It’s not easy to lose weight. Many components come into play when it comes to expending more calories than what we take in on a daily basis. This needs to become habitual to see change over the course of a month, week, year, and, ultimately, the lifespan. We often think of diet and exercise being the two main components. While that’s ultimately correct, there’s another side of it that we don’t often think about – the mind.
Our minds can be powerful tools when it comes to forming habits. Brain chemistry can act in funny ways when we begin dieting, from depletion in serotonin (pivotal in appetite regulation) to an increase in dopamine (controls the “reward center” of the brain). With so many factors regulating when we eat, how we eat, and how we cope with stress, it’s no wonder weight loss can be a Sisyphean task.
According to Dr. Howard Rankin, a behavior change expert, a key part of the problem is that we believe we have more control over our behavior than we really do. Stress, anxiety and addiction can limit the conscious control we have over our choices. Dr. Rankin asserts: “What drives our behavior is not logic but brain biochemistry, habits and addiction, states of consciousness and what we see people around us doing. We are emotional beings with the ability to rationalize — not rational beings with emotions. If we are stressed, depressed or addicted, no matter how good the advice we are given, chances are that we will not be able to act on it. The more primitive, emotional brain generally has precedence over the newer, more rational brain.”
Experts at the American Psychological Association have compiled a list of steps that can be helpful in changing your unhealthy behaviors and thoughts:
1. Monitor your behaviors. Writing helps weight loss. Record your thoughts, feelings and information about the environment such as where you ate, when and what you were doing. This will help you understand your eating behaviors and identify areas to change.
2. Track your activity level. This is another important aspect of self-monitoring. It includes not only how much you exercise but also the extent to which you move around during the day. Consider using a pedometer to record the number of steps you take each day.
3. Eat regular meals. Skipping meals can slow your metabolism, make you prone to later eating binges and have a negative effect on your health.
4. Practice “mindful” eating. Research shows that individuals with eating problems often don’t pay attention to whether they are really hungry when they eat.
5. Understand the things you associate with food. Behaviors are habitual and learned. Sometimes people may associate certain emotions, experiences or daily activities with particular behaviors.
6. Identify your emotions. It’s important to figure out what is happening emotionally while snacking, overeating or choosing unhealthy foods. Identify the feeling: is it boredom, stress or sadness? If you aren’t hungry, find another way to meet that need.
7. Modify your unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Reinforcing healthy behaviors is important to achieving your weight management goals. Too often, people have negative thoughts and feelings about changing their health behaviors and see the process as punishment.
By adding one or more of the steps listed above, you can start to harness the power of willpower and improve the likelihood of a successful diet. It’s important to look at dieting as more of a lifestyle change, rather than a quick fix. It takes time, effort, perseverance, and some stumbles along the way. As you “re-wire” the way you think about eating and food, you’ll improve your body composition as a result!