Anyone who has ever struggled with their weight will no doubt also have been told by well meaning friends or relatives “all you need to do is eat less and exercise more”. Simples, right?
Yes in theory, weight gain and loss is a simple matter of balancing calories ingested (via food) and calories expended (via physical exercise).
However in practice the goal of weight loss remains elusive and frustrating for many clients.
Do any of these seem familiar to you:
You go on a diet, lose weight initially and then weight loss slows down.
You go on a diet but then “fall off the wagon” and can’t seem to get motivated again.
You tend to be “all or nothing” in your weight loss attempts.
You can lose weight but almost always put it right back on again and often end up heavier then when you started.
When you’re on a diet you seem obsessed by food and constantly hungry.
Frustrating isn’t it?
Psychology has a very important role to play of course. Our relationship with food is complex, and sometimes emotional issues such as stress can get in the way of our desire to eat more healthily. In these cases attempts to control weight purely by dieting are unlikely to be successful until these underlying factors are resolved.
As a hypnotherapist and BWRT (Brain Working Recursive Therapy) practitioner there is a great deal I can do to support you in your weight loss journey, for example helping you to deal with cravings, and helping to resolve any long standing emotional problems.
However, it is obvious to me that the psychology of weight loss is only a part of the puzzle. After all, weight loss is primarily a physiological process.
In fact the process of weight management is incredibly complex. It involves many different bodily functions, hormones and organs, all orchestrated by the brain. It most definitely is not just as simple as calories out calories in.
I have been doing a lot of research into this area lately as I have been looking at developing a way of working with the mind/body connection to influence weight loss, focussing on metabolism, appetite, energy, and wellbeing. I am currently testing something out which is looking promising, but in the meantime I thought I would share some of my insights with you.
What has been most mind blowing for me is the realisation that the human body is actually designed to resist weight loss. Yes I’ll say that again, the human body is designed to resist weight loss.
So does that mean that all diets are doomed to fail and you may as well just eat that 12 pack of doughnuts? No it doesn’t, but what it does mean is that to lose weight we need to learn to work with both our psychology AND our physiology to be successful in the longer term.
So what is the reason for all this - why is it so hard to lose weight?!
Firstly, human beings are “hardwired” to seek out calorie dense food, such as those that are high in fat or sugar. If you think about this in evolutionary terms this makes a lot of sense as those foods give the highest return in terms of effort needed to acquire them versus energy derived from them.
Clearly for early hunter gatherers where food was scarce, this can be seen as a useful mechanism, less so in modern times when we are surrounded by easily available and high calorie food.
Our brains help to ensure we continue to seek out these foods by providing a “reward” when we eat them. This reward comes in the form of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which is produced in a part of the brain known as the “pleasure centre”. Foods that combine high fat with sugar or salt such as crisps, or cake give us a double whammy in terms of dopamine. (Interestingly, so do highly addictive drugs such as cocaine). No wonder we find them so hard to resist!
So even if you consciously know that to lose weight you should avoid these sorts of foods, it can be tricky because you may continue to crave them even when you are not physically hungry. Just the sight or smell of these foods may trigger an intense desire to eat them. (Biscuit, anyone?)
The other important problem is that biologically our brains are programmed to try to maintain body fat levels. This is a survival mechanism, as historically low levels of body fat would have been associated with starvation. Unfortunately, when somebody who is obese tries to lose weight by reducing calorie intake, the body resists this process in the same way that it would if an extremely slim person was to try to lose weight. This may seem depressing, but there are ways to help overcome this natural process, which we will get onto in a little while.
Another factor worth considering is stress. It may surprise you to know that simply being under stress can make it hard to lose weight. When we are experiencing a lot of stress, such as being in a job we hate, financial pressures, relationship issues, and so on, our body produces cortisol. Cortisol has been linked to weight gain, in particular “belly fat” which is known to be harmful for our cardiovascular health. Again the hormonal processes underlying this are complex but it is worth being aware of.
Other physical factors which may be linked to weight gain can include autoimmune conditions such as poor thyroid function, insomnia, changes around the menopause, and many more.
So….what can we do about all of this? Well, here are my suggestions, based on the research I have been doing:
Be aware that being “on a diet” is not necessarily a good idea. Low calorie diets do cause weight loss, but also reduce basal metabolic rate, which is the “starvation” response. This can lead to weight gain which is actually the last thing you want.
Psychologically too, the idea of being “on” a diet can lead us to restrict certain foods, and put ourselves under enormous pressure. When we “fall off the wagon” there can be an immediate sense of guilt, disappointment and a feeling that it has all been a waste of time, often accompanied by bingeing.
Far better to think in terms of long term weight management, balanced eating, and lifestyle. If you are not “on” a diet in the first place then you can’t be “off” it either!
Look at the foods you eat
As a therapist working with psychological issues I am not able to advise on specific diets or nutrition plans. If you are unsure about what to eat, I would always suggest you consult a qualified nutritionist. However, what does seem to be interesting is the idea that the type of food we eat can help or hinder weight loss.
