How Your Thinking Affects Weight Loss
With January just around the corner, it won’t be long until our social media feeds are filled with “new year, new me” posts and half your workplace are excitedly telling everyone that they are going on a diet and this year will be the year they manage the amazing weight loss, despite being at it for the last 15 years, each being as unsuccessful as the last.
The issue is that there is a lot more to losing weight than you think. In this article, i will be looking into the psychology of dieting and how it can make it difficult to achieve your goal if you don’t address this before starting a weight loss journey. Hopefully, you can use this to help with your new year’s resolutions next year.
Being overweight essentially comes down to 2 things: 1. What goes on in our heads and 2. The environmental factors that we live in. The combination of these 2 things can lead to us doing less than we should do and eating more than we want to. Overweight/obese people tend to show symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and high levels of body dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, a common coping mechanism that people turn to when experiencing these symptoms is emotional eating. This, in turn, can trigger the vicious cycle that many people will find themselves in… Using food as comfort can lead to weight gain which can cause depression and anxiety symptoms to worsen which then causes people to reach for the comfort blanket of unhealthy food again and the cycle continues.
When you look at this cycle within the world of dieting you will see a similar pattern and how it all fits in and results in the inevitable failure year after year. 1. A person decides they need to lose weight and go on a diet. 2. They set pretty unrealistic goals or choose a diet that is not enjoyable/sustainable. 3. They don’t see the results they want or they “fall off the bandwagon” and give up. 4. They feel really bad about it (think anxiety symptoms I discussed previously) and reach for the comfort blanket – unhealthy foods. 5. They gain more weight, get stuck in the above cycle of weight gain/anxiety and depression symptoms which can see them gaining much more weight over a period of time. 6. Eventually, they decide they need to lose weight and the cycle continues.
Before A Diet
What people don’t consider before going on a diet or embarking on a weight loss journey is how they can break this cycle, how they can improve their relationship with food and how they can properly plan a lifestyle change that will work for them. For a lot of people, food is seen as a negative thing and is often victimised in offices up and down the country. Think about how many times you hear people saying negative things regarding food like “oh i have been bad and had a bit of chocolate?”. Personally, i absolutely love everything about food, the cooking of it, the flavours and the amazing social element to it (family meals around the table, going out for dinner with friends etc) which I think is often forgotten about and should be celebrated rather than being seen as a negative thing. On a restrictive diet, the social aspect is lost which is further leading to a negative relationship with foods. This negativity is associated with binges which can easily see you gulping down thousands of calories without evening thinking about it which is a big part of the problem.
Think about this… If you have ever been in a state of stress and you start eating a big bar of chocolate. Have you ever stopped for a second and asked yourself why you are doing it? If it is going to reduce the levels of stress you are feeling? or in fact, is it actually going to lead to you feeling worse in the long term? Probably not, but we still go ahead and eat the chocolate bar then often feel guilty afterwards. If we can break this cycle before it becomes problematic then
Triggers & Environment
You can spend all the money you want on weight loss tablets, slimming classes, shakes, and other weight loss aids but if you don’t understand what YOU need then you are going to find it extremely difficult to be successful. You have to understand how your body works psychologically. What are your triggers? Are you able to fit these into your lifestyle in a way that means you can still enjoy them without overdoing it? Did you know that researchers have found that we will crave foods that we have been told not to eat and even lead to us having a greater desire to eat the banned food than if they were allowed (which is why heavily restrictive diets tend to cause you to reach for these banned foods and end up giving up).
We live in a massively obesogenic environment which does not help matters when you want to try and lose some weight. Next time you go out, just take a look at how much our lives are affected or influenced in a way that makes “being lazy” the easier option. Think escalators with no option of stairs, lifts right next to the shops for easy access, the lack of street lights or pavements which makes walking more dangerous or undesirable, the list goes on. Our day to day lives are much less active now than they were 15+ years ago. There has been a huge rise in the use of computers, cars are much more popular, manual labour has reduced and convenient food such as takeaways, ready meals etc are much easier to get as well as things like the price difference of going large, which is often only pennies of a difference which is meant to tempt you into going large. All of these things make gaining weight so much easier.
So, what do you actually do about it?
Well. a good starting point is don’t dive head first into a diet that is a complete 180 degree flip from your current one. The simple fact is, everyone is on a diet, it is just that yours might not be serving you the way you want it to. You could easily pay someone for a diet plan to follow every week (there are a lot out there) and you would see changes but as soon as you stop paying you are back to square one again, having no idea what to do. Instead, you should have a look at your current diet and see what changes you could make to it in order to make it that bit better.
