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The Psychology of Weight Loss

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So I'm wearing my Exercise Scientist hat today. And my Psychologist cardigan. And my steel-capped, ass-kicking boots. I may be blunt. Okay, I will be. But honest. Possibly politically incorrect. Okay, probably. Will possibly say what you don't want to hear. Feel free to look away now.

Hmm… still here, huh? Thrill-seeker. Crazy kid.

Even though I've spoken way too much for way too many years about getting in shape (in the course of my work) and I'm kinda over it, recent events (stuff in the media here in Australia and several random conversations) have compelled me to write this article.

It seems we're still missing the point when it comes to losing weight (effectively and permanently). If you, or someone you know, needs to lose weight, pay attention and/or pass this post along.

Conventional thinking tells us that losing weight is essentially a physiological process; lift this, run there, stretch that, get your heart rate up, decrease your calorie intake, no carbs after three (crapola) and increase your energy expenditure. Mostly good advice.

And traditional approaches (by the medical profession and the fitness industry) tell us that weight loss is essentially about three key variables; exercise, food, and lifestyle. Oh yeah, and more education. And to a point, they are right. But only to a point.

I'm here to tell you that while exercise, food, lifestyle, and education are indeed important variables in the process, without doubt, the biggest determinant of weight loss (or gain) is what's going on in that nine-pound (four kilo) thing sitting on the top of our shoulders. Yet the psychology of weight loss is rarely discussed (in any depth) by the 'experts'. And in my humble opinion, that's because many of them don't get it. "It" being the head stuff that goes with the body stuff.

If you have been, or are currently, overweight, then you absolutely know that losing weight is first and foremost a psychological and emotional process. I was a fatty (200lbs, 90kgs at fourteen) and when I got my head in the right place, my body followed. I thought different, chose different, and created different.

Q. What really determines weight loss (or gain)?

A. Attitude, thinking, self-control, mind-set, and ultimately, decisions.

We know what to do. But we don't do what we know. We've never been more educated. Yet we've never been fatter. We've never had more resources. And we've never made more excuses (heard them all). We've never had more reasons to lose weight. And we've never wasted more time.

But people don't wanna hear this message because it's too fundamental and obvious. And it requires real effort, sacrifice, work, and self-control. No, we'd rather talk about weight-loss theory number ten million or the latest 'breakthrough' pill, powder, potion, product, gizmo or gadget. Or that amazing new weight-loss book. 'Cause we need another one of those.

We want quick, easy, convenient, and painless. We are soft. We are precious, lazy and lack self-control. We are the quick-fix society. And the instant gratification generation.
And the fat generation. We want an answer that doesn't require effort or sacrifice on our part. And it is this mentality which keeps us (us, the society) fat.

If the answer to global obesity was in fact more education, information or resources, then we would all be getting leaner by the day because we've never been more educated, informed or equipped when it comes to diet, exercise, lifestyle and all that 'obesity-related stuff'.

Here's some random food for thought (nice book title) on obesity. (You can still look away at any time).

1. External change needs to be accompanied (or preceded) by internal change (for it to be lasting).

2. Most people who lose weight regain it (over 95%) because they haven't really changed their attitude or thinking. They change their behaviours for a while but deep (deep, deep) down they haven't really changed their core thinking, beliefs, attitudes or standards. On a subconscious level many people are waiting for it (the diet, the fitness kick) to be over so they can go back to being 'normal'. And when they do eat less and exercise more they (often) slide into a deprivation mentality, constantly telling themselves that they're 'missing out'.

3. If we tell ourselves that it will be a painful, horrible process, it will be (for everyone). Attitude = outcome.

4. The sooner we stop looking for easy and start looking for effective, the sooner we'll start to see real (forever) change.

5. Weight-loss martyrs are a pain in the ass — "I've been so good… I've been so good."

6. While food, exercise and lifestyle are important ingredients in the weight-loss process, it is our head which determines how we eat, exercise and live. Which in turn determines our physiological state.

7. The fat person with all the knowledge, education and resources and a crap attitude will stay fat.

8. The fat person with limited knowledge, resources and genetic potential and a great attitude will produce much better results every time.

9. The sooner we stop getting in shape for 'events' (weddings, birthdays, reunions, parties) and start getting in shape for life, the sooner we'll start to see forever results.

10. The fitness industry and medical profession have a one-dimensional approach to weight-loss — physical. This is ignorant, naive and ineffective. Losing weight (effectively) is a complex, multi-dimensional process (physical, emotional and psychological).

