Larry Alan Nadig, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologsit, Marriage & Family Therapist

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by Larry Nadig,
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Last updated:
July 19, 2010

 

Psychological Issues in Weight Control

It is relatively easy to count calories, keep track of how much fat we eat or find a dietary plan to follow that will result in weight loss. The difficulty is usually following the plan and sticking to it. We learn to eat and use food for a wide variety of reasons other than to satisfy our hunger and nutritional needs, and this is a major source of the difficulty.  

Some people use food to either distract themselves from or help themselves cope with boredom, depression, anxiety, frustration, anger or other difficult feelings.  Some may use food as a primary source of pleasure and gratification, as a reward, a social buffer or substitute for something else. Sometimes a person's self-concept or other beliefs about themselves are significantly related to their eating and weight. Others may be struggling to change their eating behavior because their bad eating habits have gotten out of hand or their metabolism has changed causing them to gain excess weight. 

These are just a few of the many psychological variables that can be involved in a weight control problem. Provided that there is not an underlying medical condition causing the overeating and excess weight, when the psychological variables are identified and modified it becomes much easier to stick to a healthy diet, lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.   

If you struggle with your weight, use the following information to help you identify and then modify the psychological variables causing your difficulty. If you approach it correctly you donít have to keep struggling. You don't have to use strong will power, you donít need to strictly follow a rigorous diet, and you donít need to deprive yourself. All you will need is a lot of awareness and a little self-discipline. You will need a lot of awareness because behavior is a result of many interacting variables, especially eating behavior. There are many factors and issues contributing to your eating, the more that you become aware of and manage, the easier it will become to control your eating.

The first step is to pay attention and become consciously aware of your habits and how you use food. Turn off the autopilot and stop the unconscious eating.  If you are not aware of the issues you can't do anything about them, and are out of control of them. So pay attention and become aware of the many ways you use food. Whenever you have a craving or want to eat something, pay attention, let yourself know if it is a physiological need for nutrition or a psychological phenomenon?   Are you really hungry?  Is it a conditioned craving?  Are you using the food or the eating activity for something other than hunger, i.e. to be social, to soothe yourself, or to take a break?   While you are in this process of broadening your awareness I recommend that you keep a journal or log of your eating habits and your discoveries. Make note of the activity you are doing, your feelings, and what are you about to do and your feelings about that. Some of the psychological variables are subtle and difficult to identify and the data you accumulate in your journal should make it easier.

Necessary Awareness:

1)      How are you using food, what are you getting from it, what is the purpose of your eating? What are the functions of your eating?

2)      Become aware of other behaviors and other means of obtaining the same function. For example, if you are aware that you use food to help you deal with boredom, become aware of several other ways or things you could do to cope with boredom. Don't just tell yourself you are not going to eat when bored, put the emphasis on what you could do when bored. Stop using  food to satisfy your psychological and interpersonal needs.

3)     The conditioned cravings and eating. You can condition or teach yourself to feel hungry or have a craving when you are not really hungry, just like Pavlov conditioned his dogs to salivate to the ringing of a bell. If you develop a habit of eating while you are doing another behavior, you will develop a conditioned craving or desire to eat whenever you do that behavior, even if you have recently had a meal and are not really hungry. Examples include snacking while watching television, reading, studying, etc. If you are aware that your craving at the moment is  just Pavlov ringing his bell and not really hunger, it will be easier to resist the temptation to eat and the craving will go away. A conditioned reaction that is not reinforced weakens and drops out, and soon you will be able to do that behavior without a craving.

4)    Pay attention and be aware of the internal cues and the external cues and triggers that influence you to start and stop eating. Follow your internal cues that alert you when your stomach is empty and you are hungry, or when you need the energy boost from food. Stay aware and when you have met the need and have eaten enough stop eating. Feelings and emotions can be confused as internal triggers to eat, but they are different and should be handled differently. External cues should not be used. Don't eat because the clock says it is time to eat. Don't keep eating when you have had enough just because there is still food on your plate. Eat when you have a physiological need for food, stop eating when you have met that need.    

