‘Tis the dieting season

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It’s January and the weight loss industry is gearing itself up for the most intensive part of their year. Many have gained a little too much perhaps over the holidays and now they are resolved to losing some of it. An improved diet and added exercise can obviously bring many benefits, but if you are really serious about losing weight long-term I have some added suggestions.

First, you should try to understand why you gained the weight to begin with. Unless you understand this you are less likely to keep the weight off long-term. Factors such as stress, negative thoughts and negative emotions usually play a major role in weight gain, it’s not just about overindulgence or a lack of exercise. You need to go a little deeper.

Secondly, keep a diary of your thoughts and emotions, particularly when it comes to situations where you experience negative thoughts and emotions, but also what makes you happy and relaxed. By becoming more aware of what presses your buttons so to speak, you can avoid getting into the same situations again, so that your thoughts and emotions gradually become more positive.

Thirdly, try to have a mindset where you do things, such as weight loss, out of a positive perspective, i.e. as a reward and not as a kind of self-punishment. If you feel like your weight loss regimen is a punishment, it will probably not work very well.

Finally, learn to listen to your body and what is needs, don’t disconnect from it or view it as something dysfunctional. Remember that  there are always reasons your body has stored extra weight. If you can get to the source of the weight gain, the path to lasting weight loss will be much clearer.

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Chasing a different body weight: what are you trying to compensate for?

Arnold-Schwarzenegger

It seems that whenever we feel that we are lacking something, we usually try very hard to compensate for that lack. The kind of lack that we want to compensate the most is any type of inner lack, for example a lack of self-esteem, self-compassion or feeling inadequate in some way, for example by not conforming to current body shape ideals.

And when we have this much focus on bodies and appearance, it is more or less impossible to feel totally fulfilled in the way we look, because we are constantly bombarded with messages of how the “perfect” body should look, i.e. how you should look. This is all a cynical sham of course. Most if not all of those pictures of slim, toned and tanned bodies we see in advertising have been photoshopped beyond belief.

Companies are very good at making us feel a particular type of lack that their service or product can compensate for, maybe a new car (the old one is not good enough), plastic surgery (your body is not pretty enough) or weight loss (you don’t want to look fat while on the beach this summer), etc. Buying something for ourselves can obviously perk us up a bit but we also know that this effect is very short-lived, a mere rush, unless there is a genuine internal change (which usually takes time and effort).

Since body weight is very much influenced by our internal beliefs, thoughts, feelings and emotions, we can help ourselves improve on those internal factors by understanding more about what we are trying to compensate. For example, if we feel that our current weight is not appropriate, then we have negative thoughts, feelings and emotions about our body that we need to be aware of. Perhaps you were told as a child that you needed to lose weight by a parent, a teacher, a coach, i.e. you were told that there was something wrong with the way you looked. Maybe you then internalized those beliefs, which then started to influence your thoughts, feelings and emotions regarding your appearance and body weight.

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If you are running around from one diet to the next, perhaps it is time to look at those negative beliefs, thoughts, feelings and emotions, to see where they come from, and start practicing greater body acceptance instead to gradually reduce those negative internals factors. You will certainly feel better about yourself, and you will be much less vulnerable in the future to negative outside influences, e.g. advertising that promotes unrealistic body shape ideals.

Lasting weight loss comes from the inside, not the outside

It’s quite remarkable just how much we continue to search for well-being and happiness from outside sources, such as a new job, new relationship, new car, hairstyle, watch, suit, dress, shoes, and the list goes on. If you take a step back and look at our general way of life, it kind of feels like we are conditioned to run around the treadmill of life constantly in need of outside things and gadgets to make us happy. Of course, we rarely get any lasting fulfillment in getting those new shoes, or whatever we long for, yet we keep doing it over and over again.

Einstein

The same can definitely be said of dieting. The pattern of weight loss and regain will be very familiar to all those who struggle with weight problems. A very large part of why dieting fails is that we don’t get to the bottom of why the weight gain occurred to begin with, and, even though there are different ways of looking at this, my view is that the vast majority of weight gain comes from the inside in the form of negative thoughts and emotions. The origins of those negative thoughts and emotions can be very complex but there is no doubt that they usually make their debut during childhood and stay with us as adults, consciously or not.

