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Diet - weight loss

Why do I struggle to lose weight?

Trying to lose weight can be extremely difficult for some people.  This is because we think that to lose weight we need to go on a diet, which usually involves unrealistic dietary changes that are not sustainable in the long term. When people decide to lose weight, they want to achieve results quickly and making small, gradual changes with slow results is often not appealing. However, evidence shows that many people who choose diets as a quick fix to lose weight do not succeed in maintaining the weight loss and tend to regain the lost weight quickly. This can lead to individuals feeling like a failure, which can impact on their self esteem and mental health and can make weight loss seem like an impossible task.

There are at least 97 different genes associated with weight gain.  They influence what we eat in two ways:

  • Food response

  • Satiety

Studies have shown that some individuals have an enhanced response when presented with different foods.  What this means is that some people struggle to resist the urge to eat certain foods e.g. if you see chocolate you have to eat it and would find it extremely difficult to get it out of your mind.

Studies have also shown that some individuals have a less effective satiety response.  What this means is that some people struggle to feel full and satisfied when eating, which results in difficulties controlling their appetite.

Further, humans have evolved during times when food was scarce.  This means that our bodies have adapted to cope in a particular way when it thinks less food is available.  It has a tendency to adopt a ‘see food and eat it’ principle when we start to reduce our food intake (go on a diet) or increase our energy expenditure (exercise) in order to survive.

In the current environment, food is not scarce.  Food is readily available, cheap, aesthetically enhanced, tasty and textured.  This can easily promote overeating, especially when a person finds it hard to resist certain foods and struggles to experience cues to stop eating. Stopping eating is made even more difficult if a person has been trying to diet i.e. restrict their food intake.


Imagine being in a famine situation...

Your body will initially give you a boost of energy and your mood will increase (known as the starvation high).  The function of this is to drive you to go and find food to survive.  At this time you will be more pre-occupied with food and eating so that you are focused on finding food.

Your body will also start to make internal changes to protect you by conserving more energy and making it easier for you to gain weight.  The reason for this is so you have more energy reserves in case of a prolonged or repeated famine situation.


Imagine you eventually find food...

Your body will drive you to eat sweet, energy dense food.  It will drive you to eat as much as you can as you do not know when more food will be available again.  You will be driven to eat more than usual, quicker than usual, and foods with the most amount of energy (fat and sugar).  Most people will describe this way of eating as a binge, and think negative things about it, although this is a very natural and helpful response to a starvation situation.


How does this apply to me?

If you eat very little or nothing, after sometime your body will think there is a famine situation and will drive you to find food.

Some people will try to ignore this cue to eat because they are cutting down what they eat or going as long as they can without eating in order to eat less calories and lose weight.

Some people will respond to this cue to eat, but not eat enough or eat the right foods for what their body needs.

The result is that your body thinks the famine situation has got worse and the drive to find food increases.

You will start to find food more attractive and be more aware of the smells of food and of others around you eating.  You will feel like you want to eat more than anything else in the world.  You may be able to put it off for a little while, but as soon as you start eating you will find it very difficult to stop.  Our bodies are not designed for limiting the amount we eat in these situations.  Remember also, unlike in the past, aesthetically enhanced, tasty, textured food is now cheap and readily available.

Your body will also reduce the rate of your metabolism and adapt to storing more body fat.  This will make it more difficult for you to lose weight and more likely that you will gain weight, greater than before since your body thinks it better store extra energy to survive the next famine.

Chaotic eating patterns (episodes of dieting and then overeating) can put the body on higher alert for signs of famine and the cue to feel hungry and want to eat can be triggered more easily.  Even thinking about going on a diet can make you want to overeat.


So, what can I do?

Firstly, you need to acknowledge that it is not your fault.  You are doing the best that you can.  Learning to be more kind and compassionate towards yourself can really help you to build a better relationship with food and help you to lose weight. 

The best way to lose weight and avoid triggering overeating is to make small, gradual changes that are sustainable in the long term.  This way your body can adapt to the changes and it will not think there is a famine situation.

You must also ensure that you eat regularly, and include a small amount of complex carbohydrates with every meal, such as cereal, bread, potato, pasta or rice.  This is because your brain needs carbohydrates to function and is sensitive to changes in the carbohydrate levels in your body.  Ensure you eat regular meals that include complex carbohydrates.

  1. Make small gradual changes to your dietary intake.

  2. Keep a food and mood diary to monitor the impact of your mood on what you are eating.

  3. Accept that there may be times you eat unplanned food and forgive yourself.  Being compassionate towards yourself and talking to yourself as you would a friend is essential in these situations.  Beating yourself up will lead you to feel like a failure and potentially drive further eating.

  4. Mark your progress by rewarding yourself.  This will help you to be kinder to yourself, which will help to prevent any emotionally eating.

  5. Allow others to help you and support you.  This will help you to keep going, especially through any tough times, but will also help you to accept compassion from others if you are struggling to be compassionate towards yourself.

  6. When shopping, write a list and only buy the things on your list.  Do not shop when you are feeling hungry and do not buy food that is not for a specified meal or snack.

  7. Plan ahead as much as you can so you can think about ways of managing meals out, parties and holidays.

  8. Make a list of ways you can distract if you get an urge to eat when you are not actually hungry e.g. puzzles, apps on your phone, having a bath, listening to music etc...

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