The whole issue of high fat/low fat and high carb/low carb is controversial and I don’t wish to start any fights!
However it is known that eating foods high in fast release energy in the form of carbohydrates (such as white bread, pasta, cakes, etc) leads to a blood sugar surge. This can then be followed by a rapid fall in blood sugar which leads to hunger, feeling faint, and triggers cravings.
It seems that focussing on eating more lean protein and ensuring that your diet has enough “good” fats such as those found in avodaco or nuts will help to balance blood sugar levels and keep your energy and mood more stable through the day.
Basing most of your meals around natural unprocessed foods such as salads, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and so on also helps to ensure you are getting a good balance of vitamins and minerals so important for a sense of energy and wellbeing.
Choose your exercise carefully
Exercise is also important, although more and more the evidence seems to suggest that simply spending hours on the treadmill will not really help with weight loss.
If you are not a “gym bunny” type of person then simply increasing your activity levels by walking, gardening, swimming etc can be helpful in improving your mood and boosting your metabolism. However again this is not likely to result in much weight loss.
By far and away the best way to exercise for weight loss seems to be building lean muscle tissue through weight training. Not only does this tone and firm the body but it increases basal metabolic rate – essentially meaning that you are burning more calories even when you not exercising. Women may worry that they will get “muscly” but our physiology means that is not likely to be a problem with normal healthy exercise.
There is also a lot of evidence that exercise, and in particular weight training, can help to boost self esteem and counteract depression.
Again, if you are not sure, I would advise you to consult a properly qualified personal trainer.
Yes it can be tempting to go in search of rapid weight loss. There is nothing like the thrill of seeing those numbers on the scales going down!
However be aware that there will be a period of three to twelve months when weight loss will trigger an increased desire to eat because of hormonal changes in the body. Yes that’s right, you will feel more hungry just because you are losing weight.
It seems that when somebody becomes obese their body adjusts what it believes to be their “normal” weight. It will then make every effort to make sure that they maintain this new higher setpoint weight.
It seems that being consistent and losing weight gradually over a period of one to two years will help the body to establish a new “normal” and avoid the yo yo pattern of weight gain and loss that is so frustrating.
In the meantime filling up with healthy foods such as soups, salads, nuts in moderation, lean protein and so on will help to manage that increased appetite.
Some experts also suggest that intermittent fasting (increasing the amount of time between meals) can be a helpful weight loss strategy and helps to stabilise blood sugar levels. I think this is a very interesting area but one where I need to do more research.
Be gut aware
There is some evidence that inflammation in the body can negatively affect the hormones governing appetite and metabolism. A major cause of inflammation in the body originates in the gut.
In a healthy gut, there are beneficial bacteria in the gut. These healthy bacteria not only form part of the immune system but also help to produce some vitamins and neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Normally the gut barrier excludes this bacteria from the bloodstream.
However if a diet high in fat, high in carbs and processed food is eaten, an inflammatory response is triggered in the cells lining the gut. The bacteria and other substances such as gluten from wheat are then able to travel through the gut lining into the bloodstream. This is known as “leaky gut” – intestinal permeability. There are currently no mainstream medical tests for “leaky gut” syndrome, and the whole subject is controversial. Symptoms can be vague and easily confused with other medical issues, for example food sensitivities and allergies.
It could well be that paying attention to gut health may help with both weight loss and other physiological problems in the body linked to inflammation (e.g autoimmune disorders).
Again, a qualified nutritionist would be able to advise, and there is also help that I can offer, for example looking at ways to help manage stress and relieve the symptoms of gut disturbance such as IBS.
Take good care of yourself
There is a great deal that you can do to take care of yourself during the process of weight loss.
Managing and reducing stress, improving sleep patterns, and looking at lifestyle are all important parts of your weight loss journey.
We all lead such busy lives that it can be difficult to find time to shop, prepare food, and eat well. Similarly exercise often gets pushed down the priority list. It’s so tempting to grab a ready meal or sandwich, eating on the hoof or in front of the TV and probably getting indigestion into the bargain.
Perhaps we all need to learn to slow down, enjoy our food, and allow our digestive systems to do the job they are supposed to do.
Taking time to exercise, and take care of ourselves is not self indulgent it is important preventative medicine, and so valuable for our own sense of self worth and wellbeing.
Finally…get help from a professional
If you’re struggling to lose weight, why not consider getting some help from someone that can help you?
If you’re not sure who to speak to, feel free to ask me for some recommendations.
If you feel that you need help addressing your own emotional or psychological issues then do please get in touch. Anxiety, depression, food cravings, bingeing, all of these and more are issues that I can offer support with.
So perhaps weight loss is not easy, but it is achieveable. If you have made it all the way through this article, thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.
I am contiuning to work hard to put these insights to good use as I continue to work on my own weight loss goals. In the meantime I would love to hear your views as to what weight loss strategies you have found most helpful, feel free to comment below!