Eating habits are established in childhood. It’s when we learn to use food to manage our emotions and this can stick with us as we get older. Our attitude to comfort eating is compounded by the fact we live in an ‘obesogenic’ world – one that’s designed to make us eat more.
If we do manage to cut back, eating less involves denial, eventually causing a rebound effect when we indulge in the very foods we’re trying to avoid. Dieting seems destined to fail. But by taking a different approach, and thinking about what’s going on in their minds, some people do lose weight and keep it off in ways that are healthy and sustainable for the longer term. Here are six ways to make it easier, healthier and more likely to work.
1. Choose your moment well
People who have lost weight often say they had an ‘epiphany’ or ‘saw the light’. This might be a divorce, a diagnosis of diabetes or feeling breathless one day. For some, a significant birthday or the need to bare all in the sun can do the trick.
These ‘teachable moments’ give people the extra momentum to change what they eat and make this change last. So pick your moment well – even if it’s not as drastic as those described above, decide that now is the right time and go for it.
2. Believe that you can change
People often say they eat ‘because I’m hungry’ and are overweight as ‘it runs in my family’. They believe in biology and genetics. But this approach is not helpful, as it turns us into victims who are unable to change. Try asking yourself, ‘when did I lose weight before?’ If the answer is ‘last year when I was poorly’, that was because you ate less.
Then ask, ‘when did I gain weight?’ If the answer is ‘on holiday in Spain’ or ‘at Christmas’, that was because you ate more (as the food was wonderful and you didn’t place as many restrictions on yourself). What you eat can change. Eating less can change your weight. You just need to realise that this is true.
3. Reframe food
Food should mean ‘meals’ (not grazing), ‘eating when hungry’ (not bored) and ‘having a meal time’ (not having it when available). Write a diary to work out what food means to you and when you eat it and mark all those situations you think cause overeating.
Then pin food to set times and places each day and reframe the negative view of ‘hunger in between meals’ to the positive thought, ‘if I’m hungry at the next meal, I’ll enjoy it more.’
4. Reward yourself whenever you can
Eating is a simple cost/benefit analysis of cake now (benefit) versus heart attack in the future (cost). The immediate benefits often win out. To eat less you need to shift this cost/benefit analysis and find new benefits from eating less.
Give yourself a sticker chart and reward yourself every day for anything you’ve done well: tried hard; made a plan; cooked well; not grazed; eaten meals; eaten less. Then treat yourself with a hot bath, trip to the cinema, or your favourite TV show when you’ve had a good day. That way, the benefits of eating less will start to win out.
5. Be kind to yourself
Controlling your inclination to overeat comes with moments of failure. If you self-blame, self-criticise and feel bad you’ll give up and eat more as a result. Understand the power of outside influences (the weather, your friends, the café), forgive yourself and go back to trying again.
6. Find new role models
We all need inspiration and good role models, so search out success stories from magazines and self-help groups. Find friends who have lost weight and kept it off, ask them to share their stories and pin photos of them on your fridge as a reminder.
When you hear of those who haven’t done so well, think of all the ways in which they’re different from you and why you’re destined to do better.
Do our attitudes to weight influence our behaviour?
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