Negative thoughts and emotions have a huge influence on our health and well-being, and obviously our weight, both in terms of regulating stress, metabolism and inflammation, but also lifestyle choices and habits. This is why I am convinced that any lasting weight loss is very unlikely to come from outside sources, it needs to come from within. Once you start to understand more about your thoughts and emotions, you can shed the weight in a very natural way, because, in a sense, your body will no longer have its fat storage programs activated (set-point theory) as a result of psychological and emotional distress.

Obviously it could take a while to go through such an internal cleaning process, but I also believe that it does not have to take years or decades, it’s really up to you how hard you work at it. And you should certainly get qualified support if you need it.

But if you skip working on your internal issues and instead go for what you perceive to be the easy way out, i.e. trying a solution from outside sources such as a diet, you are not likely to be successful long-term since those fat storage programs will still be activated, and the weight will likely come back on. Or you will need to be super disciplined in terms of what you eat and how much you exercise for the rest of your life. Some people manage this, but not very many (I know I wouldn’t).

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In terms of losing weight long-term, I believe it’s about time we stopped fighting against our bodies and instead realized that we need to work with our bodies instead. If you are carrying excess weight, it probably means that your body has activated fat storage programs as a result of your internal distress (fat is basically a survival mechanism, and your body is reacting quite naturally to stress). Your best bet in deactivating those programs will be to find out why they are activated to begin with, and then gradually turn them off by releasing those internal distress factors.

Erik Hemmingsson

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Guest blog post at Dr Sharma’s Obesity Notes: Emotional distress and weight gain

Today I am a proud guest blogger at Dr Sharma’s Obesity Notes on the topic of psychological and emotional distress in weight gain and obesity development, see http://www.drsharma.ca. I have been subscribing to Dr Sharma’s blog for years, and I strongly recommend you do the same if you are interested in real solutions for obesity. Arya M Sharma is a Professor of Medicine & Chair in Obesity Research and Management at the University of Alberta, and a tireless researcher, clinician, debater and overall supporter for people with obesity. 

Emotions trumps rational thought

negative-emotions

Modern medicine is only just starting to understand the raw power of emotions. Yet the society we have created is very much geared towards rational thought, and using rational thought to plan ahead to get us where we want to be. For example, since the amount of adipose tissue we carry around is a function of the laws of thermodynamics, the rational person, i.e. the medic, will prescribe a combination of diet and exercise to prevent new cases of obesity, and the people will do as told. If it was only that easy. 

It’s not as if people don’t understand the logic behind the prescription, it’s probably more a case of the prescriber being a little naive, for example when it comes to emotions and how they guide us. And once emotions are involved, rational thought pretty much goes out of the window. If you are on a diet, for example, you may know (using your rational mind) that binging your favorite food would be a mistake, but if you feel sadness, shame, guilt, anger or frustration, and binging some of that favorite food would take away those negative emotions, then over time it is a very uneven contest (especially when the thrill of weight loss is past).

Vader cookies

Many people seem to not really understand how big a role emotions play in shaping their lives. Consider a major decision you have previously made, for example starting a new relationship or changing a job. Did you act according to rational thinking, or did you go by emotions and gut feelings.

Obviously you can act according to a combination of rational thinking and emotions, but whenever I use my brain too much in making a decision, I usually end up getting it wrong. When I listen to my feelings and emotions, if I feel really excited about something, I get it right 99% of the time. We ignore our feelings at our own peril.  

But in many ways it seems as if we have increasingly disconnected from our emotions, and labelled them as something taxing and difficult. If you have a lot of negative emotions in your life, such as sadness, anger or frustration, that is certainly true. Conversely, your life will be pretty good if you frequently experience happiness, love and gratitude. 

What seems to happen in our so called modern society is that we come up with a rational plan for how to get more of those positive emotions, for example, when I get that new job I will be so happy, or when I have some more money then I can finally have all those things I dream about. But this increasingly feels like a pipe dream. Will we ever be satisfied, will we ever stop chasing more? Perhaps the challenge is to just be happy with whatever we have and to be more in the moment, more in the now? And then we can perhaps enjoy more of those positive emotions and life will not be a struggle anymore.   

And once those negative emotions and worries are cleared out, observe how health and quality of life improves.