Now that I’m preparing to re-start my weight loss journey, I spend a lot of time reflecting on what it was like the first time I got started. I was young, excited, and eager to try anything that would help me shed a few pounds.

This also meant I did a bunch of dumb shit, hoping it’d help me shed an extra pound or two. Anything to get in that dress, right?

No! Not “right!”

I’m heading back in the game for round two, but this time I have the privilege of almost a decade worth of reading and writing I’ve done on fitness to help me. And one of the first things I’ve learned is you can’t just do “anything to get in that dress.” And why?

I’ll tell you why.

1) The way you lose the weight is the way you’ll have to keep it off. There’s no sense in picking up a rigorous and unsustainable regimen that you won’t be able to keep up long-term, because as soon as you stop it, you’ll wind up gaining the weight back again, and then some. Switching from being a couch potato to a 5-mile a day routine likely isn’t sustainable, and is likely to set you up for major disappointment.

That’s not just with exercise, that’s with the way you eat, as well. Going vegan to lose weight isn’t going to make the weight loss permanent. You can’t go back to eating meat afterwards and think you’re going to keep that weight off. You can’t go low carb just to lose weight, and then go back to All Bread Everything once you hit your goal, thinking the weight’s going to stay gone.

This is important because you have to unlearn the things that contributed to your weight gain to begin with. You have to learn which foods contributed to your weight gain the most, and find more reasonable ways to enjoy those dishes or items. Maybe you have to stop putting so much sugar in your coffee and teas. Or maybe you keep sugaring them the way you always have, but only enjoy them once or twice a week, not three times a day. You have to find a way of eating that makes you happy as well as healthy, and it has to be a way that you can live with.

2) Calorie counting matters, but not for the reasons you think. I’m pro-calorie counting, but not merely for the sake of obsessing over balancing calories in and calories out. Weight loss is more than that, anyway. When I first started out, I did a five-post series on calorie counting. I still stand by it, and I’m proud of it, but I’d also add a little something to it.

The greatest gift calorie counting gave me was a deeper sense of awareness of what I was actually eating, and not just calories. I know exactly how excessive the calorie counts are in things like creamy pasta sauces and cheesecake slices at chain restaurants because I spent so much time reading the nutrition label on them. I know approximate numbers for how many grams of protein, fat, and carbs are in certain kinds of meals, and can estimate how many calories are in something. I know how much fiber and protein I can expect in certain meals with certain kinds of ingredients, and that helps me to build my own meals that will be filling and lower in calories.

This knowledge was essential to helping convince me to truly leave the processed food behind. That stuff is so loaded with extra calories and extra sugar to make me want to scarf it all down (and buy another because you love it!), and so devoid of anything that would help fill me up (protein! carbs!), that I’d never have achieved my goals while still eating that stuff.

3) You can learn a lot from making your sweets from scratch. I don’t eat candy. I don’t agonize over cupcakes or cakes or brownies or anything else sweet anymore. Know why?

Because all it took was for me to make them oooooooone good time to find out exactly what goes into making them edible, let alone delicious.

Holy pound of sugar, Batman!

When I made Eddy a batch of ginger chocolates for Father’s Day recently, it took almost two cups of coconut sugar to be what I wanted them to be. And he loved them! But, outside of the bit that I ate while I was making them (#tastetesting), I wanted none of them. I was full.

When you realize that the thing that makes candy candy is sugar, you realize that the overwhelming majority of it isn’t even enjoyable beyond the sugar high it sends you on. No flavor, artificial flavor, ridiculous ingredients, nothing to them but sugar, I mean… what, besides the sugar high, is there for me to enjoy? What’s the point?

The same goes for bad cakes and brownies. Sugar, oftentimes cheap chocolate, milk instead of cream, buttercream frosting that isn’t actually made with butter or cream, food coloring, fake vanilla flavoring. What’s the point?

Even if the point is just to share a treat with a loved one, why would I eat more than a small portion of it?

The chocolates I made for Eddy were made with cream and ginger, vanilla and cinnamon and nutmeg. They had protein and fat, so they actually had the ability to fill you up. And trust me… they did. But because they had the ability to fill you up, you couldn’t eat more than a few pieces without becoming ill. If you couldn’t stop yourself, the chocolates would surely stop you. Furthermore, as an emotional eater, biting into something only to realize it is hollow, with no fat or protein, lets you know you’re eating something that could trigger an episode. It gives you the info you need to help you avoid the things that trigger the habit.

Making treats yourself, and learning what it takes to make good ones, will give you plenty incentive to put down the baddies, and pick better goodies.

4) You don’t have to do a soul-crushing workout everyday, but you do have to be active every day. I know that people tend to do the things they see people around them doing in order to experience weight loss success, but oftentimes “the people around them” are merely fitness enthusiasts on Instagram…who likely got their fitness advice from the DudeBro at the squat rack with a gallon jug of muscle milk and hopped up on fat burners. Basically, we are often inspired by people who have bad advice to do things that aren’t helpful to us as beginners.

If you want to push yourself five, six days a week, of course you can… if you truly enjoy it. Do you have to in order to experience success? Absolutely not. If you have to skip a day, it’s not “falling off the wagon.” If you only go three times a week to grind, it’s not “time to start over next Monday.” You’re still going, you just overdid it and need a break. You need to find a frequency that works for you, and right now you’re still figuring it out.

It’s okay to do different activities of varying difficulty. At my best, I was alternating lifting with yoga and running, sometimes doing two in one day (which isn’t necessary for most, but I work from home so I need more activity to help me make up for what I miss out on.) Alternating high-impact or high-octane activities like running or cycling with low-impact or low-octane activities like some kinds of yoga or pole dancing will help you not only avoid burnout, but help you keep from over-exerting yourself and strolling into work sore to death.

5) You are always at your best when you center your own happiness, not someone else’s advice. I followed so many people down so many awkward and obnoxious paths for so long, thinking that what they did would have to work for me. And, when what they were doing failed me, I blamed myself and it sent me down a spiral of frustration and shame for being unable to pull off what they did. But, if I looked back and thought about it, I would’ve been miserable living like them. I would’ve been miserable simply eating “smaller portions” of the same unfulfilling and un-healthful foods like them. I would’ve been miserable trying to like the same activities they did, and trying to commit to them several days a week.

I had to take away wider lessons from the kind advice people gave to me. It wasn’t “go running 6 days a week,” it was “find a way to burn a gang of calories on a consistent basis.” It wasn’t “spinach and chicken breast!” it was “lower-carb meals with sufficient protein.” It wasn’t “cheat days!” (which would only result in me blowing my weekly caloric deficit in a mere day), it was “develop an eating lifestyle that won’t be so strict that I can’t enjoy a treat every once in a while.”

When I looked at the advice that way, then I was able to fill in the blanks with things that were fulfilling to me, things that made me happy, and things that fit into my life. That, in turn, made it easy to commit to what I was doing, and that commitment made it easier to achieve my goals.

Looking back, these are the things I wish I knew the most, and the five points that will likely help me the most as I reembark on this journey with the family in tow! What do you think? What would you add?