It feels awful for your weight or eating to become out of control.
Having problems with your weight or eating can be incredibly frustrating and distressing. Driven by concerns about what size and shape they would like to be or fearing for their health, we see some people struggle, unsuccessfully, to lose weight and keep it off. They can become frustrated with diet and exercise efforts and lose motivation to continue.
People who experience a lack of control over what or how much they eat also often feel distressed. Binge eating, or “binging”, is often done in secret and followed by feelings of embarrassment, guilt or shame. For some, these types of experiences contribute to the development of unhealthy relationships with their bodies, and can even result in depression and anxiety.
People who need to make considerable changes to their diet and lifestyle for medical reasons, such as managing food intolerances, or managing a medical condition such as diabetes, can also experience many challenges in attempting to modify their eating.
Problems with restrictive approaches to eating
People trying to make changes to their diets and eating behaviours commonly take a restrictive approach. That is, they focus on decreasing or restricting their calories and aim to not eat certain “unhealthy” or “banned” foods. These restrictive dietary practices suffer from a number of shortfalls:
You get hungry, often – During diets people often restrict their calories too much, or don’t eat enough good quality nutrients, leading the body to become hungry and creating a strong physiological drive to eat. When we have restricted ourselves and become hungry we often crave the very types of high fat, high sugar foods that we have been trying to avoid, as the body seeks out fuel. It is no wonder that it is common for people to eat “banned” foods, or binge-eat following periods of “successful” restriction. Caloric restriction also leads our metabolism to slow down, making it more likely that we will maintain or increase our weight despite eating less.
You feel deprived – Dieting, restricting your diet for medical reasons, or trying to manage your weight can lead to negative attitudes and beliefs about this process. People often focus on what they can’t have, and their experience is one of self-denial or deprivation. Social events can become a torment, as you are tempted by a range of foods you can’t or “shouldn’t” eat.
For some, denying oneself the pleasures of eating can be powerful – particularly if this achieves or sustains a low weight. Indeed this experience is often a feature of anorexia nervosa, which provides an example of how unhealthy these beliefs about eating can be — even when the person “successfully” changes their behaviour. For others, banned foods may represent rewards, or be associated with celebrations or demonstrations of love and affection. Not eating these foods can therefore be experienced as a loss of comfort over and above the loss of the physical enjoyment of eating these foods.
It’s really hard to sustain – The combination of hunger and feelings of deprivation set up many restrictive dietary practices up to fail. When people taking a restrictive approach to their diet succumb to their hunger or desires to eat certain foods they can feel they’ve failed, or that their willpower is weak. For many, this can lead to renewed attempts at adhering to their diet and increasing restrictiveness, which in turn serves to increase their hunger and slow their metabolism. Alternatively, some will abandon their efforts and feel discouraged about their ability to improve their health or manage their weight.
Neither the experience of dieting, nor our reactions when our diets fail, are pleasant. It’s often a lose-lose situation. Depending on the individual, this process can lead people to:
- experience an ongoing pattern of embarking on a new diet, only to fail;
- engage in a destructive cycle of binging and purging;
- develop a belief that they do not have the ability to improve their diet, health or weight;
- develop a belief that particular dietary approaches don’t work; and/or
- develop a sense that they are unable to control our eating.
A More Positive Approach
Changing your mindset about food and eating can be difficult. Our dietary practices are often habitual and are influenced by our family and our culture. However, positive thinking can be a remarkably useful tool in changing our approach to food and eating.
When we are dieting or engaging in other restrictive eating practices, our success is often defined by how much we don’t fail. Through focusing on what we gain from the changes we make, we focus more on our successes and this helps us to stay motivated and on track. For example, a focus on improved health and wellbeing can be more useful than a focus on ceasing unhealthy behaviours or not eating certain foods. Such an attitude recognises that you are human and that in trying to establish a new habit, lapses are likely. As a result this approach makes it far harder to “fail”; any steps you take, any healthy foods you eat are a step in the right direction.
Similarly, it can be really useful to focus on what we can eat. In particular, a bit of work in identifying alternative, but healthy ‘treats’ and in seeking out tasty, but healthy everyday foods can go a long way to stopping us from feeling deprived. It is usually possible to find things that people are able to enjoy and eat in abundance without undermining their goals. Motivation, the internet and some cooking skills are key tools for finding ideas for healthy, nutritious foods that are consistent with your dietary requirements and goals.
Given their skills in helping people to modify their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, a psychologist can be a really useful ally in helping you to develop positive attitudes towards food and eating. Psychologists can help you with the following:
- Facilitating your efforts to develop realistic and achievable goals to change your eating and improve your health;
- Assisting you to improve and sustain your motivation through techniques such as motivational interviewing;
- Teaching you to identify and address unhelpful thoughts and emotions underlying your eating habits;
- Providing you with strategies to prevent “mindless” eating and make it harder for you to overeat without meaning to;
- Training you in the skills you require to change your health behaviours such as:
- Teaching you skills to better monitor how much you eat;
- Helping you to learn to recognise when you feel satisfied, and how this can be different to feeling “full” through skills such as mindfulness and mindful eating; and
- Teaching you how to get informed about your diet and health and how to recognise quality health information;
- Providing therapy to address addictions;
- Helping you to identify and resolve barriers and roadblocks to you making the lifestyle changes you desire;
- Providing counselling to address disordered eating;
- Supporting you in developing a healthier body-image; and
- Working with you to improve your sleep (poor sleep being a risk factor for being overweight or obese).
Knowing what to eat
When seeking to gain greater control over our eating behaviours, dietary choices, or our weight, it is obviously very important that we have a good understanding of what we should be eating. As a general rule it is helpful to avoid processed food where possible, as it is through eating processed food where most people’s diets go astray despite having good eating behaviours.
If you are unsure of what you should be eating, the Australian Dietary Guidelines are a great place to start. Consultation with a dietician can help you to become better educated about what is appropriate for you to eat. If you are unable to eat a standard diet due to allergies or intolerances or you otherwise choose to exclude one or more of the recommended food groups from your diet, a dietician can help you ensure that you are getting all the nutrients that you need.
Where you have multiple professionals involved in supporting your health, you often benefit most when they are able to work together to develop a comprehensive plan. If you feel that you would benefit from seeing a psychologist and getting assistance in gaining control of your eating, contact us at M1 Psychology.
Author: Kelly Gall, BSc (Hons), M Psych (Health), M Clin Psych, MAPS, MCHP.
Kelly Gall is a Health Psychologist who is passionate about helping clients improve their physical and emotional wellbeing. Kelly develops tailored, holistic and evidence-based treatment plans that incorporate psychological, physical and social strategies aimed at empowering her clients to achieve relief from psychological symptoms and improve their health. Find out more on her website, Healthy Inside and Out.
To make an appointment with Health Psychologist Kelly Gall, please call (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
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