We all know that being overweight is detrimental to our health in many ways, including risk of diabetes, cancer and heart disease. And we all desire to look slim and trim so we can go out and feel confident. Unfortunately, we are often conscious of embarrassing fat in all the wrong places. The battle of the bulge often seems futile. Weight loss programs that do wonders for the superstars just don’t have the same effect on mere mortals, and any weight loss victoriously achieved in one year just sneaks right back on the next. Add to this the fact that every adult Australian is progressively gaining weight by more than a kilo every two years and it seems that fate wants us to be fat. Why is long-term weight loss so elusive?
In the past we have been told that the simple physiology of losing weight is just a matter of adjusting the quantities of energy in (calories consumed) and energy out (intensity of exercise). But dieting and pounding the pavement each day might achieve worthwhile results initially, but it just doesn’t last. Eating less triggers the body to alter its metabolism and preserve fat so that we don’t fade away. And exercising triggers off intense hunger pangs so that we just have to eat.
But as well as the effects on our physiology, there are important psychological factors that have a powerful influence on our efforts to shed fat. To lose weight requires us to change our lifestyle—to eat differently and to move more. But attempting to bring about these changes in lifestyle can be affected by things that seem totally unrelated to diet and exercise.
Food means much more to us than simply providing fuel for our bodies to function. Sometimes our parents have used food as a reward, and when we feel a need for affirmation we reach for the biscuits. Good hospitality revolves around food, and the sweeter and fattier the food, the more pampered we believe our guests will feel. Our mental state affects how we approach food. For many people, dismay and disappointment around body shape, dieting and exercise frequently leads to depression. And depression often leads to eating more and moving less.
Another factor is stress, which is an integral part of our modern lifestyle. There are hundreds of strategies people use to cope with stress—some appropriate and some not. Bingeing on fattening food is a common stress response. Then there’s the well-known phenomenon of turning to food for comfort when we suffer a setback or feel bad about ourselves or life. Even more psychologically complex is the fact that many women who have suffered sexual abuse subconsciously make themselves fat and unattractive in an attempt to avoid male attention. But this fails to bring them comfort or security, instead leading to anxiety, depression and further weight gain.
And who is not familiar with the experience of being faced with some forbidden food and being sure we were definitely not going to have any, but shortly finding ourselves tucking in to a second helping? This is followed by the inevitable guilt trip and wondering “what on earth is wrong with me?” because we cannot stop ourselves doing what we don’t want to do. Our underlying beliefs are powerful influences on our daily behaviour, and we cannot put in place lasting lifestyle changes without first addressing those beliefs that play a part.
Changing beliefs is absolutely essential in body weight management. For example, even though we might desire to be slim, a well-meaning relative might have told us we are destined to be fat (just look at your mother, grandmother, aunties, etc.). Our belief in that statement will override what we consciously choose to do, and we end up over-eating. There are a lot of old wives’ tales and myths around weight gain that actually keep us reaching for another helping.
Another vital key is in our approach to life. Happy and optimistic people do much better in overcoming the psychological barriers to weight loss. Happiness does not depend on our circumstances. It is a choice we make in spite of our circumstances. Some people are born optimists. Other people have to make an effort to learn how to live more positively.
A psychologist can help you sort out the factors affecting your personal efforts to lose weight and help you make lasting changes.
Changing beliefs is absolutely essential in managing body weight