Long before becoming a health coach, I embarked on my own wellness journey, beginning with the goal to lose 40 pounds and the desire to look like a swimsuit model… and along the way, I made a lot of weight loss mistakes that cost me stress, anguish, frustration, and ultimately, hurt my health and happiness.
Back then, I knew next to nothing about healthy weight loss or what good health really even meant. As such, I didn’t even know where to begin! The only things I was sure of were that I hated my body, my confidence had taken a nose dive, I was self-consciously squeezing into a size 12 pant (when I should’ve been wearing a 14), and I knew without a doubt that something HAD to change.
Looking back at this tumultuous time in my life, knowing what I know now, there are so many weight loss mistakes I made that I would do differently.
My weight loss journey was full of stress, self-criticism, hatred, and it took a serious toll on my mental and physical health. Even when I soared past my goal to 129 pounds and 14% body fat, I was still miserable and my body was sending me clear signals, which I ignored, that it was not healthy.
These days, I’m happy to say that at 150ish pounds and 20-something% body fat (I rarely check!), I’m far more relaxed, confident, happy, and healthy!
I’ve written this article because I wish there had been someone willing to be REAL with me about the right – and wrong – ways to lose weight. Not only would advice like this have put me on the path to better health, better energy, and a better relationship with my body sooner, but it would’ve saved me incredible amounts of stress, frustration, and downright despair.
I’ve made a lot of avoidable mistakes in the pursuit of shedding pounds, so I offer them to you now as learning opportunities so you can make your own weight loss journey smoother, faster, and more peaceful.
Weight Loss Mistake #1: I Chose Quantity Over Quality
When I kicked off my 40-pound weight loss, I had no idea where to start. Research led me to a plethora big-name diets including Atkins, The Zone Diet, and even the Special K Diet (insert eye roll here), but I was overwhelmed and confused, unwilling to invest in any of those diets because I wasn’t convinced they would actually work for me. So I started with the least threatening (and cheapest) option: counting calories.
Calorie counting appealed to my logical brain because it seemed to be a simple math equation: consume fewer calories than you burn and you’ll lose weight! But with this mentality, I soon became the poster child for low-calorie, low-quality foods like Lean Cuisine. (I mean seriously, what’s not to love about Classic Five Cheese Lasagna for just 350 calories a serving?!)
Turns out there wasn’t much to love about Lean Cuisine or the other processed, sugar-filled foods that made up the bulk of my low-calorie diet. Although the “calories in, calories out” math equation worked for the first four months, resulting in a 20-pound weight loss, my quality of life tanked. I was ravenously hungry between meals, I needed a nap as soon as I got home from work, and I would go from hyper, to zombie, to devil-child at the flip of a switch. I felt completely out of control!
So what was the problem? The processed foods I was consuming were loaded with sugar, chemicals, and preservatives. Foods like this digest rapidly, which spiked my blood sugar, caused my energy to skyrocket and then crash, and resulted in all-consuming cravings for more processed, quick-burning foods.
Had I instead focused on food quality and chosen inherently low-calorie, slowly digesting whole foods like vegetables, fruits, and animal protein, my blood sugar would have remained stable, keeping my energy steady, my cravings in check, and I would’ve felt a heck of a lot better.
The takeaway: Yes, calories matter, but it’s more important to focus on food quality. Choose whole foods like vegetables, fruits, and animal protein!
Weight Loss Mistake #2: I Over-Restricted Calories
Taking something to an extreme doesn’t always mean it will be more effective, and that’s the second weight loss mistake I made.
Despite the negative quality of life side effects I just mentioned, tracking calories was getting me closer to my weight loss goals, and that gave me an idea: “What if I restricted my calories even further, cutting back to just 1,000 calories a day?” It was my impression that counting calories was, after all, a numbers game, so if I could create an even bigger calorie deficit, I would lose weight faster. WRONG.
Not only did restricting my calories to less than half of my daily caloric needs mean that was I hungry all the time, trapping me in an exhausting will-power battle of saying no to every calorie that crossed my path, but it made my energy, my mood swings, my sleep, and my productivity even worse.
Little did I know that by chronically under eating, I was shooting my weight loss efforts in the foot. It caused my metabolism to slow, my thyroid hormone production to decrease (a bad idea for someone like myself with hypothyroidism, but at the time, I didn’t know), and my stress hormone levels to rise.