Weight loss is a journey where you may have bumps in the road, good points, bad points but at the end of the day you are aiming to get to one place. There might be a few detours but as long as you get there, does it really matter that it took you an extra few months? I read a good analogy on life the other day which is so relatable to weight loss. If you have ever played a computer game, did you give up as soon as you died? No, you analyse what you did wrong and how you can improve to get to the next level and have another go. It might take you 10 attempts, but you stick at it and you succeed. The same should apply to weight loss, don’t just give up at the first blip, analyse what went wrong and see what you can do to make it better. Come back stronger and get to the next level!
A big problem that people have when it comes to weight loss is that they believe the inability to lose weight is due to causes outwith their control such as:
- “its genetic”
- “I have a slow metabolism”
- “I was born this way, there’s nothing I can do”
- “It’s my hormones!”
- “I have a medical condition that makes me overweight”
Although there is some evidence that these things can play a part in weight, it does not help us change our behaviours because we think there is nothing we can do. If you get professional advice on how to lose weight but in your head, you believe you can’t lose weight due to your metabolism or another factor, you won’t follow the advice through to the end because it doesn’t match your belief. We often only adopt solutions to a problem if they match our beliefs about the cause.
It is with this in mind that we need to think about our behaviours and how our thoughts may be affecting our ability to lose weight.
People who have been successful in losing weight and keeping it off often talk about finding new coping mechanisms such as exercise, talking to friends/family or a new hobby.
So going forward we now need to be considering how we can start feeling more in control. Developing new habits, finding new coping strategies, addressing your beliefs about foods and changing your attitudes. Look at developing a more flexible approach to your diet rather than seeing foods as being forbidden or either good or bad with no in between.
Something I am a strong advocate of is monitoring your own progress. Habits are often engrained in us and therefore occur with very little conscious thought involved. By evaluating yourself you can help to prevent mindless behaviours such as overeating as these behaviours become more conscious and less automatic. Set yourself small achievable goals and review these at the end of each week/month depending on what they are. That way you can see if your plan is working and make changes where necessary rather than getting 1 year down the line only to find your plan was not working and seeing it as a completely wasted year. Another good method is to make plans for the coming days/week, making shopping lists to take to the supermarket, eating at the table rather than on the sofa in front of the TV etc can really help you to alter these negative behaviours and start creating new habits.
Steps to take going forward
Find your trigger to change
A lot of successful weight loss where the weight has been kept off is triggered by a life event, such as a break-up, a bereavement an embarrassing situation etc. The reason being is that this shakes up a persons life and helps to create a chance for change rather than just waiting for January and saying you are going to lose weight just because it is “what you do in January.” We can’t make these events happen so it can be useful to find the mini-events that happen in our day to day lives such as an injury, a birthday, special celebration, house move, new job, holiday etc which all offer up the potential for change. What often happens is that we let these events slip by and we re-establish the ‘normality’ that we were in before and end up slipping back into the old habits and old ways of thinking. Instead, you should try to identify one of these changes, think about it, focus on it, write about it (make notes, keep a diary etc) and use it as an opportunity for change. It is a thing in medicine that is known as a ‘teachable moment’ and is something that doctors use to get a message across to patients that something needs to change. When it comes to a trigger for weight loss, we need to find our own ‘teachable moments by focusing on any opportunity we have for change and making it the trigger we need to make things different in the future.
See any event that disrupts the routines in your life as a positive opportunity, not a threat.
Changing what is in our heads
You have to believe things can change! As I mentioned earlier, if you still think your weight issues are caused by things like genetics, hormones or a medical condition then it is just generating feelings of hopelessness which is going to result in you giving up. If you want to succeed, you have to believe you can, and this also applies to other changes you want to make in your life.
If you fall into this category of thinking, ask yourself these questions:
- Have I ever lost weight?
- Have I ever gained weight?
If the answer to these is ‘yes’ then ask yourself why? Could the weight gain have been when you were on holiday and you ate a lot of food and drank a lot of alcohol? Did you lose weight when you were ill and you lost your appetite? This now shows you that your body weight is linked to your behaviour, where eating more leads to weight gain and eating fewer leads to weight loss. Again, with this in mind, you will have a clearer picture that you are able to lose weight which helps you in believing it is possible.
