There’s been a lot of debate over the ‘in your face’ anti-obesity campaign in Georgia that depicts overweight children talking about being picked on, and one in New York that includes an image of an obese amputee sitting near cups of soda. Some say such ads are completely ineffective and shameful, while others say that scare tactics are needed because positive approaches and information just aren’t working. What do you think? 

In my private practice I’ve always maintained a ‘coach’ rather than ‘cop’ approach. I find that focusing on weight or size (how much weight one has to lose, or how much they’ve gained) generally creates negative emotions, like anxiety, anger or depression, which can lead to feeling deflated and trigger emotional eating, or just plain giving up. I also find that people who become obsessed with pounds and inches eventually burn out and revert back to old habits—sometimes after they’ve lost the weight and no longer feel motivated, and sometimes because they aren’t losing weight fast enough. 

For these reasons I try to focus on the positives of healthy eating that have nothing to do with weight. To get at these motivators, which tend to be much more powerful than the number on the scale, I often ask my clients to complete the following:

Make a list of all the reasons you want to eat healthier that have nothing to do with weight loss. What are the benefits aside from shedding pounds?

Do the ‘pros’ you listed above outweigh the ‘cons’ related to changing your eating habits (like having to plan ahead or not being able to eat whatever you want, whenever you want)? 

If you could take a pill that would get you to, and keep you at your goal weight regardless of what you ate would you still eat healthfully?

What I’m getting at here is that in order to be successful, the day-to-day effort has to feel worthwhile. And the benefits that tend to matter most, especially long-term, are related to overall quality of life, not just size. When you zero in on rewards like having more energy, sleeping better, feeling healthier, more confident, and being a positive role model for loved ones you tend to catch the stick-with-it bug. 

So sweep away the negative self-talk and thoughts about what you don’t like about your size. The real wake-up call for change tends to come from focusing on the kind of life you want to live and how you want to feel, with weight loss as a nice side effect rather than the sole driver. As one of my clients once said, “Looking at fat pictures of myself just made me want to hide and order pizza, but picturing myself feeling healthy and hiking up a trail with my dog made me feel excited about making a healthy dinner. I like thinking about my life instead of my weight.”    

What do you think? Has focusing on your size ever backfired on you? What positive rewards from healthy eating, that have nothing to do with weight keep you motivated—or will keep you motivated after you reach your weight goal? Please share your thoughts or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

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