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Why setting intentional weight-loss goals is harmful to your physical and mental health

Published Jan 12th, 2022 by

Louise Hurley

Losing weight is not necessarily a bad thing but having other goals that aren't focused on weight loss is much better. Louise Hurley explores 6 reasons why setting goals to intentionally reduce your weight or size may be harmful to your physical and mental health.

Why setting intentional weight-loss goals is harmful to your physical and mental health

I’m extremely fortunate to say that I’ve never had an eating disorder.

Looking back, however, I have certainly exhibited disordered eating throughout my teens and early adulthood. From the age of about fifteen, I used to weigh myself on the bathroom scales and restrict certain food groups to try to reduce the number on the scales, despite being within a “healthy” weight range.

For me, the late nineties and early noughties were all about boy bands and fad diets (Take That and the Atkins diet spring to mind)! Weight loss memberships with weigh-in nights had arrived on the scene as well as weight loss shakes and snack bars. Back then, society generally made strong correlations between weight loss and good health… And unfortunately, not much has changed over the past 20 years.

Losing weight is still seen as something positive, regardless of how it occurs. We’re still constantly exposed to diet culture (probably even more than 20 years ago), sometimes without being aware of it.

I want to make clear that I don’t believe losing weight is a bad thing. It’s part of having bodily autonomy (the right to make decisions over one’s own body, life and future) and losing weight can, in some circumstances, contribute to better cardiovascular and joint health.

However, I truly believe that having other goals that aren’t focused on weight loss is much better for physical and mental health, for example, increasing muscle mass or running faster. Weight loss may occur as a by-product of reaching these goals, but losing weight isn’t the main goal.

Here are 6 reasons why setting goals to intentionally reduce your weight or size may be harmful to your physical and mental health:

1. The weight, size, shape or BMI of our body are NOT good measurements of health.

Our culture assumes that weight loss equates to good health, but most of the time the opposite is true. Weight, size and BMI also ignore all the good stuff that’s going on inside like cardiovascular health, muscle mass, strength, gut health, etc.

2. There are so many variables when it comes to “drop a dress size”.

Weight and size fluctuate throughout your circadian (daily) cycle and menstrual cycle, and clothes sizes vary greatly across retailers. One day you could be wearing a size 12 from Zara but the next day wearing a size 14 from Target. Does this mean you’ve failed your goal when you wear a larger size? No. But it does mean you’re probably going to be on an emotional rollercoaster if your focus is on only fitting into clothes with a certain number on the tag.

3. Intentional weight loss leads to weight cycling.

This is when you lose weight, gain weight, lose, gain, repeatedly over years, which can be damaging to your health, hormones and relationship with food.

4. Intentional weight loss negatively impacts our mental health.

It’s easy to become consumed with thinking about food: “Is this good for me? Is it bad? Will it make me put on weight?” You end up constantly thinking about what you’re eating and often feel guilty when you eat something that we think will cause weight gain.

5. It promotes a payoff system between food and exercises (I ate xyz calories therefore I need to burn xyz calories).

You don’t need to earn your food or use exercise as punishment for what you ate, but with having weight loss as your main goal, this is what often happens.

6. We feel shame and fear of other people’s disapproval of weight gain.

Because weight loss in our culture is seen as healthy, it’s often something we’re congratulated on as an achievement, regardless of how the weight loss occurred but this leads to feelings of shame or fear of disapproval when we gain weight (which we inevitably will with intentional weight loss).

The take home that I really want you to remember is that:

  • There’s nothing wrong with losing weight, especially if losing weight helps you to experience less pain, move better and do more things that you want to do, like run, keep your heart healthy or keep up with the kids. But, when INTENTIONAL and FOCUSED weight loss is a PRIMARY GOAL, there’s usually a negative impact on your health. Try setting non-weight or size-related goals.
  • Weight, size, shape and BMI are NOT good measurements of health (smaller does not equal healthy).
  • When we shift our goals away from intentionally becoming smaller (weight loss and dress size) and more towards what our our bodies can achieve (run 5km, do 10 push-ups on toes, squat equal to your body weight on a barbell, etc.) the weight loss may happen unintentionally and if it does, it will be for the long term rather than for short term cycles.

If you’d like support in making and achieving healthy goals I highly recommend working with a MumSafe™ trainer. The following services may also be helpful if you would like to talk to someone about eating disorders or body image:

Louise runs Strong Mums in Gosford, NSW. She has a background in clinical and research psychology and became a mums’ fitness professional after having her first baby.

To find out more about her and get in touch, click here.

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Written by

Louise Hurley
MumSafe™ Trainer at 
Strong Mums

About the Author

Louise’s mission is to help mums feel fitter, healthier and stronger through a supportive and motivating community. Whether it’s been 6 weeks or 6 years, no matter how long ago you had children she can help you to safely return to exercise and restrengthen your body so that you can start to take back some control in this crazy roller coaster of motherhood and feel more like you again. Strong Mums isn’t about “bouncing back” after having a baby or getting your pre-baby body back. It’s about feeling fit, healthy and strong enough to keep up with the demands of your little tribe.

Louise’s mission is to help mums feel fitter, healthier and stronger through a supportive and motivating community. Whether it’s been 6 weeks or 6 years, no matter how long ago you had children she can help you to safely return to exercise and restrengthen your body so that you can start to take back some control in this crazy roller coaster of motherhood and feel more like you again. Strong Mums isn’t about “bouncing back” after having a baby or getting your pre-baby body back. It’s about feeling fit, healthy and strong enough to keep up with the demands of your little tribe.?