I think it’s time to acknowledge that ‘the diet’ is dead. After examining a wealth of studies on dieting, researchers at the University of California found that up to two thirds of diets fail, with several studies indicating that dieting is actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain.
Lasting weight loss is not about what you eat – it’s about why and how you eat. As a psychologist, I have met many people who are disillusioned and frustrated, feeling guilt about their body and their relationship with food. By focusing solely on the excess weight, we have lost sight of the cause.
Being unhappy with how you look and being overweight is a symptom of something deeper. Your habits, beliefs and the story you tell yourself all contribute to the size you are. Rather than reducing the problem to calories in and calories out, you need to take a more holistic approach. I want to show you how to respect your body. Once you do this confidence will follow, for to lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.
It is your mind that decides what and how you eat. By changing how you think and feel about your body and the food you put into it you can learn to enjoy food in a whole new way. Only then will you lose weight easily and keep it off for life.
Recognising how the brain responds to dieting helps you to understand why weight loss can be so challenging. The neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt introduced me to the concept that your body acts like a thermostat. The brain establishes a ‘set point’, a range of 10lb-15lb around your ‘optimum’ weight, that your body is comfortable with. Your lifestyle choices can move your weight up or down, but it is quite challenging to move outside your set point because the brain fights to stay within this range, regardless of how overweight you are.
The hypothalamus – the part of the brain that regulates body weight – controls more than a dozen chemical signals that tell your body to gain or lose weight as conditions change, acting like a thermostat that keeps the temperature in your house stable. When you try to change the temperature in your house by opening a window, the thermostat responds by turning on the boiler to maintain the same level of heat.
Your brain works in exactly the same way. When you limit your food intake, your brain responds by adjusting hunger, metabolism and activity in an effort to maintain your set point. So when you reduce your calorie intake, you become hungrier and your muscles burn less energy. Research has found that people who have lost ten per cent of their body weight burn 250 to 400 fewer calories a day because their metabolism is suppressed. To maintain weight loss you need to eat less consistently and not just while you’re on a diet, because successful dieting doesn’t necessarily lower your set point. Research shows that even after you have kept weight off for as long as seven years, your brain pushes to try to gain the weight back.
Psychologists classify eaters into two groups.
Intuitive eaters: people who listen to their body and eat when they’re hungry.
Controlled eaters: people who try to control their eating through willpower, like most dieters.
Intuitive eaters are less likely to be overweight and they spend less time thinking about food because they eat when they are actually hungry. Controlled eaters are much more vulnerable to overeating as they constantly override their hunger signals in order to lose weight. When you are in a pattern of controlled eating, a small indulgence such as a piece of cake is more likely to lead to a binge.
My clients often tell me that when they are unhappy with their body they struggle to feel confident. I had one client, Katherine, who was four stone overweight. She had tried every diet going and had come to me hoping for some magical solution. I could see she was depressed. Consumed by how much weight she had to lose, she struggled to believe that she could achieve her desired size.
Most dieters, like Katherine, engage in diets that are structured around deprivation, relying on controlled eating, a position of self-punishment to which they eventually have to concede defeat, because they are fighting against their brain’s natural disposition to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Psychological research also indicates that we have a finite amount of self-control. Willpower is like a muscle: when you use it you get tired.
‘People who lose weight and keep it off don’t see themselves as being on a diet. They do not battle with themselves on a daily basis to avoid the foods they love. Instead they see it as a positive lifestyle change’
This is evident when it comes to cravings. If you tell yourself, ‘I can’t have that takeaway curry because it’s not allowed on my diet,’ then all you can think about is that curry. The more you try to suppress a thought, the more it pops into your mind and the weaker your willpower becomes.
Instead, acknowledge that craving rather than try to suppress it. You can actually have whatever you want to eat. But instead of buying a takeaway, tell yourself that you are going to make a healthier version for yourself ‘and it’s going to taste delicious’.
Psychological research on successful dieting suggests that people who lose weight and keep it off don’t see themselves as being on a diet. They do not undergo deprivation and self-punishment. They do not battle with themselves on a daily basis to avoid the foods they love. Instead they see it as a positive lifestyle change.
Once Katherine stepped off the yo-yo diet treadmill she began to lose weight. By shifting from over-intellectualising what she could eat and when, to eating when she was actually hungry, enjoying her food and then stopping when she was full, she started to respect her body. It took a bit longer than she would have liked, but the weight came off slowly and steadily.
