Week 5 - Psychology of Weight Loss
Week 5 - Psychology of Weight Loss
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The fifth week of our programme focuses on the psychology of weight loss. We look at why we might have certain eating patterns and how they impact on our self-esteem and motivation. When we aim to lose weight, our motivation can ebb and flow but understanding how our habits affect our choices can help us to change them for the better.
Welcome to week 5 from the Lifestyle Medicine team.
Changing your habits is essential to help you achieve long term, successful weight loss. The first step is to take stock and understand a little bit more about the habits you’ve made that contribute to your weight gain. Taking control of your unhealthy habits can be empowering and set you up to lose weight for good and to live a healthy life (1). There's a risk when you’re on a weight loss journey that, if you don’t actively change your habits, when you stop focusing on eating healthily and losing weight, your old unhealthy habits will creep back in and you’ll gain back the weight that you’ve lost.
Are you convinced that you’ve got no willpower and, because you've got no willpower, you’re rubbish at sticking to a weight loss plan? If this sounds like you, then you need to understand something...
The interesting thing about willpower is that it will generally be quite high when you start on a weight loss mission, or is high at the beginning of a new day, or new week. But, you’ve probably noticed, willpower runs out. Willpower alone will rarely see you through, so it's time to stop beating yourself up and seeing yourself as weak. It’s time to try something new to bolster your good intentions and effort.
Make It Easier For Yourself
The more decisions you have to make, the more of your willpower you use up. So, a trick to help your willpower last longer is to swap some of your less healthy habits to new healthier habits, so you've less decisions to make and you’ll rely less on your willpower (2). If you already have a regular habit, it’s easier to adjust this habit than to try starting a brand new habit. What unhealthy eating habits could you tweak to make them support your weight loss goals? A helpful tip is to make a meal plan and follow it. That way you’ll need to make fewer overall decisions. When you make a meal plan you’ve done a lot of the hard work and already made many food choices. Sticking to your plan will help you to focus and to stay on track more easily. Tip - when making a meal plan, make sure you base it around healthy foods that you’ll enjoy eating. Your meal plan is for you, so needs to be all about you and how you want to eat. Have a look at the eating guides to give you some ideas of which foods would be good to include. You can also find more information in week 2, Good Food and Eating for Weight Loss.
A Word About Pleasure and How You Experience Food
The temptation to eat emerges from your brain (3). When you eat foods that contain high levels of sugar, fat or salt, particularly those that have a pleasing crunchy or gooey texture, they trigger the release of dopamine and a sense of reward in your brain. Eating is often a pleasurable experience or associated with pleasure and comfort.
Pleasure receptors and satiety are very different from one another. Learning to recognise when you're full is a key to successful weight loss and weight maintenance.
If you listen to your body and learn to recognise how your tummy feels when it's full, and stop eating at this stage, you're less likely to overeat or consume too many calories. If on the other hand, you eat based on the effect that food has on your mood, being guided by your pleasure receptors and the psychological boost you get from pleasurable foods, it’s more likely that you'll ignore feelings of fullness and carry on overeating to the point where you feel uncomfortably full or stuffed. Eating this way can lead to weight gain (4). Any behaviour that triggers feelings of reward means you’re more likely to repeat the behaviour as psychologically you'll want the reward again - your brain likes rewards so these behaviours can easily become a habit.
Don’t worry, unhealthy habits can be undone, but first you need to become aware of the habits that led you to gain weight. To get you started, take our habits quiz. This will help you to start identifying the habits you have. This quiz is for your information only, it's not written to pass any judgement but simply to bring your awareness to where there is room for change and improvement. Complete this short quiz to take the first step in changing your habits. Once you’ve identified the habits that impact your efforts to lose weight, we suggest that you note them down. When you’ve done this you can then decide which habits you need to focus on modifying to support your long term health goals. Making new healthy habits can help you lose weight (5, 6).
To make new habits or modify unhealthy habits, you need to practice the new healthy habit or behaviour regularly so that it eventually becomes something you do without thinking about it. We’re often asked how long it takes to make a new habit, generally this will depend on how hard the new habit is to learn, and how consistent you are. There’s no defined timeframe for how long it takes to create a new habit, but you're looking at weeks of repetition as opposed to days. Your motivation and how often you practise this new habit will influence your results (6).
How To Make New Habits
We suggest that you start by choosing a habit you really want to change. Choose something that you feel is relatively easy to fit into your life. Start with a behaviour that you’ll find easiest to change; achieving this change can boost your motivation and self esteem - boosting these will help you to keep going with changing more habits. A large percentage of what you do each day is based around your habits. These subconsciously developed due to you repeating the same behaviour many times. Certain situations will trigger a particular behaviour. This is due to your behaviour patterns being “hardwired” in the neural networks of your brain.
The good news is, the brain can adapt and change, so new habits can be learnt and replace old ones. This is called neuroplasticity, which means your brain (neurons) is mouldable (has plasticity) - so you can change how your brain is wired by changing the things you do repeatedly, in other words your habits. Practice is a vital step in making new habits - repetition of a new pattern every day helps to create new brain pathways. Once you've repeated a new habit, give yourself a pat on the back - recognise the achievement and celebrate your success. Celebrating success will activate the release of dopamine, which will make you feel good and will make learning your new habits easier and help them to stick (7).
