You told us the biggest challenges you faced when losing weight* – and we went on a quest to find the answers you needed. Niki Bezzant speaks to two experts who offer new insights into emotional eating, willpower and learning how to control your portions.
All of us who have struggled with losing weight know that diets don’t work. Yet we still blame ourselves and our lack of discipline rather than looking at the real reasons, which are more complex. Two weight-loss experts offer new psychological theories about why we struggle with weight loss, and what we can do to lose weight healthily, and for good.
Diets don't work
The HFG 2010 Weight Loss Survey revealed that for many of you, ‘a lack of willpower’ is considered the major reason why you’re not reaching your weight loss goals. But if you’re relying on willpower to stick to a diet, says psychiatrist Dr George Blair-West, you’re going about things the wrong way – because diets are destined to fail. In fact, he 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!”
Karen Nimmo, a registered clinical psychologist, author and speaker who also specialises in weight loss, agrees. She points out that dieting trains us to ignore our body’s hunger signals. “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, she says, instead of your body. “Our bodies supply all the cues we need – if we listen to them.”
In fact, says Nimmo, ‘willpower’ as a way of losing weight 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 suggests that when foods are forbidden, they become more desirable and we come up with psychological strategies to ‘cheat’ our way around our ‘rules’.
“Deprivation 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.”
Why we gain weight
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 and low selfesteem. Address these, she says, and weight loss will follow.
“If you can understand the way you behave and where it comes from, you can address the real reasons you’re overweight. You can change your mind and your thinking.”
Everybody overeats for different reasons, says Nimmo, but you can gain insights into your individual behaviours by exploring your relationship with food. This means asking questions about how you ate during your childhood, your parents’ attitudes towards food, and your eating behaviour. “We get so many messages from our parents, with the best of intentions,” she says. “For example, you might have been told to always eat everything on your plate. It can be a revelation to realise you don’t have to keep doing this as an adult.”
As well as analysing the more obvious behaviours – ‘when’ (our eating patterns) and ‘what’ (our food choices), you also need to look at your ‘style of eating’. Do you eat standing up in the kitchen? Do you eat in front of the TV? Do you eat quickly or do you savour the taste of your food? Are you the first or the last to finish your meal?
It’s also a good idea to identify any emotions that may be driving your eating. Do you use food to comfort or celebrate? It’s important to identify what your emotional triggers are, so you can create other ways to deal with them. This may include reducing stress, learning to relax and bolstering your self-confidence.
Recognising these behaviours means you can take steps towards more conscious, or ‘mindful’, eating habits.
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 tasting them. “Nearly everybody who is trying to lose weight tells me that when they eat their forbidden food, the dominant emotion they feel is guilt, and the dominant behaviour is to eat quickly,” says Dr Blair- West. He suggests that when we do this, we miss the pleasure of eating our favourite foods, and we’re unlikely to feel satisfied.
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. “Nothing increases our desire for something like not being able to have it,” he says. But when we know we can have something, we eat less of it.
If that sounds like a recipe for disaster to you, it’s important to note that 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 food; to taste more and eat less.
How to savour your favourite foods
A growing body of research is now showing that ‘mindful’ eating – which is the direct opposite of traditional, restrictive dieting methods – is key to deprivation-free weight loss. This exercise, which Dr George Blair-West does in his weight-loss workshops, will show you the difference between mindful eating and your usual eating habits.
It’s going to seem over-the-top at first, but resolve to give it a try. The aim is to learn to appreciate the food so that you actually feel satisfied – which is key to stopping you from overeating. It might seem a little exaggerated – but that’s precisely the point!
Get yourself some of your favourite 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 the edges. What do you notice?
Next, use your sense of smell. What do you notice? How would you describe the food’s qualities?
Now take a bite. Don’t chew it just yet – just let it sit there on your tongue. What do you notice? Start chewing it. What sort of texture does it have? Take notice of 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.
Now as you start to swallow, be aware of two things. The first –the sensation of swallowing and the complex coordination of the muscles in your throat; and second – the fact that as you swallow the food, the taste experience reduces dramatically! This is why you shouldn’t swallow food that we have not fully savoured and appreciated. There are no taste buds in your stomach! Now finish your food – SLOWL Y. Pause between each mouthful. Make the most of each bite.
Was that a little different from how you normally eat your favourite food? If ‘yes’ then 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.
Weight loss snacks
In our weight loss survey, you told us the # 1 thing you wanted was more healthy snack ideas*. Try these – they all contain less than 600kJ, are easy and tasty, too.
1 Uncle Tobys Vita Brits biscuit with 1/2 sliced banana and 1 teaspoon honey (504kJ)
Yoplait formé Satisfy vanilla yoghurt (374kJ)
1 small apple with 2 teaspoons light peanut butter (472kJ)
170ml The Skinny Cow Chocolate Berry Sundae (455kJ)
10 carrot sticks with 1 tablespoon reduced-fat hommous (204kJ)
1/2 cup low-fat custard with ½ punnet strawberries (551kJ)
15g raw unsalted almonds (379kJ)
125g can chickpeas, drained, tossed with 1 tablespoon sultanas and chopped coriander (530kJ)
1/2 cup cooked lentils with 2 tablespoons lowfat cottage cheese and 1 tablespoon sweet chilli sauce (513kJ)
1/2 cup baked beans with 5 cherry tomatoes, halved (500kJ)
1 small sliced pear topped with 40g reduced-fat cheese (597kJ)
1 x 56ml Paddle Pop Moo Choc/Vanilla ice cream (364kJ)
1/2 medium red capsicum filled with 95g tuna, topped with black pepper (494kJ)
3/4 cup cooked couscous with 1/2 diced cucumber and black pepper, topped with 2 tablespoons low-fat natural yoghurt (356kJ)
If you’re eating three low-kJ meals a day (1600kJ or under), you can have up to three snacks under 400kJ, or two snacks under 600kJ.
Living with your favourite food
Chocolate: If you just can’t say no, here’s how to enjoy it.
Choose one day of the week and allow yourself to have a ‘chocolate moment’.
Buy the mini, treat-sized bars and have one at morning tea. Enjoy the sweet taste early in the day. Make sure you keep it in a non-transparent container in the fridge so you don’t see it when you reach for the milk!
Potato chips: Are salty, savoury snacks more your thing?
Buy an individual packet of your favourite chips and empty them into a bowl and enjoy every single one of them!
Go for vege chips – 18 per cent fat beats 32 per cent fat – to still get that salty crunch.
Keep chips out of the house. Buy your favourite only when you can take them to someone else’s place and share them with others.
Creamy ice cream: You can still keep your cool – here’s how:
Buy the small tubs of your favourite ice cream, if available, and savour it. If not, always serve ice-cream in a bowl – never eat from the tub.
Order a scoop in a cup, rather than wasting kilojoules on the cone.
Garlic bread: Mmm – garlicky, buttery bread is hard to resist. So why should you?
Rather than wasting kJs on a whole loaf of soggy, lukewarm garlic bread, find a place which makes the ultimate version – and have one or two pieces. Enjoy every mouthful.
If you just can’t go past your local Italian, order bread to share. Try an entrée-sized meal for your main with a side of veg to balance things out.