The video that went viral a couple weeks ago, in which news anchor, Jennifer Livingston, chastised an e-mailer for making negative comments about her weight, inspired me to set straight some misconceptions in our society about weight management. This is the second of three posts on this issue. In the first post, Obesity Is One of the Last Bastions of Prejudice in Our Society, I talked about some of the ways our bodies are physically programmed to resist losing weight.
Today I want to talk about some of the psychological issues related to weight and eating in our society. As I pointed out in that previous post, this is what I used to do for a living, so I know of what I speak.
The Three Reasons Why Dieting is Often Disastrous:
1) As mentioned last time, if we suddenly go on a calorie-restricted diet, and especially if we don’t also increase our physical activity, our bodies will go into survival mode and slow down our metabolic rate. We stop losing after a few weeks–that awful ‘plateau’–and go off the diet. But our metabolism is now slower, so when we go back to our old eating patterns we gain all the weight back and then some.
2) Being hungry is not psychologically healthy. If we make ourselves resist eating when we are hungry, we will feel more and more resentful and deprived over time. Eventually we will snap and overeat. Then the guilt sets in.
Are we having fun yet? No!
Hunger, resentment, guilt… this is not a set-up for success! These are the makings of depression, and nothing but nothing undermines motivation quite like depression. We no longer feel like doing anything (like exercising) and we no longer care about much of anything (certainly not about losing weight).
Then we go off the diet and feel truly awful about ourselves because we have failed once again! Feeling bad about ourselves is not likely to motivate us to improve our lot in life. But more on this in a minute.
3) Deprivation in general is not psychologically healthy! If we never, ever allow ourselves to have the things we really love to eat, well, the resentment will build tenfold, a hundredfold. And we’ve already established where resentment leads.
Before we go any further, I’m going to give some Helpful Hints here, so things don’t get too depressing (cuz we’ve already established where depression leads!)
HH#11 (see previous post for HH#1-10): Don’t make calorie restriction your initial goal! Even though fewer calories is indeed necessary for weight loss, your goal needs to be to CHANGE YOUR EATING BEHAVIORS FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Stick with me here and you will learn how to replace high nutrition foods for poor nutrition foods and to fill yourself up with fiber, not junk-food fluff!
HH#12: Learn to recognize true hunger. All too often when we have problems with weight management, we have lost touch with true hunger. There are two signs of true hunger: a grumbling, growling, gnawing feeling in your stomach and feeling weak and lightheaded. Anything else is psychological hunger, not physical hunger. More on this in a bit.
Societal Cues for Eating:
Food is linked to love for us humans. We don’t just use it to fuel our bodies. We use it to celebrate holidays and achievements. It is the lubricant for most social events. Take the kids for pizza if they get good grades, meet a friend for lunch, put out a big spread for your sister’s baby shower, etc.
And we are trained to be good hosts and hostesses which includes encouraging our guests to take seconds and to eat dessert.
HH#13: At the restaurant, order carefully (and if the portions are huge, ask for a box and put some aside right away). At the shower or party, take a small amount of everything that appeals (including one or two desserts, but small amounts). Eat slowly while you socialize. Avoid the food table once you are pleasantly full. Pat your tummy and exclaim about how good it all was when your host/hostess encourages overeating. Resist that pressure, keeping in mind that they really don’t care whether or not you eat more; they’re just doing what they’ve been programmed to do.
Self-Esteem and Motivation in Our Society:
The assumption in our society is that the best way to motivate people to lose weight is to flog them with how bad they are for being overweight and for being out of control of their eating (an assumption that is not always true). This was where Jennifer Livingston’s e-mailer was coming from–let me point out to you the error of your ways and that will get you on the right track. I was so, so impressed with her response. “What, you think I don’t know that I’m fat?”
Contrary to popular belief, feeling bad about ourselves is NOT a good motivator. It actually sucks the motivation right out of us. We have to believe that we deserve to be healthier and happier before we will be sufficiently motivated to stick to the difficult tasks of learning to eat better and lose some weight.
So if you have less than good self-esteem and you are carrying around some extra pounds, ask yourself: Which is the chicken and which is the egg?
Would you honestly truly like yourself if you were suddenly sleek and slim? Be honest now… Is that the ONLY thing that’s undermining your self-esteem, or is your weight just a handy target to blame it on?
If you can honestly answer that yes, back when you were thin you liked yourself just fine but now you’re down on yourself because of the extra weight, then here is my advice.
STOP THAT! Are you really willing to define the value of your whole being by some numbers on a scale?!?
Here is a quote I read recently on the internet, credited to JK Rowlings:
Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?
If your answer (to my question above, not to JK Rowlings’) is that, no, you really don’t like yourself in general, not just because you’re heavy, then that’s another kettle of fish. Stop blaming your self-esteem on the weight and look at the real reasons. I know that sounds scary, and you might want a good friend and/or a therapist to walk this path with you. But you’ll probably find when you take a closer look that you really don’t have very good logical reasons for disliking yourself. Those negative feelings about yourself probably go way back.