How to Change a Habit
If, for example, you currently nibble your way through the evening on treats, this could be a target activity to change. Research tells us it's easier to swap one habit for another, so instead of eating nothing you could aim to swap to eating a healthier snack such as carrot sticks, sliced peppers, olives or celery sticks with a spoon of nut butter and hydrate with sparkling water with lemon slices. Alternatively you could swap nibbling for an activity that occupies your brain, such as a puzzle, game, crochet, or reading etc. To turn this change in behaviour into a new habit that you don't need to think about, you need to repeat the behaviour many times. You’ll know when it has become a habit when you find yourself engaging in the behaviour without even having to think about it; when it becomes as automatic to you as the behaviour it replaced.
Process to Follow to Make a New Habit
This is a simple diagram that presents the process of changing your habits. Try to make the new activity fun and something that you can enjoy. Set a reminder on your phone as a prompt. Once you've completed this task, celebrate that you've done it, really congratulate yourself in making this change and then repeat this cycle. The key really is repetition to make your new habit, your new normal.
How many new habits can I make at once?
We recommend that you only focus on creating one or two new habits at a time so that you don't overwhelm yourself with trying to change too much in one go. Just like it’s recommended to lose weight slowly to keep it off long term, make behaviour changes slow and sustainable too. The more that you're able to change your unhelpful habits to new, sustained healthy habits the more likely that you'll sustain and maintain your weight loss (5).
Thank you for joining us for this video. We hope that it can help you turn self-sabotage into healthy self-support for your long-term goals. We’ll look forward to continuing your weight-loss journey with our next video.
Welcome back. In this video we want to finish this week’s offerings by focusing on the importance of self-esteem, and how to improve yours if you feel your self-esteem is low.
Self esteem is a sense of self-liking and self acceptance. If you have low self esteem you're more likely to view yourself negatively. Research has found an interesting link between positive self esteem and healthy eating - with those people who have access to healthy food having a higher level of self esteem. Self esteem is an important factor in your health - with low self esteem being linked to having a greater risk of having an eating disorder (1, 6). If self esteem is something that you realise you need to improve, doing this will likely support your weight loss efforts.
Similarly to self esteem, self belief is a key factor in weight loss. We’ve mentioned understanding your “why”, but equally important is your sense of belief that you can do this, that you can succeed at achieving your health and weight loss goals. Interestingly, you can reprogramme your mindset and self belief by catching negative self sabotaging thoughts and changing them to positive affirming thoughts, boosting your self worth and self belief. Catch your inner critical voice and challenge it - change any messages to positive ones. Eg, “I CAN do this!” Repeating kind encouraging things to yourself is much more effective for helping you to lose weight and feel better about yourself than telling yourself off if you slip up.
Another important step in boosting self esteem is making time for yourself. Taking time out for yourself and making time to do activities that make you feel happy is a way of boosting your self esteem.
Emotional eating is strongly associated with weight gain, being overweight and obesity. Emotional eating is a term used to describe when you use food to cope with negative emotions, stress, anxiety or depression and feeling overwhelmed (8). If you’re an emotional eater, it’s likely that challenging situations will trigger an emotional response that you'll experience accompanied by a craving and you'll automatically use food as a way of coping with the emotions. Generally when you feel emotionally challenged you’re more likely to reach for less healthy higher fat/ high sugar foods that, when eaten regularly, are more likely to lead to weight gain (9). Stress can be triggered by many factors including, but not limited to, anything unexpected or challenging, from an alarm going off, to an argument with a friend or loved one, or a difficult work meeting.
When you experience stress, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which also raises your blood sugar. High levels of cortisol from ongoing stress are linked to weight gain and are associated particularly with weight gain around your middle and visceral fat (fat around the organs in your abdomen). Long term high levels of cortisol can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. This means that managing stress positively is an important step in weight loss (10). Balancing your blood sugar is an important aspect of healthy stress management (11). Please watch the blood sugar balance video again from Week 2 to remind yourself of this important concept.
Actively practising gratitude can help to boost your self esteem. You can do this simply by being thankful for different aspects of your day or life (12). We really recommend practising gratitude by keeping a journal and writing down 2 or 3 things that you're grateful for each day before you sleep. Other options include keeping a gratitude jar and writing down things you're happy about or that make you feel grateful on a slip of paper and filling the jar with these. You can review your gratitude jar entries whenever you need a mood pick-me-up.
Thank you for joining us for this third episode from week 5. We hope that the advice and information here has helped you to better understand the psychology behind weight loss, and what you can do to help build your self-esteem and self-belief. We’ll look forward to continuing to support your weight loss journey with our next videos.
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Meet Our Lifestyle Team
Dr Sam is a GP, yoga and nutritional therapist, writer and meditation teacher. She believes in taking a holistic approach to care and is joint Clinical Lead for Lifestyle Medicine with a focus on weight loss.
Ruth is a BANT Registered Nutritionist®, health and wellness coach and registered nurse. She is passionate about lifestyle medicine and supporting people to improve their health and quality of life.
Dr Sarah is a GP and trained physiotherapist. Joint Clinical Lead for Lifestyle Medicine, she’s committed to helping patients improve the quality of their health and wellbeing through positive lifestyle change.