Trail | Chi King CC 2.0
Photo credit: Trail | Chi King CC 2.0

The Key To Keeping the Weight Off: Employ A Mind-Body Approach

The Key To Keeping the Weight Off: Employ A Mind-Body Approach

As a psychotherapist and researcher focusing on overeating and obesity in our youth, I find the New York Times article, After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight to be educational and empowering. It’s about time that this type of radical weight loss is being de-glamourized. As indicated, it’s physically and emotionally destructive to the contestants and to the public who they are modeling this type of behavior to. Researchers weren’t at all surprised that it doesn’t work. The public was misled in believing that it does.

As stated, the reality is you can’t fight biology. The body will fight back against such drastic weight loss and will fight back hard. Weight loss needs to be mindful and progressive over time and appropriate resources and support need to be in place if it’s to be maintained. If it were so easy, these contestants would all have effective behavioral change nailed down once they left the competition.

Their inevitable cycles of weight gain, typically trailed along with deep personal regret, shame and disappointment. Overeating most definitely fits into this category of behaviors that prove challenging, both physiologically and psychologically. On point it mentions the need for ongoing psychological support besides the support of a nutritionist, exercise physicians, etc.

It’s disconcerting to me that the psychological barriers are alluded to in the general treatment of obesity but there isn’t enough stress given to the constant battle of hunger, cravings and binges from a psychological point of view. Overeating is learned and becomes a habit. The nuance behind it is there’s a trigger (see the enticing food), engage in eating and then get rewarded by the behavior (experience pleasure because it tastes so incredibly good which satiates the appetite, there’s emotional relief because it helps to meet an emotional need, etc.).

We commit to memory the reward process and continually chase that pleasure (the first delicious bite, the immediate joyfulness, etc.). This is why it’s so difficult to change the behavior — because it’s what we learned, what’s become engrained in our memory and the associations we naturally make when we eat.

Overeating might have also been learned and utilized as a coping mechanism to deal with emotions (i.e., emotional eating). It may be the way we learned to cope with sadness, disappointment, frustration, joy, or some other emotion. It serves as a good distraction and can be an effective (yet maladaptive) way to keep emotions at bay.  

Food and eating is also part of the rubric in our society and can be a sign of status. It’s part of the way we celebrate holidays, religious celebrations and rituals, birthday parties, and special occasions. The inclusion of food is a major part of the way we socialize in general.

As also indicated in the article, food cravings are a serious part of the problem. Studies have proven that certain foods, especially snack foods, are addictive. That’s why people binge on potato chips, chocolate, or cupcakes more often than on carrot sticks and apple slices. Brain imaging using PET scans showed that high sugar and high fat foods work just like drugs such as heroin, opium, or morphine. People also develop a tolerance for sugar; they will need more and more to get satisfied.

Our minds trip us up. Because food can be so incredibly satisfying and addicting, we gain mastery over rationalizing our behavior which keeps us enrolled in this cycle/habit. From speaking to adults and children, I came up with forty rationalizations for why individuals justify their overeating. Some are, “watching what I eat is too hard”, “I’ll burn it off later”, “I don’t usually eat this”, “everyone else is eating it”, “it’s a special occasion”, “healthy food doesn’t taste as good”, etc. These thoughts keep us stuck and perpetuating unhealthful behaviors. 

For real incremental, long sustaining change to occur, we need to be open to discovering, processing and working through the psychological and emotional barriers to weight loss. A logical conclusion would be to aggressively start with working with our youth. Youth behaviors tend to be more malleable and can be effectively altered around eating thus avoiding and affecting biological “dooms” through behavioral modification interventions such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness, Parental modeling, etc.

To make incremental changes at any age, we need to engage in proactive, rather than reactive care. This article has opened up the floodgates and explains why weight loss is typically not maintained overtime. Biology, is one major factor, as the article and study so clearly and poignantly points out. I implore that we consciously recognize the importance of the mind-body connection and proactively include psychological and behavioral modification interventions that address the psychological and emotional barriers to weight loss. Without proper attention to these factors we don’t stand a chance at eradicating this growing life-threatening epidemic.

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