The best way to understand self-esteem is to look at it’s two components. One is self-worth, how we feel about our being. Are we basically a good person? Ask yourself that. Are you basically a good person? Wait! I’m not talking about whether or not you always manage to do good things. But is your heart in the right place?
Okay, the other component is self-confidence. This is your faith in your ability to handle whatever life dishes out, your sense of competence.
And here’s the most important piece of the self-esteem puzzle: you do NOT have to be perfectly good to be a good person and you do NOT have to be competent at EVERYTHING in order to be a competent person.
Nobody is perfect!
Okay, I’m probably not going to turn around your self-esteem in a simple blog post, but hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought here, no pun intended. And I will be blogging more on improving self-esteem in the near future, so stay tuned.
Back to motivation.
HH#14: Practice changing your ‘self-talk’–the things you say to yourself in your head. Change ‘I’ve gotta lose this weight to prove that I’m not worthless’ to ‘I’m going to eat healthier because I deserve to be healthier!’
HH#15: Learn to distinguish between guilt and shame. Guilt is about behavior; shame is about being. Feeling guilty can be motivating, if we know how to use that feeling appropriately. Feeling ashamed of ourselves is debilitating. Guilt can inspire us to mend our ways. If we vow to do better, we can banish guilt. Shame just makes us want to curl up in a fetal position and suck our thumbs!
So if you eat more than you should, or something that isn’t all that healthy, let the guilt inspire you to correct that behavior. But don’t indulge in beating up on yourself! That is counterproductive shame. Vow instead to change the behavior, and not tomorrow, but now. From this moment forward, I will do my best to do better.
Yeah, I think I’ll be doing a post soon on guilt as well!
Psychological Associations with Food:
Food: how do we love thee, let us count the ways!
As mentioned above, we use food to celebrate, but also to cheer ourselves up when we are down. And since we eat on average for about 1 ½ hours a day, every day of our lives, there are millions of opportunities for other things to get associated with eating.
I could go on and on about all the ways that food becomes classically conditioned to a whole lot of other things. And I may do another post later about those multiple connections. For now let me explain how classical conditioning works.
Classical conditioning (if you had Psyc 101 in college, remember Pavlov’s slobbering dogs?) occurs whenever two things happen together. They don’t have to be intrinsically related to each other. They just happen together enough times that they become associated in our minds with each other.
And these associations are not occurring in our cerebral cortex, the thinking part of our brains. Unh-uh, they are stored in the cerebellum–a part of the brain that is totally outside of our conscious awareness and conscious control.
Let me give you one example (Note: I have changed the details of this story to protect my client’s confidentiality but the gist of the story is valid). I had a client whose grandmother died when she was five. She had no conscious memory of the woman. But she did have an insatiable and uncontrollable urge to eat candy whenever she was stressed out or feeling bad about herself. This was a problem because she was diabetic. She tried keeping sugar-free candy in the house to feed this craving, but found herself getting in the car and going to the store to buy ‘real’ candy when she was really stressed out. After she and I poked around in her psyche a bit, we stumbled on a vague memory of her grandmother taking her to the corner convenience store and buying her candy.
She called her mother and asked if this was a common occurrence. Her mother said, “Oh, yes, your grandmother used to take you for a ‘walk’ every time she came to visit. But I knew she was taking you to the store to buy you candy.”
This client’s childhood household was stressful due to the fact that her father had died when she was an infant. Her single mom was constantly struggling to balance both a tight budget and her job and home responsibilities.
Enter Grandmom: a source of doting and undivided attention, unconditional love, an escape from the house with a relaxing walk to the store AND CANDY! So every time she felt stressed out as an adult, she went for a hit of Grandmom in the form of a candy bar.
HH#16: Make a list of things you like to do that are self-pampering and that do not involve food. Things like taking a bubble bath, getting a massage, spending an evening or afternoon reading a good book, etc. Carry this list with you! Take it out and use it to decide what to do to celebrate, console yourself or de-stress yourself, as the occasion demands. You might also want to post a copy on your refrigerator!
And if you find yourself totally, compulsively driven to eat under certain emotional circumstances, you might want to consider getting some counseling to help you dig out the roots of that compulsion.
I had hoped to get this subject covered in two posts, but this is getting really long. So I’m thinking I will post again on how to change our eating behaviors to healthier patterns. So more Helpful Hints to come. Please stay tuned!
Let me leave you with this reminder that your goals are:
#1: To be healthier and happier!
#2: To change your eating patterns to accomplish goal #1.
And now I’m off to Zumba class! Please let me know what thoughts or questions all this has stirred up. I’ll reply when I get home.
