It has long been known that carrying excess body-fat (especially around the middle) can be a factor in developing Type 2 diabetes.
It’s therefore understandable that reducing body-fat is recommended for those of us with more body-fat than we need.
The established advice for doing so seems to revolve around the following strategies:
- Knowing the risks of obesity and Type 2 diabetes
- Strict self-discipline
- Rules and restrictions
Yet these strategies are all conjured up by logical, rational thinking. They rely solely on our conscious mind being in control, and quite forget that the behaviours and habits that lead to our having more body-fat than we need are driven by subconscious motivations.
I expect most of us can think of a time when, with the conscious, rational part of our mind, we decided on a course of action that would make us healthier, only for those worthy decisions to be willfully disobeyed by another part of our mind that, quite frankly, just wanted something else. Powerfully so.
It might be deciding not to snack after dinner, but sitting on the couch with a gnawing feeling in the stomach and a voice inside saying something like, ‘eat the roasted peanuts, eat the roasted peanuts, EAT THE ROASTED PEANUTS!’ until you just can’t take it anymore and eat the blummin’ roasted peanuts just to have a bit of peace, vowing you’ll be more restrained tomorrow…
It might be the decision to go for a brisk walk every day after finishing work, but somehow the day just disappears as you get so caught up in what you’re doing, and it’s suddenly later than you planned so you just don’t have the time, and decide you’ll forget about the walk this evening…
It might be going out for dinner and thinking you’ll just have a main course then being surprised to find yourself ordering a starter when the waiter comes round…
We all do this one way or another. Particularly, when we’re making significant lifestyle changes.
So it’s imperative that we understand the way our minds are, and that it is normal for one part of our mind to be pretty sensible, and another part a bit of an anarchist – at least when it comes to being healthier.
We might recognise an emotional, often quite childish or rebellious, part of us that resists. A part that thinks we’ve been doing just fine with how things are, so why change? A part that wants to us to stay the size we are because our bodies – evolved in a world where we were more at risk from famine than from plenty – are designed to think that storing fat is a good thing. A part that associates the habits we’re trying to change with comfort, entertainment or stress-release so isn’t keen to let them go.
So yes, we all do this: set an intention to be healthier, then rebelliously flout it. It’s because of this internal dichotomy that attempts to reduce body-fat (founded on the above-mentioned rational-minded strategies) are scuppered.
If our rational mind is particularly determined, these tactics may help us to lose body-fat initially but it’s likely we’ll pile it back on unless we address the source of the motivations, habits and behaviours that are preventing us from sustainably being the size we’d like to be.
That said, use of these tactics persists, so we may ask ourselves:
Is there any merit in these widely-used logical strategies?
If we want to lose body-fat and improve our health, just how do we manage this quite natural, dichotomous response?
Well, let’s take a look.
Knowing the risks of obesity and Type 2 diabetes
Otherwise known as scare tactics.
Wry comment aside, we’re actually not dismissing this completely. Understanding our health situation is important. It can also be a useful motivator in our making the conscious decision to change our habits.
Making this initial rational decision is a key first step. But frightening ourselves will cause more harm than good, so health information should be provided compassionately and without judgement – both by healthcare professionals and when we’re informing ourselves.
Realisations about our health and diagnoses can be viewed as opportunities to make a rewarding change.
We can begin to talk gently to the part of ourselves that resists change and tell it all the benefits of reducing body-fat; all the good things about starting to think and feel about food in a different way.
How we treat ourselves is crucial.
Having a go at ourselves, punishing ourselves, rebuking, chiding – these actions will certainly have a result:
Guilt. Feeling bad about ourselves. Feeling low.
And when we feel bad, we’re more likely to reach for what we feel is the easy comfort of food, drink or inactivity. So, self-flagellation is what not to do! Besides, there’s no need for guilt – having bits of us that want one thing, and bits of us that want something else is completely natural. What we need isn’t guilt; it’s understanding.
So, let’s get to know ourselves better, and encourage ourselves towards more healthful choices. Getting to know ourselves like an attentive and caring friend proffering a tasty and nutritious carrot will see off the body-fat more effectively than a sharp and unforgiving stick.
