There is a common attitude towards losing weight that the process must entail deprivation, restriction and denial of foods you would normally like to eat.
But this creates a conflict because you may want to lose weight but you don’t want to “diet”!
This is called a “diet attitude” or “all or nothing thinking”. This attitude tends to involve thoughts such as
- Diets are hard and involve misery and deprivation
- I must be perfect on my diet to lose weight
- Weight loss must occur quickly
- If I have already blown it, I may as well continue eating anything and start again tomorrow or Monday.
- I must focus on weighing myself regularly
- Dieting is simply a means to an end – when I have lost weight I can go back to normal foods
This attitude is often associated with yo-yo diets, a negative relationship with food and a high level of frustration.
If you have lost weight in the past, and subsequently regained the weight, you may also have (consciously or unconsciously) an expectation to fail again. Why go through the pain of dieting only to subsequently regain the weight?
An expectation to fail and a restrictive attitude naturally creates a negative relationship with food and sets you up to fail. Read more about the weight gain cycle here.
How to avoid a diet attitude
- Create an eating routine that can easily be integrated into your normal lifestyle. Avoid going “on a diet” (since that implies “going off a diet”) and instead make small and realistic steps to change your eating habits, which will not interfere with your normal routine.
- Focus on foods to add in rather than foods that you are taking out. Avoid focusing on foods that are not conductive to weight loss, but instead on the options that can be enjoyed and the benefits of being slimmer, fitter, more energetic and healthier.
- Develop realistic expectations as to the level of adherence to the new food choices. Follow the 80/20 rule. 80% healthy choices and 20% moderate indulgence – this is sufficient to achieve weight loss whilst avoiding a sense of deprivation; if you allow yourself to indulge you are unlikely to feel deprived!
- There is no failure- only feedback. Accept that occasional lapsing or indulging is not failure, it is normal. Expect to lapse on occasions and develop a plan to deal with it when it occurs. See it as feedback on how your body responds in that situation, show yourself compassion, learn for the future then get over it.
- Take the focus off the scales as the only measure of success and avoid frequent weighing since weight fluctuates daily and fat may be lost without registering a significant change on a set of home scales.
- Do you consider certain foods to be ‘bad’ or ‘good’ for you? Do you believe yourself to be ‘good’ or ‘naughty’ depending on how you are eating? Take the bad label away and give yourself permission to eat it- but do it slowly and mindfully.
To simply change WHAT you eat is rarely successful long-term without adequate attention to WHY and HOW you eat.
Behaviour modification involves identifying and modifying unhelpful patterns of habits you may have. In doing so you need to become an observer of your habits and recognize that the influence of habits is very powerful. Changing habits you have developed over years takes effort, time and practice, practice, practice.
Any habit that you have learnt can be unlearnt! The old saying of 21 days to a create a new habit is actually a myth. It can take anywhere between 16 days to 256 days depending on the complexity, repetition, and frequency of the skill involved.
Think about the everyday tasks you perform without thinking about them – tying shoe laces, brushing your teeth, driving a car – you learned to do all these tasks tediously step by step – now they seem automatic.
Similarly, you learnt how to eat. Many of your attitudes towards food and our habits with food are rooted in childhood – “finish everything on our plate, remember the starving children …”, “if you are good you can have a treat”. As a child you may have been given a dummy to suck on, or food as a pacifier if we were crying. Is it any wonder why you often have need for oral gratification?
Any successful attempt to lose weight involves not only modifying the food you eat but also examining the reasons why we eat – your triggers to eating and habits with food. Eating is often used habitually to fulfil certain needs other than physical hunger – for example:
- Justification for ‘time out’ or for self
- Anxious, angry frustrated
- Lonely, depressed
- On arriving home from work
- When the children arrive home from school
Identify Your Trigger Times
Do NOT view the triggers as a weakness but as a learned habit and an opportunity to find solutions (remember there is no failure, only feedback). Keep a diary and every time you feel the need to eat note the time, the environment and any feelings you may have. Notice any pattern or themes when you tend to comfort eat, overeat or make unhealthy food choices.
On recognising your triggers, try to identify the underlying need and develop an alternative pleasurable strategy(s) to fulfil the need.
Another aspect of behaviour modification is learning to delay impulse gratification. A thought enters your mind and you immediately act upon it. Much eating occurs in response to these impulsive thoughts. Unfortunately, each time you act on an impulsive thought we reinforce both the action and the thought, which then reinforces the cycle.
If you can teach yourself to notice the cravings and NOT act upon them eventually they arise less frequently. If a thought arises observe it, but delay acting upon it by busying ourselves with meaningful activities such as playing with the kids, reading a book, gardening, responding to emails etc. Usually within 5 minutes the craving will disappear.
Foods make you feel good, right? You were given a lollipop after a doctor’s visit or a cookie when you skinned your knee. And who hasn’t lost themselves in a tub of ice cream Bridget Jones style?
In order to reduce your reliance on foods in order to manage stress you may need to develop greater coping skills. This is because eating is often used as a coping mechanism.
If you are trying to lose weight and food was a stress management tool- you may experience more stress unless you have other strategies ready to assist you to cope. Examples include exercise, mindfulness, time out for pleasurable activities and hobbies. Check out the Fun Activities Guide here for some stress management ideas.
The links between stress and losing weight are multi-faceted:
- In stressful times turning to snacking and drinking alcohol is often used as a way of coping; these actions provide you with a distraction of “time out” but they also lower energy and cause weight gain (which ironically causes more stress). This type of coping leads to one of the vicious cycles.
- Whilst short bursts of stress can be quite productive to deal with pressure, sustained stress reactions cause a rise in cortisol levels. This elevated cortisol can lower immunity (linked with more frequent illness and even some cancers) and causes salt and fluid retention which slows down weight loss
- The stress response also reduces blood flow from the digestive system making it harder to digest and absorb foods. This in turns make it more likely that your body will store fat and less likely to get the nutrients from the foods you eat in a stressed state. When you don’t have the right nutrients such as magnesium, chromium and B vitamins you end up craving foods more. It becomes a vicious cycle.
- The act of “dieting” often becomes a source of added pressure in life causing a stress reaction as it becomes stressful to eat out or eat in a social situation.
This is particularly the case if the dietary guidelines are extreme or expectations of level of adherence and/or rate of weight loss are excessive. This gives rise to the great “dieting paradox” of the harder one tries to diet the harder it may be to lose weight.
The ABCs of building healthy eating habits don’t develop overnight, but they are achievable. Adopt them and start working towards a healthier you.
We at SmartPlay believe that the appropriate management of stress is essential as an adjunct to healthy lifestyle program.
With thanks to our guest contributor, Gemma Bouchel. Gemma is Nutritional Psychologist with over 20 years experience in utililising the psychology of eating with nutritional intervention to overcome yo-yo dieting, comfort eating and lack of motivation.