11. Losing weight is not about finding the right program, diet, supplement or drug; it's about finding the right attitude.

12. Many (okay, most) fat people make excuses and tell lies. A lot. Just ask the ex-fat kid. Yes, I know this sounds offensive but if you had experienced the thousands of conversations with as many fat people as I have, you'd know that I'm telling the truth.
You can get offended or educated; it's a choice.

13. By the way, 'fat ' is not an insult (in this discussion); it's a physiological state.

14. The sooner we call fat what it is (as opposed to deluding ourselves by calling each other full-figured, big-boned and heavy-set) the sooner we will get serious about addressing obesity in a real, practical, no bullshit way. Perhaps we should worry less about political correctness and more about heart disease, diabetes, bowel cancer and the plethora of other obesity-related conditions. "Whatever you do.. don't mention the 'F' word — you might hurt her feelings; she's not fat, she's… voluptuous!"

15. We love to play the blame game. We wanna blame someone or something for our obesity. It's a time thing. It's a genetics thing. As long as it's not a 'me' thing. Otherwise I might have to get off my ass and take responsibility for my fat self.

If you're still talking to me, let me know your thoughts and where you're from.

PS. If you want to explore this subject in greater detail, there's a book called Fattitude which ain't too shabby. Not sure about the author — but apparently the book's okay.

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About Craig Harper

  • EMB

    my fat is psychological – I love healthy food!
    I’m a survivor of child abuse (sexual)…I eat unconsciously to cover my body & to avoid being attractive to the opposite sex! it’s a difficult issue, not a matter of lazinness or lack of education.
    I’m studying Nutrition and the next degree will be psychology…to help others with eating disorders and psychological stress and build a career. I’m intelligent and excel in all other areas of my life!
    I have a career, husband, child (& preg with no.2), own my own home, have travelled ths world but people only see the fat!
    Mind you, my pregnancies were all uncomplicated (perfect blood pressure, no gestational diabetes etc) while the skinny mums were the opposite.
    Why can’t people just mind their own business? Our society has become so vocal & judgemental! Get on with your own lives & problems! This is not a personal attack on the writer, by any means. I’m just sick of being judged on my “cover”.

  • Alegra100

    Im so sick of being overweight. I’m a yo yo dieter. I do well in the summer and undo it all in the winter. I want to avoid taking on an intensive exercise regime this time as I don’t keep it up in winter which is what starts the downward spiral. I agree with the view that most of dieting is psychological. Sometimes it takes a while to get into the zone as it takes a lot focus. Im also homing in on my food intolerances and toxin levels to help me make a life long change. Wish me luck and thanks for the motivating article ( I’m a realist so not offended in the slightest).

  • JMK

    I definitely know what REB is talking about. I used to diet and exercise until people would start to pay attention to me and then I would find myself on the couch with a bag of dorritos, a bowl of ice cream and a paralyzing level of guilt for not being at the gym. My inner -self couldn’t cope with how people were starting to see my outer-self.
    Not sure when I got passed that hurdle, I’ve been working out regularly for two years now and it’s part of my lifestyle. Someone told me the other day that I was looking “much better” and I was a bit surprised that I didn’t hit the couch after it. Now I’m curious about how the psychology works.

  • Richie

    You have some really good ideas! Have you tried the “7 on 2 off diet” yet? I don’t know how safe it is, but I’ve lost almost 30 pounds since the first of the year.

  • B

    I don’t think this article is harsh at all. I was always fat, but I had lost pretty substantial amounts of weight successfully in the past only to have it return, mostly due to diet mentality. I’ve been taking part in a surgical weight loss clinical trial and I wasn’t seeing any real results despite the fact that I am eating far less than before. But I had, most definitely, neglected to attend to the psychological issues that went hand in hand with my weight issues. I’ve started seeing a hypnotherapist, not so much to ‘lose weight’ as to clean up all the emotional and psychological junk I’ve been lugging around. I couldn’t tell you if I’ve lost weight as a result – first thing I did after my first session was throw out my scales. But I’ve increased my exercise and have been counting my calories every day instead of just the days I feel like I did well and none of it feels like a chore or a burden anymore. It just feels like something I do now. I feel great.

