Niki Bezzant talks to local weight-loss experts who offer new psychological insights into lasting weight-loss, and practical strategies for dealing with the foods you can't live without.
All of us who have struggled with losing weight know that diets don't work. But we often blame ourselves and our lack of discipline or willpower, rather than looking at the real reasons, which are more complex. Two experts have recently released books in which they offer new psychological theories about why we struggle so much with weight-loss, and what we can do to lose weight healthily, and for good.
Why willpower doesn't work
In his book, Weight Loss for Food Lovers – understanding our minds and why we sabotage our weight loss, psychiatrist Dr George Blair-West says, "It is perfectly normal to be unable to stick to a traditional weight-loss plan. They are doomed as they simply ask too much of normal people. I argue that rather than people failing diets, diets fail people."
What's more, Dr Blair-West says when diets don't work, it can set up a cycle where we feel like failures, not just at weight-loss, but as people. "This is tragic, when what has happened is perfectly normal!"
In her book, My Bum Looks Brilliant In This – the one true secret of lasting weight loss, Wellington psychologist Karen Nimmo says when we have spent years dieting, we often lose the ability to read the body's signals of hunger. "Dieting trains the body to ignore the physical signs of hunger. So instead of trusting your body to alert you when it's hungry, or full, you follow the 'rules' of your latest diet. This teaches you to eat with your mind or according to external cues. Our bodies supply all the cues we need – if we listen to them."
In fact, says Nimmo, 'willpower' as a way of losing weight permanently only ever works when we have a really big reason to lose weight – like an upcoming wedding, a new relationship, or a major health issue. And, as many of us know, once that event or concern is over, weight often creeps back on, plus a bit extra.
"Willpower is a dated and unhelpful concept," she says. "You don't fail to lose weight or regain weight because you lack willpower. You 'fail' because your mind and/or body do things without your permission."
Dr Blair-West also focuses on our thought processes. He outlines the concept of Restraint Theory (see below). It's a simple but often overlooked idea: when foods are forbidden, they become more desirable and we come up with all sorts of psychological strategies to 'cheat' and find ways to get around it.
"Deprivation, of anything, has powerful psychological ramifications for all of us," he says. "We don't like it and we will do anything in our power to overcome it. Restricting or depriving ourselves of certain foods is the beginning of a sabotage process that will ultimately bring our dieting undone."
Two ways our minds sabotage our best efforts to lose weight:
1. The 'last supper' effect
When we anticipate going on a diet, the mere thought of what is to come can trigger overeating. When our food supply is under threat, we eat up big while we still can.
2. The 'what the hell' effect
Once we succumb to temptation and break the diet, we decide 'What the hell, I've blown it now. I might as well have a good time'– and start rebound overeating.
How our heads can change our bodies
There are lots of reasons why we gain weight. Health problems, hormonal fluctuations, and life stages such as post-pregnancy and middle age are physical reasons. But other reasons, says Nimmo, are psychological: misery, boredom, stress, low self-esteem, and lack of meaningful goals in life. Address these, she says, and weight-loss will follow.
"If you can understand the way you behave and where it's come from, you can address the real reasons you're overweight. You can change your mind and your thinking."
Analysing our thoughts and beliefs
Nimmo advocates first exploring your relationship with food. This means asking questions about how your family ate, your parents' attitudes towards food, and your eating behaviour. The answers can offer insights into why we overeat, which will be different for each person. "We get so many messages from our parents, with the best of intentions," she says. "It's impossible to tell which ones will stick. For example, you might have been told to always eat everything on your plate. It can be a real revelation to a person to realise they don't have to keep doing this as an adult."
Another step is to take a look at our eating behaviour. As well as analysing the more obvious – when (our eating patterns) and what (our choice of food) – we also need to look at our 'style of eating'. This means asking questions like: Do you eat standing up in kitchen? Do you eat in front of the TV? Do you eat fast or savour the taste of your food? Are you finished first or last? Recognising these behaviours means we can take steps towards more conscious or 'mindful' eating.
How to be a more mindful eater (and how it helps you lose weight)
Both experts say that when we associate guilt with certain foods, we're less likely to enjoy them and we're more likely to wolf them down without even really tasting them. "Nearly everybody who is trying to lose weight tells me that when they eat their forbidden foods the dominant emotion they feel is guilt, and the dominant behaviour is to eat quickly," says Dr Blair-West. He suggests when we do this, we miss the pleasurable experience of eating our favourite foods, and we're unlikely to feel satisfied. So if it's a bad idea to forbid ourselves foods, how do we deal with the foods we can't live without?
Dr Blair-West's approach forms the basis of his 'low sacrifice diet'. The idea will be novel for many dieters: to include danger foods in daily eating lifestyles. "Nothing increases our desire for something like not being able to have it," he says. When we know we can have something, we eat less of it.
If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it's important to note when we eat our forbidden foods, we must really take time to savour them. He recommends a savouring exercise' (see below) to slow down and enjoy the forbidden food. The goal? To taste more, to eat less.
How to savour your favourite foods
Dr George Blair-West does this 'savouring exercise' in his weight-loss workshops.
- Get yourself some yummy food – the more decadent the better.
- Take it in with your eyes. Notice its texture. Is it smooth or rough? If it has been cut or broken, look at this edge. Turn it around and look at it from all sides. What do you notice?
- Next, use your sense of smell. Give it a good long sniff. What do you notice? Does it have a weak or strong smell? How would you describe its qualities?
- Now, bite off a piece and place it in your mouth. What is the feeling against your lips as you bite it off to put it in your mouth? Are you salivating? Don't chew it just yet. Just let it sit there on your tongue. What do you notice? You want to chew it, don't you? Okay, so chew it. Is it soft and crumbly or does it have a bit of rebound to it? Notice the flavours being released. How many different flavours are there? Where do you taste them on your tongue?
- The remaining sense is hearing. Listen as you chew – what is the sound of chewing your forbidden food? Focus on this sound. It is the sound of pleasure.
- Now, as you start to swallow, be aware of two things. One, the sensation of swallowing, the complex coordination of the muscles in your throat; two, the fact that as you swallow the food the taste experience reduces dramatically! This is why we must not swallow food that we have not fully savoured and appreciated. We have no taste buds in our stomach!
- Now, finish it off – SLOWLY. Pause between each mouthful. Make the most of it.
Was that a little different from how you normally eat your favourite food? If 'yes', great – you now know how to savour.
What most people find is that if they have eaten this way it is much, much easier to stop at two pieces of rich chocolate or a small slice of chocolate fudge brownie.