(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
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JoAnn BassettOctober 29, 2012 at 9:29 pm
Whoa. The “grandmom” story could have been written by me. When I was a child my grandma lived right next door (which was a big deal because we lived on a farm and there wasn’t another neighbor in sight.) When things would heat up at my house (and they did on a regular basis as my parents wished they had married someone else and my brother was emotionally disturbed) I’d run over to Grandma’s and the first thing she’d do was hand me a cookie or a piece of candy and then give me a hug. Now, when I get stressed, the first thing I think of is finding something sweet. No matter how much I try to “talk myself down” off that ledge, it’s sweets and only sweets that will quell the desire. I’ve learned to dole out 2 or 3 M & M’s and call it good. I sometimes wondered if hypnosis could help, but for now, a healthy knowledge of what’s going on helps.
Thanks, Kassandra, for reminding us of the connection between food and psychological well-being. Perhaps this country’s obesity epidemic says more about our mental health than our physical health.
Kassandra LambOctober 29, 2012 at 11:33 pm
JoAnn, that story is actually a conglomerate of several clients’ stories. An all too frequent scenario. I love the 2 or 3 M&M’s idea. That is exactly how to do it! Satisfy the craving but in moderation.
Jennette Marie PowellOctober 29, 2012 at 10:18 pm
I’ve never been able to diet, because for me, it’s always ended up being about deprivation. So now, I just try to eat healthier foods (don’t always succeed!) and take small steps, like drinking only one can of pop a day and water or milk the rest of the time. I hate how focused our society is on purely the physical attractiveness aspect of weight management, too. The only exercise regimen I’ve stuck with is walking on the treadmill – after telling myself it’s to FEEL better, and also because I can read while I walk. Great article, and great points to remember!
Kassandra LambOctober 29, 2012 at 11:35 pm
Yay! Good for you, Jennette. Just the right attitude to have. It’s about getting our bodies moving so we feel better and about eating healthier.
CC MacKenzieOctober 29, 2012 at 10:19 pm
This is sooooo true. I know all this because I was a fitness /dance instructor for many years. But since cancer and forced inactivity to due to various surgeries over two years. The weight gain does depress me at times. It doesn’t last but every time I start to exercise and get back on track, I’m back in hospital for more surgery and the cycle starts again. I know logically that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel but it’s very hard feeling as if your living inside a body you no longer recognise.
Great post, Kassandra. I’ll take your comments and advice to heart.
Kassandra LambOctober 29, 2012 at 11:42 pm
“…it’s very hard feeling as if your living inside a body you no longer recognise.”
I totally get this, Christine. My thyroid went bonkers when I was 39 and I gained a lot of weight before the docs got it straightened out. I felt like my body had betrayed me! Took me over a decade to make peace with my body and accept the new me. Now I’m just trying to be healthy and happy.
Glad you found the post helpful. I’m praying hard that you get to the end of that tunnel soon and can find your ‘new normal.’
K.B. OwenOctober 30, 2012 at 12:56 am
FAB post, Kass! Thank you so much for this perspective. You’re right, there’s a lot of guilt. Ever since I’ve hit menopause, I’ve struggled with weight in a way that I never had to deal with before. Add that to a change in career – becoming a full-time writer, and sitting on my keester a lot more – and it’s a real challenge. One piece of info, regarding the cerebellum, that helped me. I learned from a Writers in the Storm blogpost that, as mammals, it is impossible for us to feel fear while we are eating. I keep that in mind whenever I’m writing and want to reach for a snack.
Kassandra LambOctober 30, 2012 at 1:08 am
I can totally relate to both the menopause and the writer’s butt issues. Glad you liked the post, Kathy!
I’ve got an idea—a treadmill with built-in laptop preloaded with dictation software.
Ginger CalemOctober 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm
Another fabulous post, Kassandra, packed with tangible help with this issue. I really loved the distinction between guilt and shame. Such a vital difference!
Kassandra LambOctober 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm
Thanks, Ginger! When you, of all people, compliment my health-related posts, I know I’m on the right track. And thanks for the help spreading the word.
Shannon EspositoOctober 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm
Kathy’s comment hit the nail on the head for stress eating. We can’t feel two emotions at the same time, so when we’re happily flooding our bodies with sugars and fats to get that “feel good” chemical reaction, the stress, fear and anxiety magically disappear. For a short time. Then it’s back to the dark side. Powerful enough of an incentive to keep us in the cycle, though. Complicated creatures we are. Lots of good info here.
Kassandra LambOctober 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm
Exactly Shannon, the temporary relief of the stress reinforces the bad eating behaviors.
There’s another element in there too. When we eat carbohydrates alone (which is most junk food) that stimulates the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has a calming and mood-elevating effect on our brains. But again, it’s a temporary relief.
Okay, I can see I need to do some posts on stress management as well.