5)      Basic knowledge of the calorie and fat content of various common foods. This awareness helps you make better choices. If you are trying to decide between 2 or 3 menu items that would satisfy your hunger select the one with the least calories and fat. 

6)     When you are eating, attend to your eating. Don't dilute your awareness of your eating behavior by paying attention to something else. If you do you will likely be guided by external cues and will over eat.  Pay attention to your eating, the sensations and tastes of the food. You can actually get more enjoyment and satisfaction from less food if you pay attention and savor each bite. 

Miscellaneous Principles & Tips 

Be respectful and cooperative with yourself. There will be times when your immediate wants will be in direct conflict with your long term values and wants. One part of you will have a relentless strong craving for something fattening, but you haven't given up your desire to be thinner. Your immediate want is to satisfy your craving, your long term want is to lose weight.  When you get in this kind of conflict don't follow your impulses for immediate gratification, and don't just tough it out and ignore the craving and disrespect that part of you. If you do, you will alienate that part of yourself and that part will work against you. How many times have you been following your strict diet ignoring your carvings for a day or two only to find yourself pigging out and eating more than you would have if you satisfied the craving?  If you are having a craving for something fattening have a dialog with yourself about it and look for a solution that would satisfy your immediate want without disrespecting and sabotaging your higher long-term want. It might take a little more effort, but if get your full cooperation you will be able to find something that would satisfy both sides of yourself.  

When you go to the snack bar use your awareness and knowledge of the fat and calorie content of foods and find something that will satisfy yourself that is lower in fat and calories that won't sabotage your long term want to stay thinner. When you are looking over the choices don't make your goal to find the most delicious and tasty item that probably is the most fattening, look for something that will satisfy yourself. If your goal is to satisfy yourself, you will not be or feel deprived. You also won't feel guilty after eating. 

You can make it easier on yourself if you make a long-term commitment to yourself about your diet and eating habits. Make the long-term commitment, then follow it and live it one day at a time. The long-term commitment will help reduce the temptations that accompany the daily decision making about food. If something is not a consideration it is much easier to avoid it. It is much harder when you have to make a decision each time you are faced with it. If you will be going to a place or an event where you know in advance that you will be faced with tempting fattening food, think about it and make a commitment to yourself before you get there about how you are going to handle it. The commitment will make the on-the-spot decision making easier. Also don't tempt yourself by just looking.   

Here is a gimmick or technique that can help you when you really want to resist the urge or temptation to overindulge and you need a little help. When you are tempted to eat that delicious food that is before you, use your imagination and vividly in detail visualize and imagine something extremely aversive mixed with it, such as maggots, vomit or diarrhea. Imagine what it would look like and smell like. Fill in the awful, vivid details, and your imagination will help you resist at the moment. Be respectful of others, don't spoil it for them, keep it to yourself. 

Don't worry about applying these principles all at once. If you have a lot of bad habits to change and you are having difficulty, take it a step at a time. If your approach isn't working don't give up, find out what you need to do differently. Ask your friends or others what they do, go to weight watchers or a similar program, or go to a therapist to learn and find better alternatives. It took a long time to develop the bad eating habits and to gain all the extra weight, so be fair to yourself and have reasonable expectations for yourself.

An intellectual understanding of these concepts and techniques is similar to reading a book on how to play tennis. It is a start but the intellectual knowledge is not enough. You must practice applying the knowledge; it will work better and get easier after you have turned the techniques into skills.

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Contents: .
Home 

How to Express

Difficult Feelings 

Tips on Listening 

Conflict: Healthy

or Unhealthy

Stress: Health &
Relationship Killer

Selecting a Mate

Weight Control

Holiday Blues

How to Get the Most From Therapy 

Psychological Tests

About Dr. Nadig

Treatment Philosophy

Professional Services and Fees

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