Life Lessons I Learned from Losing 40 Pounds

chopped sweet potatoes

This month, I’m writing about successful resolutions, and my 2014 resolution was definitely a classic: Lose Weight. I’d made the resolution before, but five years ago, I actually kept it — I joined Weight Watchers, lost 40 pounds and have kept it off (more or less), ever since.

There’s no real need to get into the specifics of the program here, since Weight Watchers (or “WW,” as they go by now) has documented all that pretty well, and for about $50 a month, they’ll tell you all about it. But for such a seemingly shallow life goal, the whole process actually taught me a lot — and most of it wasn’t limited to weight loss. Here are a few things I learned … most of which I wish weren’t true, but apparently life doesn’t work according to my preferences.

It’s Small Changes That Make the Difference

Before I lost weight, I didn’t have a terrible diet. I was a vegetarian, I cooked at home a lot, and I didn’t eat sugar. I was moderately active; I did yoga and went running every once in awhile. I was not like Monica from those stupid Friends parodies, stuffing food into my mouth at any chance and taking every opportunity to avoid moving. But I still gained weight.

On WW, my diet wasn’t dramatically different than it had been before — my portions were different, my ratio of protein and fiber to fat and carbs was different, and I made subtle changes like swapping cheddar out for feta on a baked potato. Making lots (and lots and lots) of these small changes were what ended up making the difference for me — not necessarily overhauling my whole diet in a major way, but making small tweaks to every meal and snack.

I’m a person who’s attracted to sweeping, dramatic changes like the ones they show on makeover shows. But it’s the small, steady changes, not the makeovers, that result in real change in the long run — and that’s not only true when it comes to diets.

Playing by the Rules Doesn’t Always Pay off

In WW, you track how many “points” you eat, and you can earn points back by working out. You track your progress with weekly weigh ins. Tracking health using a number on a scale is inherently a bit flawed, but it’s also a handy and efficient way to track progress for the thousands (millions?) of WW members.

Most weeks, if I followed the program and stayed within my daily points, I’d lose weight. But there were many weeks (about 25% of them, actually), when I’d follow the rules exactly, and I’d stay the same or even gain weight. For someone who depends more than a little bit on external validation, this was demoralizing and depressing.

As long as I kept going anyway, I kept losing weight overall. I really hated those weeks when my hard work was “rewarded” with a perceived failure. But progress in life just isn’t always tied to checking all the boxes or following the rules. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t help, and sometimes it seems to hurt. Those are the times it’s most challenging to stay the course; it’s also the times that build the character necessary to be less dependent on external motivation and rewards.

What Works Today Might Not Work Tomorrow

This is one of the most infuriating parts of weight loss for me — at some point, your body just adapts to what you’re doing to it and stops changing. The routine you’ve built up of favorite, predictable meals and snacks brings you to a plateau rather than continued loss. The exercise you’re sweating through isn’t enough to jumpstart your metabolism anymore.

This is part of why cheat days work for some people. It’s why calorie cycling works (that’s what worked for me, by the way). And it’s why sometimes swapping up our diets or even the time of day we eat can kickstart our bodies into actually doing what we want them to.

This need to adapt and change is incredibly frustrating to me in all parts of my life. Once I figure something out, I want to check it off my list and consider it completed forever. I want to move on to something else. But when it comes to anything important — work, relationships, inspiration, personal growth — changing up what we’re doing is positive, healthy, and can get us back on the path to progress.

I did pick up a few weight-specific lessons while in WW (like that it takes 20-25 pounds for anyone to even notice that you’re losing weight, and that you don’t need to save your “skinny clothes” because you won’t like them by the time you can wear them again anyway), but more importantly, I learned about life. That’s what I’m most thankful for. Well, that, and I also like that shopping for jeans is way easier now, and don’t cringe when I see pictures of myself that other people post on Facebook. That stuff is pretty nice, too.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she works as Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.

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