Understanding How Psychological Factors Can Hinder Weight Loss
Are you struggling to lose those excess pounds? Does stepping on the scale bring feelings of discouragement – or worse, despair? Does it seem like no matter what you do those pounds just won’t budge?
Perhaps you’ve successfully lost weight, only to regain it all right back – and then some. And now you feel more hopeless about your weight than ever.
If any of this sounds like you, you’re certainly not alone.
Losing weight – and keeping it off – is quite challenging for most people. It requires self-discipline, consistent effort, and making significant and permanent changes in your current eating habits and lifestyle. And who likes change? Especially if those changes leave you feeling deprived at least some of the time, if not much of the time?
You may be doing everything “right” – at least on paper, most of the time... You’re watching your portions carefully, you’ve given up all or most sugar, alcohol, and junk food (and maybe even most or all foods high in carbs), and you’re exercising 4 to 6 days a week.
But despite your efforts, one of three things is happening:
- the scale isn’t moving
- it’s moving, but at such a crawl it’ll take 5 years just to lose 10 pounds (okay, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point)
- you keep “falling off the wagon” every few days or weeks
You’re so frustrated with trying to lose weight that you feel like throwing in the towel for good and heading to the nearest store to grab a pint (or three) of chocolate peanut butter Häagen Dazs! Might as well blow your diet in decadent style, right?
Speaking of frustration and other emotional weight loss saboteurs…
Emotions – One of the biggest hurdles to successful weight loss
If you’re like most people who are trying to lose weight, you focus on two things: diet (what you’re eating, when, and how much) and exercise. After all, we’ve been hammered for the past several decades with the message that losing weight boils down to burning more calories than you take in. Simple, right? So what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is this: Diet and exercise are only two parts of the puzzle. The piece that’s missing – and is so frequently overlooked – is the psychological aspect of weight loss.
A 2012 survey of over 1300 psychologists revealed that emotions frequently play a significant role in their clients’ weight loss struggles . In other words, if you’re going to be successful at losing weight and keeping it off, you need to pay close attention to the impact your feelings may be having on your weight loss efforts.
More specifically (per the psychologists who were surveyed):
- You need to learn how to manage the emotions and behaviors related to managing your weight, and understand the role they play
- You need to learn to manage emotional eating – which is huge obstacle for many dieters (not to mention, a frequent contributor to unwanted weight gain)
You see, as human beings, emotions tend to drive our choices and behaviors far more than logic. This is one of the reason it can be difficult to break a habit (such as overeating or smoking), even though we know, full well, that it’s bad for our health.
Practically everyone has at least some emotional attachment to certain foods. We grew up learning to associate certain foods (and sometimes food in general) with powerful emotional pay-offs such as comfort, love, a sense of security, happiness and celebration, and reward or praise.
Think back to when you were a kid. Most likely you can recall many times when food was used to comfort you, reward you, and so on. For example, when you fell and scraped your knee your mom bandaged you up and gave you a cookie. Decadent treats such as specially decorated cakes and cookies, candy galore, and festive dinners with all the trimmings played (and still play) a major role at birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions. And as infants, most of us experienced love, comfort, and a sense of security in the arms of our mother while nursing.
Those childhood experiences create strong emotional bonds to food that follow you into adulthood. You’re certainly not alone if sweets (hello, chocolate!) and “comfort foods” (homemade mac and cheese, anyone?) seem to call your name 24/7 when you’re trying to lose weight. And boy, can they be persistent! (Funny how carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs never make a peep…☺)
Unfortunately, your parents (well-intended as they were) may also have used food as a form of punishment or discipline when you were a child. Perhaps there were times when you were sent to bed without dinner if you’d misbehaved that day. Your parents may have said, “No desert for you because you didn’t eat your broccoli” (or other veggie you especially disliked), making desert a lofty reward for obedience.
And if you didn’t eat every last bite of food on your plate? You were likely subjected to the guilt-inducing (and really annoying) lecture about starving children in some foreign country – as you sat there, bewildered, wondering how on earth cleaning your plate was going to help some kid thousands of miles away… (Of course, you get it now, but you still dutifully clean your plate – even when you’re full…and have the excess pounds to show for it!)
It’s no wonder emotions can really trip you up when you try to lose weight!
3 Common Psychological Obstacles to Weight Loss
There are many ways your emotions, thoughts / beliefs, and other psychological factors can sabotage your weight loss efforts. Following are three of the most common culprits:
In the survey of psychologists mentioned above, emotional eating was cited as one of the most frequent causes of difficulty losing weight and keeping it off. While this issue occurs in both men and women, it’s more a more common occurrence in women.
Emotional eating can occur for many reasons, but studies have shown that it’s often used to cope with stress, depression, and / or symptoms of anxiety, such as nervousness or feelings of panic. It’s frequently used to soothe, numb, or escape (via distraction) painful feelings such as:
- Yearning for love
- A sense of overwhelm
- Emptiness (psychological)
Most of us learn in infancy how comforting food can be when we’re distressed. Many parents give a crying baby a bottle when nothing else has worked to calm the little one down. If that becomes a regular occurrence, even though it’s not feeding time and the baby’s likely not crying out of hunger, it sends a powerful message – when all else fails, eat. You’ll feel better.
However, emotional eating frequently creates a vicious cycle that reinforces the behavior and makes things even worse, usually in the form of more unwanted pounds.
You can probably remember a few occasions when you binged on cookies, chocolate, ice cream, or potato chips in an attempt to make yourself feel better emotionally. It may have provided temporary relief, but once you finished off the package you felt worse – even if you really enjoyed the first several bites. Now, on top of whatever negative emotion you were already experiencing, you’ve just added guilt, shame, and probably self-loathing as well.