Get into the right frame of mind
Find a quiet, comfortable space where you can think about your future. What will happen if you continue on the same path and don’t make the changes you need to attain the body you desire? Picture yourself in a year’s time, standing in front of a full-length mirror looking at your reflection. What do you look like and what are you wearing? Have you got bigger? How is your health? Is this a positive image and are you satisfied with what you see?
Next, take a minute to visualise yourself in a year’s time having achieved your goal. Do you like what you see? Are you smiling, healthy and confident? Now tell yourself that you can take action to create that future. These are truly achievable goals. Go to artful-eating.com to access a free download with more visualisation exercises to help you prepare for a new beginning.
Create visual reminders to help you
Start to reinforce your goal by conditioning your environment so that you are constantly reminded of it. Choose a photograph of yourself at your ideal weight and place copies in key places such as on the front of your wardrobe to remind you of how wonderful it will be when you can wear whatever you like, and on the fridge or biscuit tin so that each time you go to eat something you are reminded of your goal and can ask yourself if you are really hungry.
Make this picture your screensaver and change all your passwords to your goal weight so that every time you type in your password you are sending strong messages to your brain. By having these cues strategically placed where you can see them, you are sending a strong message of reinforcement that will help you.
Make the decision to change
Everything you eat and every unhealthy habit you have formed is down to your decisions – either conscious or subconscious – and it is from these decisions that your body is shaped. You can have the body you want, just by making a decision to change. If you don’t make a decision about how you’re going to be, then you have already made a decision to continue as you have been, carrying extra weight and feeling unhappy in your body. The most important thing is to let go of all your preconceived ideas about how to lose weight.
Lessen your appetite
In order to experience freedom with food, you have to adjust to eating enough food to sustain you. Eating less won’t shrink your stomach but it will help reset your appetite so that you won’t feel as hungry. Food is delicious fuel. What we eat nourishes our body and our brain. We have become disengaged from this basic truth and that has led to an unhealthy relationship with what we eat. It’s time to start enjoying food. The only elimination I encourage is guilt. Once you begin to enjoy food, things will start to change in an exciting way.
Eliminate overly processed foods
The enemy isn’t sugar, fat or carbohydrates, it’s overly processed foods. The most significant influence you have over your health is in what you eat and this is nothing to do with calories, as all calories are not created equal. With each bite you take, your brain receives instructions that change your biology, altering your gene expression. Depending on what you eat, you are turning on ‘fat genes’ or ‘skinny genes’, healthy genes or disease genes.
This information also controls your immune system and turns inflammation on and off. Calories high in sugar and starch slow down your metabolism, whereas calories high in fat speed it up, so it is crucial to understand that foods cannot be simply reduced to their calorific value.
Instead think of the food you eat as information that affects your hormones, insulin levels, blood sugar, sex hormones, adrenals and so on. These changes don’t occur over time, they happen minute by minute. So by eliminating overly processed foods from your diet, you will significantly improve your biological make-up in a very short space of time.
Eradicate limiting thoughts Take some time to think back over your own life story in terms of weight and your relationship with your body. When did you first start dieting? Was there ever a time when you were happy with your body? What have other people said about your appearance? Then rewrite your story for the future, filling it with all the hope, love and kindness that you deserve. Read that new story every day as you start moving towards your goal weight. Record it on to your phone and listen to it every morning and evening to reinforce that future, for you have the power to create massive changes in your life.
change your viewpoint How you view the size you are and your relationship with yourself is to do with the position you take up in the world, not your circumstances. If you change the lens through which you view your experience of the world, you will dramatically increase your level of happiness, wellbeing and self-love.
So think about making changes in your life. Psychological research has proved that to lose weight successfully, and keep it off, a personalised approach works.
How to eat well
– The better the taste, the less you need to eat to feel satisfied. Go for the best quality food you can access. Less is more: buy less, eat less, but eat well.
– Eat only when you are hungry, not because someone offers you something, or because you feel bored, tired or unhappy. Every time you are about to eat something, ask yourself: ‘Am I hungry?’
– Eat what you want and enjoy your food. To be left feeling satiated, we must recognise that pleasure, metabolism and appetite all work in synergy. We shouldn’t think of pleasure as separate from the nutritional process.
– When you feel satisfied, stop eating.
– Eat from a smaller plate and start with half portions as this will retrain your brain to consume what you need and not what the diameter of your plate or a portion size decides. You can always go back for more if you still feel hungry.
-This is an edited extract from Artful Eating: The Psychology of Lasting Weight Loss by Karina Melvin, to be published on Thursday by Black and White, price £16.99. To order a copy for £13.59 until 5 November, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15
By Karina Melvin