with this approach is that it will never, ever last. You can only eat so much bland, dry chicken and soggy broccoli, or egg whites and limp asparagus, before your taste buds (and willpower!) frantically wave the white flag of surrender.
When it comes to fat loss, I recommend the exact opposite approach. Eat a wide variety of foods, and make sure that every meal tastes delicious. The goal here is satiety. Feeling satisfied by the foods you’re eating is crucial when it comes to adopting sustainable nutrition strategies. Everyone appreciates a fantastic meal. When we force ourselves to eat bland, repetitive food, it a recipe for disaster (i.e., desperately raiding the pantry in search of something that pleases the palate).
When choosing your foods, pick foods that make you feel good physically. Foods that energize you, digest well, enhance your health, fuel your performance — and that taste amazing. Satisfaction is clutch!
Food for thought: you eat a dry chicken breast and broccoli, but end up digging through the pantry and fridge for something to satisfy you. Next thing you know, you’ve eaten a handful of tortilla chips, some cheese, a few pepperoni slices, and half of a brownie (maybe even the whole brownie, because why not, right?).
You would have been better off making your chicken and broccoli meal more satisfying by adding a generous pat of butter to the broccoli, and a delicious sauce to the chicken — even if that meant adding some extra calories.
I’ve actually had clients say that this “doesn’t feel difficult enough.” They’ve asked, “Do we need to make this harder? It feels too easy.”
While eating for fat loss may not always be easy, there very well may be moments of discomfort, but it should never be miserable. Why? Because…
It doesn’t have to be miserable in order to be effective.
We understand that there is a ton of information out there, and making heads or tails of it can be really challenging.
You may read about celebrities who prepare for award shows or starring roles using extreme approaches, but those results aren’t lasting. You can overhaul your diet, starve yourself, and temporarily achieve dramatic changes… until you resume eating “normally” again, and those changes disappear.
Mainstream media encourages women to take a “hardcore” approach to dieting because it makes for a more interesting story. They want you to believe that losing fat is really, really difficult because they are trying to sell you something that promises to make it effortless! Many of these companies make their money by setting you up for failure, urging you to make drastic changes and promising unrealistic results. When you start to struggle, they swoop in to “help” with products that they claim will deliver the results you want, once and for all.
These companies don’t have your best interest at heart, and in fact, they actually hope you fail over and over again so they can continue selling you solutions to “fix” yourself. Remember, the faster the fat loss happens, the less sustainable the results.
Just know that fat loss doesn’t have to be miserable. Which leads us to our next point…
(BONUS!) Mistake #4: Berating your body into fat loss.
Many women believe that if they love their bodies, they won’t be “motivated” enough to change them. So they fuel their fire for their hardcore training and dieting by saying nasty things to themselves:
“Why did you eat those brownies? Don’t you have any willpower?”
“Ugh! I’m as big as a house. I have got to start runing!”
“My ass looks awful. I’ve HAVE to get that thing to the gym.”
Sound familiar? We hope not, but if you’ve been struggling to lose fat for a while, you may have a similar soundtrack playing in your head.
We are here to tell you that you that not only is that not necessary, but it’s detrimental to your long-term results. Hating your body into leanness is not sustainable, and even if it were, it’s not true health.
As my girl Molly Galbraith says, “You can love your body in this moment while wanting it to look or perform differently than it does right now.”
And she’s right.
Focusing on changing your lifestyle because you love your body and want to treat it well leads to long-term, sustainable results because it’s enjoyable and it’s something you want to do for yourself; not something you feel like you have to do.
We want to help you avoid making these common mistakes. You deserve to look and feel your very best, and you deserve to enjoy each day, no matter where you are in the process.