To eat less, you have to put less food in your mouth. Easy, right? If only it were that simple. People who have tried a number of different diets often realise that maintaining a healthy weight is less about the amount of food consumed and more about their relationship to food.
We often hear about people who do well at first on their diets, but then self-sabotage. They despair about their habitual pattern of breaking diets, thinking there is something wrong with them.
The good news is that once you identify the triggers that are specific to you, you can start having some control over what you do next. For example, the thought ‘It won’t matter if I eat this’, or the emotion of feeling flat, or the memory of seeing yourself in the mirror struggling to pull on your favourite jeans could have the effect of lowering your mood.
When your mood is low, you are more vulnerable to impulses. For example, walking past the vending machine or into the supermarket during a mid-afternoon slump. This self-sabotaging behaviour heightens the chance that you won’t be able to resist grabbing a snack.
Research in the area of over-eating suggests taking a non-judgemental approach to yourself and to food. Follow the steps below to start putting this into practice:
Identify the advantages of losing weight/maintaining a healthy weight and write them down. You might include the benefits of increased energy, a better self-image and better relationships. In a moment of temptation when the option of a chocolate cake is available, it is amazing how long-term goals suddenly seem unimportant. Having your advantages card handy helps you keep these goals in mind.
Think about the thought patterns you’ve noticed that get in the way of your goals. For example: ‘I’ve blown it now, I’ll start again tomorrow.’ It’s normal to feel discouraged when you haven’t met your targets; however, instead of responding with sabotaging behaviour by eating, congratulate yourself for noticing the thought that would usually lead you to eat.
Try to slow down at mealtimes by reducing distractions. An experiment at the University of Bristol showed that when people were distracted by a video game, they had a high desire to keep eating, whereas those who focused intensely on what they were eating lost the desire to have dessert.
Rather than labelling food ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which can set up cravings and feelings of deprivation, choose healthy food you like and can easily prepare. Give yourself credit for the choices that contribute to your long-term goals.
Dr Mary Grogan is a clinical psychologist and director of Change it Psychology in Auckland, New Zealand.