A big thing that people do when it comes to our behaviours is weighing up the benefits and cost. Basically, we go ahead with things because the benefits outweigh the costs. In terms of weight loss, we need to make sure we understand that the benefits of eating well to lose the weight outweigh those of not doing so. Instead of jumping straight into it without any thought, think about what the benefits will be for you if you lose the weight. It could be fitting into a certain dress, being able to play with the kids, feeling better, feeling fitter etc write these down and use them as a motivational tool. We are also very driven by rewards, so another good way to stay on track is to set up a reward system for yourself. It could be something like buying a dress you love but the size smaller than you are so you have something to work towards, perhaps you will reward yourself with tickets for a show once you reach a certain goal etc.
Create new behaviours
When you look at successful and unsuccessful weight loss, you will see that a new behaviour regimen is absolutely necessary if you want to keep it off long term. In terms of psychology, this new regimen should be looking at what, where, when and why to eat.
What to eat: The basis of weight loss is simple: consume fewer calories (energy) than are used up in the day to day activities. What also needs to be considered is your overall health. I hear too often about people going on extreme diets where they eat very low-calorie intakes. This is not sustainable and is also dangerous due to the high level of dietary deficiencies that will arise as a result. There are loads of diets out there where foods or food groups are banned which could cause deficiencies and also adds to the negative relationship with food as we discussed earlier. Take the ketogenic diet for example: Carbohydrates are seen as being bad and you are instructed to avoid them. This can make you feel bad if you ate something like a banana which is packed full of fibre, vitamins and minerals which are essential for health.
Instead of following a generic diet that someone tries to put on you as well as a lot of other people, you should aim to find the way of eating that best fits with YOUR lifestyle and individual needs. As i have said on so many occasions, there is no something as a one size fits all diet.
Where to eat: In the obesogenic world we live in, it can be very easy to overeat without realising it. Many people grab food on the go, eat in the car, eat at their desk or sit in front of the TV in the evenings. As a result, eating is done mindlessly and without thinking which means we don’t take notice of our eating behaviours and this often leads to us not feeling full after. Research has shown that people who eat when distracted such as in front of the TV, having a snack whilst walking around eat more than if they sit at a table and eat with a plate, knife and fork. So where possible you should aim to pay more attention to your eating behaviours. It can also help you feel better if you have a proper lunch break where you sit down away from the computer and eat rather than eating at your desk.
When to eat: As discussed earlier, food is often seen as a comfort and is regularly eaten when we are bored, needing a treat or just because someone else is eating. This also leads to overeating. Like the previous point, you should try to pay more attention to your eating behaviours so you know when you are actually hungry and only eat then. A really good way of achieving this is to plan ahead of time what you are going to eat. I am a big advocate of meal planning and it is something I do with all my clients whether they are looking to lose weight or are professional athletes, everyone will find a benefit in doing so. This doesn’t mean you need to start filling 100’s of plastic tubs with chicken and broccoli as seen regularly on Instagram, you just need to make a note of the meals you are going to eat each day and put in a bit of preparation to make sure you are actually able to have it. E.g. defrosting meats, making sure you get all the ingredients in your shopping etc. Doing this will also help you save a lot of money as it will reduce the amount of food you are wasting. It also helps you to learn to accept feelings of hunger than develop between meals. As you have planned out in advance you know that you are getting everything you need and if you eat more than that then it is going to negatively affect your goals.
Why to eat: Once you have achieved the what, where and when, then why should change as a result as you will no longer be spontaneously eating in response to things going on in our heads or the tempting environmental triggers. Once you get to grips with all of the points discussed it will help to enable you to be less food-focused and you can learn to live to eat rather than eat to live.
Manage your environment
Our behaviours are clearly a response to what is going on in our head which are often triggered by out environment. In an ideal world, we would all be able to re-programme what is in our heads so we can easily ignore these triggers and just do the what, where, when and why that we plan for. It is important to maintain a bit of perspective and remember that at times this can be hard and we might need a bit of extra help from our home environment.
We are all adults and are in charge of our home environment. It is up to us where we drive to, what we buy, what we cook etc. Therefore we need to try and limit the temptations in the home if it is something that often causes a trigger. By planning your week out you can make sure you are sticking to the rule of only things you are planning to eat should be brought into the house. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t buy it! Sometimes there are avoidable steps we can take to change our routine if it is something that causes issues:
- Shop online rather than going to the supermarket where you can see all the tempting products
- Don’t shop hungry!
