I’ve started and stopped weight-loss journeys more times than I can count. (I’m sure plenty of women can relate.) For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to change parts of my body I didn’t like, or doing everything in my power to get to ‘x’ weight. Why? Because I believed that once I did, I’d finally be happy.

This struggle with my weight has been going on since I was a teenager. I was always searching for the best diet to get “skinny” and even resorted to starving myself at times. It didn’t help that I was always told that I was a “big girl” and would never be “petite.” Eventually, I accepted what people were saying as fact and began using food as both a reward and a punishment. 

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This continued—treating my body poorly and eating emotionally—up until I gave birth to my second child at 29 years old. Before I got pregnant with him, I was already overweight. Then, I took “eating for two” to a whole other level: I used being pregnant as an excuse to eat anything and everything. Not to mention, I believed I needed to rest all the time, which contributed to even more weight gain.

Post-pregnancy, I knew something had to change. There wasn’t one exact light-bulb moment—it was just lots of little things that added up. My family had long been urging and inspiring me to be healthier and I wanted to be a role model for them too. I wanted to be around to see my two boys grow up and live a long happy life with my wonderful husband.

So in July of 2017, I decided it was time to regain my health. I knew that this time was going to be different because I didn’t make drastic changes—like try a crazy diet or go nuts in the gym—right away. Instead, I gradually made small changes and, looking back, it was those simple steps that eventually led to big changes.

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To start, I knew I had to change my attitude toward weight loss. This time, I was going to think of weight loss and happiness separately. I made an effort to find things about my body that I loved just as it was. I’d focus on those things instead of the things I didn’t like—my arms. At first, it was tough. I had to try really hard to find things about my body that I appreciated because my whole life, I’d looked in the mirror and picked out my flaws. But after weeks of telling myself that I was worthy of self-love, that my body was amazing for giving birth to two healthy children, and that it was capable of accomplishing anything, it became easier and easier to find the positives and push away the negative thoughts.

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I began to accept my body as it was, but also enjoyed improving it. (More: You Can Love Your Body and Still Want to Change It) Instead of wanting to be “skinny,” I wanted to be strong and fit. Sure, the actual loss of weight also helped with my confidence and being happier and more comfortable. But I really think that the mental shift in how I looked at myself—from the beginning—made losing the weight a lot easier.

Changing my diet was part of this too, but I didn’t follow a rigid plan. I decided not to make any food off-limits—and I still don’t. I’ve found that the more you deny yourself of something, the more you want it. (That goes for anything in life, not just food.) Knowing you can eat something if you really want to kind of removes the urge to “cheat” or overindulge.

I did, however, focus on being in a calorie deficit and making sure that each and every one of my meals was balanced: I started having protein with each meal and including a wide variety of nutrient-dense whole foods like vegetables and fruit. I also made sure to include food I enjoyed eating, like the occasional chocolate or some chips. My food consumption became mindful and I really enjoyed it—mostly because I didn’t feel like I was necessarily giving anything up. (Here’s why eating more might actually be the secret to losing weight.)

The next step for me was to start being more active—but first, I needed to change the way I looked at exercise. I knew I had to separate my exercise intentions from my weight-loss goals. I worked hard on not viewing being active as a punishment or simply a means to lose weight. I began approaching it as a way to feel good and reward my body. It helped that, within a few weeks, I started seeing my body change. From there, I was hooked. (FYI, science found the best workout to overcome your weight-loss plateau.)

What started as a couple of at-home workouts per week turned into a routine—one that I continue to follow today. On top of running around with my two kids all day, I lift weights four times a week. (Two are upper-body days and two focus on lower body.) My diet varies but is still centered around sufficient protein and nutrient-dense foods with a good splash of what people might consider “treat food.” (Here’s why you seriously need to stop thinking of foods as “good” or “bad.”)

Yes, I’ve lost 100 pounds so far—but the most welcomed change in my life has been emotional. In the past, if I was busy or stressed, exercise would be the first thing to drop from my schedule. Now, in situations like that, it’s what helps keep me grounded and makes me better at handling stressful situations. Overall, I’m much calmer and I don’t get upset as easily. I’m also now able to see my body as strong and capable and am so thankful for it after all it has been through.

For anyone who might feel like they’ve been in my shoes and are thinking of building a healthier lifestyle, I’ve got one small piece of advice: Make it simple. (More evidence: How Making Small Changes to Her Diet Helped This Trainer Lose 45 Pounds)

You don’t have to do crazy fad diets with hard-to-follow rules. Find a diet that you can stick to—one that you can enjoy for the rest of your life, not just for a few months. A diet is only ever going to be as good as your ability to stick to it. So if you can’t live without bread and a diet is telling you that you have to cut it out, it’s probably not going to be good for you. (See: Why You Should Stop Restrictive Dieting Once and for All)

Also, find a supportive network that knows what you’re going through, even an online community. Find an exercise that you actually enjoy, and don’t just look at working out as a way to lose weight but as a time to do something valuable for your body. Finally, be patient and celebrate small victories. Remember that small achievements = big results. That’s the key to creating a healthy lifestyle that’s lifelong—and to actually being happy.

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