Rules and restrictions
Certainly, environmental ‘nudges’ can make it easier for us to choose healthier options. There is merit in some government-backed restrictions. For example, having healthy, nutritious food outlets near schools can help with the choices we make from a young age. Removing ultra-processed snacks from near supermarket checkouts reduces the temptation to eat things that mess with our appetite and fat-storing mechanisms. Offering a greater choice of portion sizes means we can more easily avoid eating something just because it’s there. (So, why oh why, have many shops replaced standard size crisp packets with only larger grab-bag options?!)
Just as shops, supermarkets and other food retailers can nudge us towards more healthful decisions, we can also make our own home environment support choices we know will help us to reduce body-fat.
But feeling guilty if we fancy something a little bit ‘naughty’ is counter-productive. Guilt just increases the drive to comfort-eat. And if we really have a craving for those extra chocolate-ly chunky cookies, we’re going to find a way of getting them whatever restrictions are in place. Then, if we don’t take pleasure in what we’re eating, the craving continues.
So, far better to dispatch with the guilt. When we eat, let’s give our food our full attention and enjoy it! If we savour and appreciate our food we’re more likely to feel satisfied. And, as we get in tune with our body and really taste our food, it becomes easier to recognise when we have real hunger and when we have a false hunger. We can also then become more tuned in to the instinctive hungers that let us know whether our body needs protein, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, calcium or, potentially, certain vitamins. When we satisfy these instinctive needs and eat appropriately, it can satisfy the craving sooner and more effectively.
Diets don’t work, not in the long-term.
We may be motivated enough to go on a diet and, if we’re able to stick to it, shed lots of body-fat. But what happens when the diet ends? Studies show that most of us put the body-fat back on, and often even more than before we started the diet! Sooner or later, our subconscious motivations will take back the reins and undo all our hard work.
Diets don’t address the reasons why we overeat.
So, once and for all, let’s ditch the idea of diets and instead focus on changing our attitudes towards food, and towards ourselves.
How do we go about this?
Here are three things we can do
There are ways we can negotiate with the part of our mind that’s driving us to overeat. In this post, we’d suggest these three things:
When we’re kind and compassionate to ourselves (and others) we feel better in ourselves. When we feel better in ourselves we’re more likely to choose healthful rather than harmful actions.
In moments where we desire comfort, rather than turning to food or drink, we can explore other ways of doing pleasant or caring things for ourselves.
If we talk kindly, with encouragement and praise, to the part of our mind that has previously flouted our good intentions, we can begin to guide it towards healthful choices.
Much overeating is done on autopilot, often in response to a feeling. When we pause to notice what we’re feeling, we develop greater choice over our actions. We might find another way to be with the feeling and let it pass.
When we eat and focus our full attention on our food, we can thoroughly enjoy it and then feel more satisfied. We can learn to become more aware of the fullness signals that our gut sends us to say when we’ve eaten enough. If we take our time to enjoy our food mindfully, it can help to reduce cravings (that arise when we don’t take the time to enjoy our food) and feel satisfied.
As we tune into our body, we can become more aware of the nutrients our body needs if we feel hungry. We can begin to listen to the hunger – is it for protein, calcium, etc? We don’t need to know consciously – we can trust our instincts to choose the food that meets our needs and more readily satisfies our hunger.
As we become more aware of our emotions and how they influence our habits and behaviours, it becomes easier to address the root of our choices.
We can start to notice patterns and beliefs around food that we’ve perhaps never questioned before. We can begin to think and feel about food in a different way that means we can sustainably lose body-fat.
As we get to know ourselves with kindness, it becomes easier to change our habits.
Incidentally, CAU are also the initials of our #CertainAboutUncertainty programmes, which are about finding assurance within ourselves during uncertain times. Learning how to notice and manage our emotions can really assist us in making healthful choices.
You can follow us for more updates about our #CertainAboutUncertainty, NoWeigh and Type 2 programmes.
And here is a link to a short meditation that can be useful as we learn to pause, notice and be compassionate towards ourselves and what we’re feeling:
Alison Easton BA(Hons) HPD DipCHyp
Alison is NISAD’s Director of Clinical and Creative Development
She will draw on her long experience as a clinician to provide support in our new ELK.Health online clinics and is a substantial, and much valued, a contributor to the creation and developmhhhhent of ELK.Health’s #CertainAboutUncertainty, CalmBaby, NoWeigh and Type2.Club programmes.