  • Gaynor

    Well done to all of you. Like REB said, I’m looking for answers that I can’t find. I just get fatter every year and like most fat people, I KNOW what I should eat; what should avoid. My downfall is the mind-set. Sometimes I just can’t be bothered and so the next day I feel all is lost, I’ve failed again and so there’s no point in going on. I really should see a shrink maybe?! But it hurts to shell out money for something that is so…..basicly obvious! I so wish I had a “Fat Buddy” to lose weight with, it does make a difference. I know my problem is in my head, I just don’t know how to sort it out on my own.

  • I think it is possible to over-complicate the issue. It doesn’t matter whether you are just a bit overweight, really fat or seriously obese; what matters is that you decide to do something about it.

    If you really WANT to lose weight and keep it off, you have to make the decision to change the type and quantity of food you eat.

    I started eating less food with saturated fat in it and controlling the amount of calories I eat per day and have lost over 25lbs in weight in 11 weeks.

    I’m pretty much eating the same meals as before but low fat versions of them and also not eating such large meals.

    I’m still obese and will be for another two or three months, but then I’ll just be overweight and another few months after that I’ll be back to a normal weight for my size.

  • REB

    I agree with KC. I found this article precisely because I was looking for answers to the question KC asks. In April I started a gym program and have stuck to it for the first time in my life. I am taking part in the gym’s biggest loser contest and sticking fairly well to the diet — and even enjoying the food. I have lost 5 kgs so far but I am finding that lots of psychological issues are now coming up and I don’t quite know how to deal with them.

    In my mind I am a fat person. I have been a fat person since I was 16 when puberty caused me (an extremely skinny child) to gain a bit of weight. My mother and brothers started telling me I was fat, and I believed them, and since then I have always believed that.

    I am not sure how I supposed to overcome this hurdle … the fact is that NOW I am fat, so I can’t tell myself I am not. This hurdle is not stopping me from going to gym, I am still maintaining the diet and I can definitely see the results, but it feels like a tempest in my head with a lot of emotions going on around this, some of which are quite painful.

    How do you unravel the psychological aspects? I am hunting for tools and not finding any… just a lot of articles saying we need to get our psychology right, but no articles saying what that really means, i.e. a step by step program or something.

  • Kc

    Hi Craig,
    The psychology of losing weight is the number 1 thing I struggle with. I’ve done weight-watchers off and on since I was about 10 years old. I’ve got about 50-60 pounds to lose in order to be fit and healthy, and while being thinner is very appealing to me, I don’t understand how to reconcile the psychological change required. I’ve always seen myself as a big person – and it’s become part of my self-identity. How do you separate body-image from a sense of self? Is it a matter of realizing that you are not a 50+ pound overweight person on the inside, too? What are some of the mental shifts required in order to reconcile the difference between what you see in the mirror and how you feel about yourself? It’s possible I’m not making any sense, but I’m trying to put my struggle into words as best as possible.

  • Awesome article!! A little harsh but I think that’s what people need to hear.

    Ex-fatty who changed her attitude and kept 70lbs off for 2 years now! :~)

  • After being overweight my ENTIRE life I finally won my battle against obesity and lost over 100 lbs in less than a year through healthy eating and exercise. I know how hard it is to have faith that this type of change is possible when you have failed for so many years (I started at 270lb and a size 24, now a size 4)…but it is! My story was so inspirational ABC featured it on Extreme Makeover last month. To remind people — you truly can do it (which is a HUGE part of the psychology, I never believed it was genetically possible because I failed for so many years!) — I’ve launched a website HEIDI HYPE to keep people motivated and remind them they CAN defeat their past — even if they come an overweight family and have been overweight their entire life. I hope you’ll take a moment to check it out! I’d love to know what you think!


  • Good article Craig (and great name too). Everytime I see an episode of ‘The Biggest Loser’ I’m appalled at the lack of psychological coaching these poor people get. I can even pick the contestants that will put the weight back on the quickest after the leave…just based on what they say and how they behave. Their mindset’s are not changed so how do they expect to keep the changes made to their body.

  • Frank

    Hi Craig

    Great article. It got away from the all-body think and approached the mental attitude. Now, a further step would be to the spiritual plane – the land of the soul. There, study of the creative Word of the Founders of all religions, as well as prayer and meditation become the food and drink of man -real nurishment. The courses of the meal aren’t easy. The dishes are detachment, certitude, servitude, sacrifice, patience, humility, loving-kindness – truly good deeds. Hard to digest, but perhaps ultimately the most nutrient-dense in the real Reality.

    “Hey Mate, pass the twinkies.”