“Before” and “After” pictures seem to be everywhere, especially as it relates to encouraging weight loss. Honestly, this strategy makes me cringe. Is this really helpful or necessary? Before you glaze over and stop reading because you are thinking, “what’s the problem…these images really motivate individuals to achieve the desired result”, I challenge you to consider what an individual’s “after” the “after” picture looks like? For example, regarding weight loss, it has been proposed that only 2 out of 10 people who achieve modest weight loss are able to sustain that weight loss for greater than one year (Wing and Phelan, 2005). For the remaining dieters, most gain all or more of their weight back within one to three years. Was it because the successful 20% had before and after images?
In fact, individuals consistently come to me expressing their frustration over losing tens or even hundreds of pounds using the latest diet trend, supplement, weight loss program, and bariatric surgery, only to regain all of which they have lost. It breaks my heart when I see folks who have made significant healthy behavior changes with eating and exercise, but still are not happy with their “after” picture and turn to the next diet trend to “lose that last 10 pounds”. So, is this approach really motivating and helpful? Perhaps in the short term. But, at the very least, these images don’t seem to encourage long-lasting success, and at the worse, this approach continues to feed into our culture’s obsession with achieving a certain “look” and even more disappointment when that “look” can’t be achieved or sustained. My question is what do you want your “after” the “after” picture to really look like? My hope is that each individual will consider their success to be measured by some of the following qualities, not just a picture.
1) Overall health. Improving health markers, such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar can happen when an individual participates in regular activity along with a balanced approach to nutrition. Many of these benefits are related to a slight decrease in weight, but can also occur with consistent lifestyle changes. An added benefit is decreasing the worry about these conditions.
2) Emotional well-being. Eating well, healthy activity and regular sleep can make a significant impact on your emotional state of mind. Although advertisements aim to convince us that weight loss alone will make us “happy”, the truth is that physical activity and eating well stimulates various brain chemicals that help us manage stress and emotions so we can feel more relaxed and peaceful.
3) Healthy eating behaviors. Many individuals work very hard to lose weight. Incorporating behaviors such as mindful eating, planning meals, cooking more, physical activity, and exploring new healthy foods are important and admirable. These intentional behaviors can result in more energy, sustainable weight control and a positive relationship with food, exercise, and weight. Sadly, too many miss the benefit of their accomplishments because of focusing on one thing – body size.
4) Decreased health care costs. These days, staying out of the doctor’s office due to disease and illness offers huge dividends. There is so much we can do to decrease disease risk with a healthy lifestyle. Much of this is a common sense, balanced approach to nutrition. My mantra is “eat to live” rather than a fear based approach to food and weight. Fear doesn’t help anyone, while accomplishing positive health changes with positive support can be enjoyable and fun!
5) Improved body image. Focusing on positive behavior change rather than the pressure of needing to change your “before” picture may help you feel better about your appearance, boost confidence, and improve self-esteem.
Whether or not you choose to employ “before” and “after” pictures as a motivational tool to accomplish your goals, my hope is that you will consider all the benefits of your hard work. Also, keep in mind that many people don’t like to see themselves in pictures. There are a number of psychological reasons for this, but in general, it may be more helpful to focus on something other than a picture.
“All my limitations are self-imposed, and my liberation can only come from true self-love.” ~ Max Robinson
Val Schonberg is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian who specializes in weight management, sports nutrition, disease