What do you think it is?
I'll start by telling you what it's not. It's not willpower, determination or motivation. It's not avoiding carbs or sugar or fats. And it's not cooking, hitting the gym or sticking to your plan.
No, the most important skill in weight management is learning how to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back on with it. Whether it's the predictable—holidays, birthdays, anniversaries or vacations—or the unpredictable—illness, death, marital discord or injury—life has a bad habit of getting in the way of our best intentions. And mark my words, you're going to fall down.
[See How to Handle Extreme Stress.]
So how do you maximize your chances of picking yourself back up? Unfortunately there's no app for that. Instead you're going to have to rely on these two simple strategies:
• First, you need to respect reality. The fact is, life happens. If you don't respect the fact that as a species we have comforted and celebrated with food since time immemorial, then the inevitable guilt, shame and frustration you're going to feel when you exercise your right as a human being to use food for purposes other than fuel may well lead you to throw in the towel.
[See A Shame-Free Food Lifestyle.]
Instead of being frustrated that your weight management or healthy living strategies are affected by reality, try to remember that your best efforts vary. The best you can do over the week of Passover or Easter is undoubtedly less healthful than the best you can do the week after. If your goal is your best, you'll never fall into the trap of repeatedly letting yourself down.
• Second, you need to like the life you're living while you're losing. This truism is perhaps the one most regularly forgotten by newly minted dieters. Ultimately, if you don't like the life you're living while you're losing, even if you lose a great deal, you're eventually going to head back toward the life you led before you lost weight.
[See Best Weight-Loss Diets.]
Putting this in the perspective of reality, when life does up and offer you a reason to stray from your plan, it's going to be that much harder to get back into it if your plan was one you didn't enjoy in the first place. The more weight you'd like to permanently lose, the more of your life you'll need to permanently change. And because "permanent" is an awfully long time, truly the easiest way to evaluate the approach you've chosen for weight management or healthy living is to ask yourself: "Can I happily keep living this way?" If the answer's no, you need to find a new approach.
Put another way, the most important skill in weight management isn't a synonym of suffering, it's one of embracing imperfection, of rolling with life's pleasant and unpleasant punches; it smacks of reality, not reality TV.
The healthiest life that you can happily enjoy sometimes isn't going to be that healthy. Accepting that is weight management's most important skill.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book , The 10 Day Reset Solution: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and How to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.