As if those side effects weren’t bad enough, this extreme calorie restriction caused my body to go into ‘starvation mood,’ stressing my body out to the point that my reproductive system to shut down and my menstrual cycle stopped (also known as amenorrhea). This was a very tangible sign that my weight loss actions were negatively impacting my health. But at the time, I didn’t know any better.
Extreme calorie restriction is a common weight loss problem, especially amoung women, and if you take nothing else away from this article, know that it’s not a safe, sustainable way to lose weight. There are so many healthier approaches that allow you to eat enough food to feel satiated and full, that don’t require counting calories, and that will actually improve your health instead of destroying it. Weight loss should be a side effect of healing your body, not collateral damage.
The takeway: Extreme calorie restriction doesn’t work and it comes with a variety of negative side effects. Aim for a deficit of 300-500 calories a day for safe, sustainable weight loss.
Weight Loss Mistake #3: I Over-Exercised
Continuing to follow conventional wisdom, I knew that if I was going to lose weight, I needed to exercise. Before embarking on my weight loss goal, I never worked out because it wasn’t really something that interested me. So I started off with the easiest form of exercise that I could think of: walking.
I began walking around my neighborhood every evening after eating a Lean Cuisine for dinner and after a few months, walking became easy, so I stepped up the intensity and started jogging. This moderate intensity exercise routine would’ve been a healthy way to support my weight loss, but when I hit a several month weight loss plateau, I panicked and took it to the extreme.
The fear that my weight loss has stalled and I would fail halfway to my goal drove me to sign up with a personal trainer (who I adore to this day) at a box gym for three, hour-long strength training sessions a week. Then, on top of that, I began attending 2-3 group cardio classes, for a total of 5-6 intense gym sessions each week.
This can be an effective training schedule for some, but for me, someone who was severely restricting calories, eating low-quality food, and putting a lot of stress on my body, this only made a bad situation worse.
Often times, exercise qualifies as good stress (known as eustress) because, though it takes a toll on the body, the result is beneficial because the body has to adapt, becoming stronger and more resilient.
Since I was already mentally and physically stressed, my body couldn’t handle it, and 5-6 days a week of intense exercise became a negative stressor, resulting in inflammation, elevated cortisol levels, and the cherry on top, weight loss resistance. It’s possible that the 5+ hours a week I was dedicating to fitness were causing both my health and my weight loss goals more harm than good.
I would’ve been far better off sticking to a mild to moderate intensity exercise schedule consisting of walking, hiking, yoga, and maybe even some tai chi.
The takeaway: Too much exercise can derail both weight loss and health. Consider how much stress you have on your plate and adjust your exercise routine accordingly.
Weight Loss Mistake #4: I Was Chronically Stressed
As if the stress of extreme calorie restriction and over-exercising wasn’t enough, my then-career as an art director for live event television was also incredibly stressful – and I didn’t have healthy strategies to cope.
The long, crazy work hours, the demands from producers, the feeling of not being good enough, the never-ending to-dos constantly cycling through my brain even after leaving the office, all had me overwhelmed and exhausted. And my coping mechanisms were rooted in emotional eating and crying. I was chronically stressed.
In this state of chronic stress, my body’s fight-or-flight response was always on, always prepared for battle. It didn’t have the energy or resources for non-essential tasks like losing weight because it was more concerned with doing whatever it had to in order to keep me alive. In fact, my body was likely fighting to hold on to the very fat I was so desperately trying to get rid of, just in case that fat would be needed for survival.
Not only is chronic stress bad for weight loss in the short term, but in the long-term, it can lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, systemic inflammation, hormone imbalances, leaky gut, disrupted sleep – all of which can sabotage weight loss.
So how can you know if stress is holding stalling your weight loss? If you tend to hold your weight in your abdomen, that’s a sign that chronic stress may be the cause.
Looking back, being in the thick of a stressful, growing career was not an opportune time in my life to lose weight. Not only did the demands of work push me to tears on a regular basis, but obsessive calorie counting and over-exercising added an emotional and physical toll to an already stressful life, but it perpetuated my health problems like amenorrhea (and as I later discovered, leaky gut and psoriasis), and ultimately set me up for a slow, frusterating road to weight loss.
The takeaway: Chronic stress is bad for safe, healthy weight loss. Focus on minimizing your stress or wait for the stressful time to pass!
Weight Loss Mistake #5: I Defined My Self-Worth By the Numbers
Every two weeks, my personal trainer and I would take measurements to check in on my weight loss progress. I’d step on the scale, we’d measure my body fat percentage with calipers, and then use a tape measure to determine the size of my left calf, thigh, bicep, foreman, my hips, waist, and chest.
