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The Psychology of Weight Loss

by Sandra Roycroft-Davis(more info)

listed in weight loss, originally published in issue 241 - October 2017

I KNOW what you’re thinking: What’s psychology got to do with weight loss? Surely all you have to do to lose weight is go on a diet, eat less and exercise more. What’s so complicated about that?

Well, the problem for 95 per cent of the people who try losing weight that way, it just doesn’t work in the long term. Sure, they lose weight but they put it all back on again - and in some cases they end up heavier than when they started.

Ten years in Harley Street have proved to me one thing: Lasting weight loss is about your brain not your belly. So if you want to join that exclusive Five Per Cent Club who keep the weight off, it’s vital that you understand what’s going on in your head.

One of the main reasons people aren’t successful is they approach the problem in the wrong way. We generally start by taking out a gym membership and going on a diet and yet only about five per cent of us succeed this way.

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Most people focus on the physical side of things, but there’s an emotional aspect to food that the majority don’t even think about – and this sabotages their efforts. A survey in America found 31 per cent thought lack of exercise was the biggest barrier to weight loss, while only one in 10 thought emotions and habits were a factor. 

This explains a lot - because to lose weight and keep it off long term we need to understand WHY we eat, not just focus on WHAT we eat.

 From a very young age, most of us become emotionally attached to food.  Parents use chocolate and sweet treats as a reward for being good or to help make us feel better if we’re upset or hurt. All this does is constantly reinforce the association the brain has made: food or sweet treats or chocolate equals pleasure.

So we quickly become conditioned to use food not only for nourishment and nutrition but for comfort and the reward it gives. This creates powerful connections that can last a lifetime.

Whenever the brain experiences pleasure it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine - and the more you get the more you want. Evidence proves that because sugar kicks off this process, it becomes our feel-good drug of choice. Losing weight can be a miserable experience and we are creatures of pleasure.

My clients often ask what’s stopping them achieving their weight loss goal even though it’s what they want more than anything in the world. This is where the psychology comes in. The natural behaviour when we want to lose weight is to say “Right – I won’t eat chocolate, cake, biscuits or drink alcohol or fizzy drinks because I know they’re ‘bad’.  I’ll count my calories and do some exercise.”

The diet industry has been drumming that into everyone for more than 50 years. So people deprive themselves of their pleasures and cut their calories. The problem is, deprivation doesn’t work and here’s why: When you need to make a conscious effort not to eat, your mind and your body conspire together to make the opposite happen. This dates back millions of years to the survival instinct that cavemen relied on. 

When you cut back on your food intake, your mind lets it happen for a little while then decides you’re in a famine situation.  At which point it sends out signals to the body and says, “Whoa! Hang on to the fat, we may need it”!    

There’s also other implications surrounding conscious restriction of calories (or dieting). 

Forcing yourself to eat less creates:

Depression – so you eat to feel better; Preoccupation with food – so you think about food more then eat more; Your weight constantly on your mind, so you to eat for comfort; Feeling out of control and then bingeing; Food becoming far more desirable, because you’re depriving yourself and that in turn creates cravings.

Hand in hand with deprivation our old friend willpower has to step up to get us through.   That’s the next tough one.  Our environments are not set up to help us with willpower!  You see, willpower is like a muscle - the more you use it the more it becomes tired and weak.  

Food retailers spend millions on psychological techniques which are designed to kill your willpower so you can’t resist certain foods in supermarkets. All the coffee shops are the same. How many times do you go in for a coffee and buy something to eat - even when you’re not hungry?

Willpower and deprivation don’t work because we’re working against our own brains - and specifically our hormones and neurotransmitters (like dopamine) which are controlled by the brain. So not only are you going to be miserable because you’re depriving yourself of your pleasures, you’re having to change your behaviour and habits, which is also a tricky one (we’ll come to that later). 

Dieting has made food the enemy and the body the battleground but it really shouldn’t be like that.  People need a good relationship with food and their bodies if they’re going to achieve sustainable weight loss.  They need to develop good eating habits and lose the mental hang-ups before they can begin to achieve their goals. 

The self-sabotage so many dieters suffer is so sad because it crushes self-esteem and can so easily be avoided.  Everyone’s heard the expression “I’ve fallen off the wagon” and this can happen for so many reasons - in my opinion the main culprit is dieting because it creates negative behaviour patterns that are repeated over and over again. 

Diets set you up to fail because you just can’t succeed long term. Yet people keep on doing what they’ve always done, so they get what they’ve always got! Madness!

The weekly weigh-in is one of the most common reasons people self sabotage. Our bodies aren’t designed to lose weight consistently every single week. It didn’t go on consistently every week so it won’t come off like that either. Trust me.

Yet people go back to diet clubs week after week to get weighed and then stop going when they haven’t lost weight because they hate the humiliation.  It’s so sad because the scales are the enemy when it comes to emotional eating.  Some people reward themselves with chocolate when they have a good result on the scales and others eat chocolate for comfort when the scales haven’t moved! Disaster!