- If you walk past a shop/takeaway on your way to or from work. Plan to walk a different route so you are not going past it and are tempted in by the smells.
- Don’t take small children shopping with you.
- Choose a better place to eat in the house – Make sure your table is clean, tidy with no clutter so you are not forced to go and sit on the sofa.
- If you are going out for a meal, look up the menu ahead of time and choose what you want. That way you are not browsing the menu when you are really hungry which is when we are more likely to make less healthy choices.
Look to the future
The last step you shop focus on before going on a weight loss journey is looking forward rather than back. Look forward to a renewed sense of control, a new identity as a healthier person. Use the steps discussed above to help achieve your goal! Unfortunately, life always finds a way of getting in the way and disrupting our progress so it is important that you can learn to cope with failure if it happens as well as learning other valuable ways of thinking to help you stay in control!
Coping with failure: However organised we are or motivated to succeed, there are times that you will eat or drink more than you wanted to, skip the gym and start to see your progress going backwards. The best way to look at this is don’t try and kid yourself that these moments will never happen but to have a strategy to deal with them when they do. This way they are not going to snowball into a full blown relapse that would see you doing the classic: “What is the ****** point” and giving up. Here are some ideas to help you create an effective strategy:
Plan to deal with high-risk situations: You are always going to have to deal with situations that are going to be more difficult such as weddings, holidays, birthdays etc and life is there to be enjoyed. You shouldn’t approach these things with fear and dread or go there and only eat a few lettuce leaves because “i’m on a diet”. Before you go put yourself in the situation and think about how you will feel. Plan what you are going to do when you are there. You can also plan ahead when you are know you might be consuming more food than you want, you can shuffle the rest of your day about to help limit the damage. Instead of going to the wedding after eating as normal, why not have a smaller breakfast and lunch to give you some more calories in the evening.
Don’t put the blame on yourself: The most common reaction to a negative situation such as overeating or not exercising as much as you would have liked to is self-blame. When we blame ourselves it is likely to lead to negative mood and a lowered self-esteem which in turn can start the downward spiral into the vicious cycle discussed at the start of the article. A good solution to this, if you find that it is something you do, is to find something else to blame. It was a wedding, you didn’t cook the food, work was very busy and caused you additional stress etc. Doing this helps to shift the blame away from you which makes you feel better about the situation and maintaining your positivity and motivation.
Be kind to yourself: If you are in a situation where you feel bad about doing something, such as overeating it is important that you are kind to yourself about it. Remember, this is a lifelong journey which is going to have ups and downs. A lot of the time when people are dieting and they “fall off the bandwagon” they are very negative about it and often say things like “i will start again on Monday”, “I will just be naughty this once and have a bar of chocolate” etc. These negative thoughts add to the sense of guilt and can affect self esteem. Instead of this you should look at being more constructive, forgive yourself but understand why it happened and then move on. When you understand this you can also look to adjusting your food intake the following day to make up for it. For example. You had a bar of chocolate, instead of beating yourself up about it and feeling bad. Understand that you were perhaps stressed out because of work and you had a bar of chocolate, you enjoyed it and now is the time to move on but maybe think about what steps you could take to stop it from happening too often or you could reduce the portion sizing of your next meal to make up for the additional calories you had earlier.
See it as a learning opportunity: Thinking back to the analogy i made earlier about the computer game, when you die you learn what you did wrong and go back to it in order to succeed. The same should apply to weight loss. If you have a blip, see it as a way of learning rather than feeling bad about it and calling it a failure. Evaluate why it happened and see what you can do it help avoid it next time.
Look at your previous achievements: A key thing you should be doing is looking back at how far you have come. This could be in the form of photos, measurements or even keeping an article of clothing from when you started and using it to see what size you were when you started this journey. When something negative happens this can really help to get you back into the zone and re-motivated.
Finally, I want to take this moment to thank you for reading this article. I hope it is useful in some way for you and you can apply some of the points i have discussed and use them to assist you in your journey.
Remember, don’t jump into the first diet you see or one that a friend is telling you to go on as the chances are it will not be suited to your lifestyle and will end up resulting in you giving up. Instead, plan around your own preferences and lifestyle to give you a new way of life that is going to work for you for years to come, not just a “6-week blast”.
If you do need further assistance, check out the different services I offer. These will allow you to understand what you need and learn how to reach your own goals.
- The Psychology of Dieting, Jane Ogden:2018