This concept seems logical enough – use tangible metrics to determine progress – but I became completely wrapped up in those numbers. I began to dread going in for measurements, preparing for them up to two days in advance by limiting my salt intake (so as not to retain water), limiting water, and skipping lunch in the hopes of shaving off a few tenths of a pound for my evening weigh in.
I became convinced that if my weight, my body fat, and my measurements didn’t decrease every time, then I was doing something wrong and I was a failure.
I had assigned so much meaning to the numbers that a “bad” weigh-in would crush me. I’d fight back tears in my personal training session, sometimes breaking down completely. Then I’d fall into a depression of sorts for the next couple days, going over what I could have done differently, beating myself up for any treats I’d consumed or workout session I’d missed in the previous weeks. I’d call myself fat, call myself a failure, and then punish myself with even more calorie restriction and over-training.
When I think back on this, I start to get a little emotional at how mean I was to myself. I would never talk to a family member or friend like this – so what gave me permission to do that to myself?
The takeaway: You are SO MUCH MORE than a set of numbers! What’s more important is how you feel, what you’re capable of, and your happiness. If tracking weight, etc, is motivating to you, do it, but if it’s going to cause stress and anxiety, monitor your weight loss instead by how your clothes fit and how you feel. And please, be kind to yourself ❤
Weight Loss Mistake #6: I Thought Losing Weight Would Solve All My Problems
Skinny people who look like swimsuit models don’t have problems, right? They have unshakeable confidence, everyone loves them or wants to be them, and they always get Prince Charming – or so I thought.
Even when I hit my lowest weight of 129 pounds and 14% body fat, I was still miserable. I still thought I was fat. My tummy still made me feel self-conscious. And I still didn’t love myself.
More than a year of stress, emotional turmoil, restriction, obsession, sacrifice, and self hatred, and I still had all the same problems that I had when I started my weight loss journey, plus some new health problems.
It was at this point I finally realized that losing weight isn’t the solution to happiness. The emotional eating I’d struggled with, the negative body image, the lack of self-worth – those were all issues that would require a lot of inner work, not just the outer work, to come to peace with.
The takeaway: Weight loss won’t solve all your problems. While losing weight, it’s also important to do the inner work on your beliefs and mindset, to help you achieve peace, mind, body, and soul.
My Healthy & Happy Ending
I’m happy to share that despite all the weight loss mistakes I made when I lost 40 pounds back in 2011-2013, my journey has a happy ending.
Realizing that a number on a scale wouldn’t make me happy, I decided it was time for a change. I told my personal trainer that I didn’t want to do measurements anymore and I stopped counting calories. And right around that time, the paleo diet entered my life.
After obsessively counting calories and carb cycling, I was looking for a way to maintain my weight loss without driving me crazy and the paleo diet became just that. The philosophies of eating real, whole foods, moving in a way that supported (instead of punished) my body, and the need to manage stress deeply resonated with me.
Within days of upgrading to real food, my energy skyrocketed, my sleep quality improved, my body started to feel better, and I quickly realized that skinny is NOT the same as healthy.
I hired an eating psychology coach to help me make peace with my emotional eating and negative body image and to this day, I still work with a therapist to manage my stress, self-criticism, anxiety, and depression, because my mental health is just as important to me as my physical health.
And eventually, I left my career as a stressed out art director to become a certified health coach, so that I could help other busy women lose weight safely and sustainably by creating healthy habits like choosing quality foods, managing stress, and replacing the negative voices in their heads with a positive, supportive, loving voices.
I don’t regret the weight loss mistakes I made in my own journey because its ignited a passion within me to help other women avoid these pitfalls, so weight loss can be a truly healing experience.
I’m now somewhere around 150 pounds and 20-something% body fat (I’m not entirely sure because I rarely step on a scale these days), but I can confidently say that I’m the happiest, healthiest, and most in love with my body I’ve ever been in my life. And that’s the biggest win.
6 thoughts on “6 Weight Loss Mistakes I Made That Hurt My Health”
So impactful! Thanks for putting yourself out there Ellen!
Thanks, Lily! From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate that. Its taken me awhile to work up the courage to write this, but if it helps just one woman to have a happier, healthier weight loss journey, it’s so worth it ❤
Ellen, thank you so much for sharing this. So many of us have experienced at least some of your points, and you have shared some very real and valuable thoughts and advice. So glad you decided to pursue being a health coach.