Kick out the scales and use your clothes and the way you feel as the barometer of how much weight you’re losing.  Don’t allow the scales to control your emotions because they’ll always win!

School holidays are another bad time for self sabotage. Over the years I’ve noticed that the absolute maximum time a woman can sustain a diet is five weeks – when the kids are at school every day. When the kids are home, routine goes out the window.  Days out, treats, fun and socialising are not friends of willpower and deprivation! 

So why is it so easy to fall into bad eating habits yet so hard to create new, healthy ones? Sustainable habits are not created overnight. Good or bad, they’ve generally started in childhood or teenage years and are then reinforced as we go through life. 

Habits are created subconsciously and they require constant repetition to maintain them – this happens when they become an automatic behaviour.  Unless you make a conscious effort to change habits and follow certain strategies to make sure they’re ingrained, it’s very difficult.

Most people get into the ‘habit’ of dieting when they’re in their teens or early twenties.  They doing with the best of intentions but it actually starts a vicious cycle of behaviour that leads to so many psychological problems and a terrible relationship with food and their bodies. So many end up much fatter then they started.  If they learned instead about nutrition and how what you eat affects the brain and in turn the body, then I very strongly feel we wouldn’t have an obesity crisis.

Hopefully you’re beginning to realize that dieting might not be the answer to your weight problems. However, in order to stop dieting it’s important to realize why you diet and then find a substitute.  Dieting serves a function and this function can’t simply be removed - it has to be replaced.  Most people diet because they’re either dissatisfied with their bodies or their health is suffering.

Giving up dieting is like giving up an addiction and it’s difficult to imagine life without it. But it’s disordered eating and isn’t normal behaviour.  Dieting makes you obsessed with food when food is the last thing you should be thinking about if you want to lose weight.

I’ve not come in contact with one person who is thinner, happier, in control or successful as a result of dieting – so why do they do it again and again? Stopping dieting means you can accept yourself for who you are rather than being on an endless treadmill of false expectations.

Stopping dieting means freedom from constantly thinking about, dreaming about and denying yourself food.  It means you can join in family meals and go out on social occasions without feeling like you’re the odd one out with your special food. Stopping dieting means you’ll no longer disappoint yourself, feel a failure or feel depressed. You’ll no longer feel guilty or weak.  Your confidence and self-esteem will grow because you’ll end the self criticism.

Your relationship with food and eating behaviour will change. Dieting aims to result in eating less but paradoxically can cause overeating.  Stopping dieting ends this problem.

So finally, the BIG question. How  do you stop dieting when it’s such an ingrained behaviour? Like most things in life, dieting is a learned behaviour and absolutely can be changed. The first step is about de-hypnotizing yourself from the trance you’ve been in for many years and start to believe there is another way! Most of all you need to believe you can do it and that you are worth it!

The second step is to set up some new behaviours. Become aware of your internal chatter and what it’s saying.

Then there are several ways to stop it:

Close your eyes and imagine what this ‘voice’ looks like. Does it have a shape or is it a person or a thing? I find with a lot of my clients it’s someone of influence in their childhood like a mother, father or teacher. It’s generally a voice that’s telling them they’re not good enough or are rubbish and will never be a success; When you’ve got the image, what would happen if you changed the way it looks? Give it a funny hat or a big smile perhaps. Then change the way it sounds.  You could give it a voice that means you can laugh at it; What would happen if you could stop it talking altogether by reducing the size of the image and putting it into a tiny box so it was muted and under control? At the end of the day negative self-talk is a story you are telling yourself and you need to change that story in order to move forward and achieve your dreams.

Three things you can do right now:

  1. Cut processed food and stay well clear of any ingredient that has an “ose” at the end such as fructose, glucose, lactose, sucrose, maltose and dextrose;
  2. Don’t deprive yourself.  If you deny yourself food your brain will convince your body you need it. A little of what you fancy helps changes your relationship with food;
  3. Set up new eating habits. Commit to three small changes and repeat them every day - it will soon add up to something very big.  The secret is in the repetition - you become what you repeatedly do!

Comments:

  1. Anna Twinberrow-Carr said..

    I'm have a problem with this statement "You see, willpower is like a muscle - the more you use it the more it becomes tired and weak." Our muscles become weak, from lack of use, rather than over use, surely? Anna


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About Sandra Roycroft-Davis

Sandra Roycroft-Davis DipCHyp HPD NLP Prac MNCH is a Harley Street behavioural change specialist and founder of ThinkingSlimmer.com. Sandra qualified as a cognitive hypnotherapist at the Quest Institute and is an NLP Master Practitioner. She specializes in effective and permanent weight loss through her Slimpods - 10-minute hypnotherapy recordings which can be downloaded from her website www.ThinkingSlimmer.com . She has spent years studying the psychology of eating and weight control and is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity. Sandra may be contacted on Tel: 020 7760 7596;  Sandra@ThinkingSlimmer.com   www.ThinkingSlimmer.com

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