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Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

By Dr Louisa Hoey

Is your thinking making you fat?

I am consulted frequently by people who want to lose weight. Thanks to the myriad of fad diets out there, it is common for people to think there must be some magic diet or super food that will help them to lose weight once and for all. While there are stacks of diets that will work in the short term, sometimes your thinking and attitudes need an overhaul for you to have a chance at lifelong weight loss.  This is where Healthy Mind Healthy Body comes in.

When I work with clients, before we get started on any diet or exercise changes to get the body healthy, we do quite a bit of work on thinking. I usually recommend that people take at least one or two weeks before starting a ‘diet’ or meal plan to learn some new thinking skills.

What’s thinking got to do with it?

Did you know that they way you think about situation will determine how you feel about it? Take this example: After months of successful dieting, you jump on the scales to find that the number has stayed the same three weeks in a row. If you think to yourself “this is awful, there is no point to all this hard work!” you will probably feel depressed, defeated and anxious.

Now ask yourself, in this scenario would you:

a) Sit down calmly and plan tomorrow’s healthy meals according to your diet and then reward yourself with something pleasant like a bath or a new book?


b) Cancel the diet and reach for the packet of Tim Tams?

Imagine the same situation but instead when you look at the scales you respond with “It’s normal to plateau when losing weight and I did eat a little extra a few times this week, but overall I have done so well so far I am really proud of myself”, you will feel encouraged, motivated and calm. Most likely you won’t be in a state that you comfort-eat with the Tim Tams!

In both examples, the situation was exactly the same; but with very different thoughts, we have drastically different feelings and actions.

Changing your thinking

In order to have the best chance at permanent weight loss, you need to become aware of your thoughts to start with and then consider if they are helpful or unhelpful. Do they influence the way you eat? If they are unhelpful ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I being too harsh and self-critical?
  2. What is another way of looking at this situation?
  3. Am I looking for an excuse to overeat for some other emotional reason?

Then try to come up with a more helpful thought that will be encouraging, self-compassionate and motivating.

Some examples

Unhelpful thought: I hate exercise; I shouldn’t have to do things I don’t like
Potential feelings: Annoyed and unmotivated
Helpful thought: It’s true I haven’t loved exercise in the past but that is because I have always felt self-conscious. I am going to start doing some exercise at home where I feel comfortable and I will build up to joining a gym. And anyway, who cares what anyone else thinks, I am doing this for me.
Potential feelings: Motivated, empowered, hopeful

Unhelpful thought: I have had a terrible day at work; I deserve to eat this block of chocolate.
Potential feelings: Angry, frustrated, upset
Helpful thought: I have had a challenging day but it was just one day and it wasn’t a catastrophe. Eating a block of chocolate will make me feel even worse. I am going to treat myself with something else like a warm bath and maybe later I will call a friend and debrief.
Potential feelings: Calm, less angry, frustrated and upset, supported.

Sitting with uncomfortable feelings

Of course, there are going to be times when t is not always possible to change your uncomfortable feelings. So, in addition it is important to learn mindfulness skills to enable you to ride the wave of those feelings rather than reaching for food to distract or comfort you. See my article here on mindfulness.

About the Author

Dr Louisa Hoey is a health psychologist.  She is the Director of the Health Psychology Centre. Louisa specialises in the psychological aspects of food, the emotional relationships around food and the development of strategies to a happier more fuller life.

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