Diets seem to be one of the most common tools people use when they want to improve their health. And, when you're on a diet, the main focus is usually weight loss.
So, when you are ditching diets (because we know they don't work) and avoiding the scale, how do you tell if you're making progress?
The aim of diets is to manipulate external factors to change your body size - restricting foods, exercising a certain amount, eating only at certain times, etc. Ditching diets allows you to tune back in to your incredibly smart internal regulation system. Because ultimately, only your body knows what is best for it at any given moment. It will always guide you to the most health-promoting options if you're paying attention.
Maybe this doesn't need to be stated, but the first step would be setting a non-weight goal. If your goal isn't weight-focused, your indicators of progress won't be either. If you're having trouble setting a non-weight goal, think about what you really want. Is it more energy? To feel more rested and focused? To eat without meticulously tracking calories or other numbers? To be more active? To be more kind to yourself? Thinking about and setting a non-weight goal is an important step if you want to break free from the scale.
So, what are some internal cues you can use to tell if you're making progress toward becoming a healthier you?
Did you check in with your hunger/fullness levels? No calorie calculator can tell you exactly how much energy you need in a day. They provide estimates and they don't know what is going on inside of your body. You may be more or less active one day compared to the next or you may be hungrier or less hungry for no apparent reason. Eating according to your hunger and fullness cues will ensure that your body gets everything it needs to function properly and allow you to settle at the weight that is healthiest for you. Note: If you are struggling with or in the early stages of recovery from an eating disorder, hunger and fullness cues are not reliable for you yet. Working with a dietitian can help you to restore these cues. Hunger signals are also sometimes blunted in competitive athletes.
Are your food choices energizing you? While you have permission to eat any food, regularly eating cookies for every meal likely won't leave you feeling that great. There may also be days when you're only craving a salad but you know you need something more substantial to get you to your next meal or to refuel from a workout. Balancing what sounds good with what will make you feel good is an important part of taking care of yourself.
Did you move your body in a way you enjoy? In the context of diets, exercise is often associated with guilt and shame. For example, "I ate a cupcake and I shouldn't have, so now I need to go exercise to make up for it." When used in that manner, it's no surprise people often dread working out. There is also a "no pain, no gain" view that is common in our culture. In reality, any kind of movement has benefits. Rather than defining progress as forcing yourself to trudge through 60 minutes on the elliptical every day at 5:30a, find an activity that you actually enjoy and look forward to. It's much healthier to spend time walking, gardening, doing yoga, playing with your kids or going on the occasional run with friends if that's what you enjoy than it is to lose sleep and be stressed out about getting to the gym, then being miserable the whole time you're there.
Did you take time for activities you enjoy? Stress has a huge impact on health. The body's stress response can have a significant effect on various hormones and processes in the body if it runs unchecked. Chronic stress also contributes to inflammation that causes chronic disease. Taking time to unplug and spend time doing activities you enjoy is a success if your goal is better overall health. While your ultimate goal may be taking an hour per day or an entire evening or whole weekend day for yourself, any movement toward that goal indicates progress and is a success in my book.
Did you get enough sleep? Inadequate sleep is a source of stress on the body and can have an impact on various hormones that affect everything from reproductive health to appetite. When you get adequate sleep, you're also more likely to have energy for movement, preparing food, and doing things you enjoy that help reduce stress.
When you struggle, are you curious instead of judgmental? We are not robots and things will not always go perfectly. As you let go of diets, it is also important to begin letting go of the judgement and "black and white" thinking associated with them. If you used food to numb yourself from feeling emotions, got less sleep, or didn't make time for yourself, think back on what went wrong and how you might like to do it differently next time. Then, move on. This is about taking better care of yourself and improving your health for the long run, not beating yourself up.
These are just a few examples of ways to measure if you're taking better care of yourself and moving toward better health, and all are things that the scale will never be able to tell you.