So what do you do to counter that? You eat even more to distract yourself from those feelings!
Each time your emotional eating makes you feel even just a little bit better it reinforces this vicious cycle.
It’s also important to understand that dieting in and of itself can also trigger emotional eating. You see, when you significantly cut calories or avoid certain types of foods (e.g. sweets), it can make you feel deprived or punished. You start feeling irritable, anxious, or even angry as a result. “How dare anyone (including myself) take away my chocolate!” This sense of deprivation is especially strong if food has been a primary source of comfort or happiness. It can make you feel like rebelling, and what better way to rebel than going off your diet. Of course, you’re rebelling only against yourself, which won’t accomplish anything good…
Unless the underlying cause of the emotional eating is identified and addressed, you’ll keep repeating the same patterns. Sheer willpower won’t be enough.
Also referred to as “black and white thinking”, this rigid, perfectionistic mindset towards losing weight will set you up for failure every single time. Essentially, it means if you can’t do things perfectly, or if you slip up along the way, you regard your efforts as a total failure. You’re so caught up in the details and fine points that you can’t give yourself credit for and see the value in your overall efforts and progress.
Essentially, you’re micro-managing your weight loss efforts like the worst kind of boss – you know, the one who breathes down your neck, watches you like a hawk, and points out every mistake you make – no matter how tiny.
One of the telltale signs of all-or-nothing thinking is when you slip – e.g. you gave in and ate a few bites of cake (heaven forbid!) or you missed a workout because you had to stay late at work to finish a progress. So, instead of accepting that you’re human and that the best laid plans sometimes get interrupted, you decide that since you blew it, all is lost so you might as well go ahead and eat the whole cake or forget working out for the rest of the week. Or even worse, you just abandon your weight loss efforts altogether.
Another indicator of all-or-nothing thinking is when you regard your diet or exercise program as something you’re either “on” or “off”. That doesn’t work for long-term success, because research has shown time and again that diets don’t work – and one of the main reasons (regardless of the diet) is the attitude that it’s a temporary or short-term thing. Those who lose weight and keep it off rarely look at diet in this way; rather, they realize that long-term success requires lifestyle changes as opposed to short-term fixes.
If you want to be successful in losing weight – and keeping it off, it’s essential that you don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Life isn’t black and white; there are hundreds of shades of gray in between. You don’t have to be successful 100% of the time – nor would you be able to no matter how hard you tried.
If you’re battling depression (and you might not even realize it) weight loss may be very difficult. With depression, your appetite is often impacted in one of two significant ways: either you rarely feel like eating much of the time, or you find yourself eating more than normal (which is another form of emotional eating).
A change in appetite isn’t the only symptom of depression that can really mess with your weight loss efforts. Other symptoms that can come into play include low energy and fatigue (making it difficult to exercise, although exercise actually helps depression), disturbed sleep (lack of consistent, restful sleep can interfere with weight loss), and negative feelings such as sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, and low self-esteem – all of which can contribute to emotional eating. Many people who struggle with depression also have a pessimistic outlook, which can easily fuel thoughts of “why even bother trying” to lose weight.
Studies have linked depression to a greater chance of regaining lost weight. Depression has also been linked to increased levels of cortisol, which can contribute to unwanted weight gain and fat storage, particularly in the belly, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
If you’re taking an antidepressant, it’s important to be aware that some antidepressants have weight gain as a potential side effect. If you’re concerned that your medication may be negatively impacting your weight or making it difficult to lose weight, talk to your doctor so you can explore other options if necessary.
Strategies for Addressing the Psychological Obstacles
If you’re feeling discouraged at this point, don’t be. Being aware that psychological factors such as emotional eating may be playing a significant role in your weight loss struggle is important; awareness is the first step towards making some changes that will finally move you towards successful weight loss.
The psychologists who were surveyed listed the following as their top three strategies for successful weight loss:
- Cognitive therapy – This approach to therapy helps you identify and change negative thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that are not only interfering with your weight loss, but also likely impacting other areas of your life as well. It’s a relatively short-term therapy, so even just a few sessions may be worth considering if you suspect emotional eating, depression, or other psychological issues may be getting in the way of reaching your goals.
- Mindfulness – Learning to be mindful can be very helpful in weight loss. It enables you to be fully present in the moment (as opposed to dwelling on the past or worrying about the future). It also to accept the thoughts and feelings you experience without judging them. One of the most beneficial aspects of mindfulness when it comes to weight loss is that it really helps you become aware of automatic and habitual behaviors that are subtly sabotaging your efforts.
- Problem-solving – This strategy involves discovering new and healthier ways to deal with challenges and obstacles that can easily trip you up. For example, if family members are trying to sabotage your weight loss efforts (which isn’t uncommon at all), this strategy can help you find better ways to deal with it than getting upset with them or giving in to them.
Food / event / emotion log – In addition to the above strategies, keeping a food log or journal is another helpful way to identify emotional patterns that may be getting in the way. The food log needs to include what, when, and how much you eat – and also what events occurred (e.g. an argument with your boss) and emotions you were experiencing just before, during, and after you ate. You may see patterns emerging that provide a ton of valuable information. For example, if a fight with your spouse or a bad day at work often leads to an anger-fueled chocolate binge, then you can consider alternatives (e.g. a brisk walk or other activity) that feels good and allows you to calm down and clear your head.
Last but not least, be kind to yourself. Weight loss isn’t easy, so be sure to give yourself credit for every success – no matter how small. Forgive yourself for mistakes and don’t expect perfection from yourself.
You can successfully lose weight, even if you’ve always failed in the past. Just make sure you pay as much attention to the psychological factors involved as you do to your diet and exercise regimen. That’s the winning combination for successful weight loss!