With the New Year upon us -- and the weight-loss resolutions that typically follow -- it's time to take a closer look at the most common root cause of obesity: problem eating. It is often said that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Nowhere is this more true than eating.
To state the obvious, not all eating problems are the same. Accordingly, there needs to be a bit more specificity about the different categories of eating problems to help individuals build a more useful map. My aim is to provide a point of view that may allow you to view your experience through a different lens, and in doing so, allow for a new pattern to emerge. Having spent over 30 years in private practice as a clinical psychologist, I've learned a lot about how individuals relate to food. Below is a summary of my learning that will hopefully provide some bits of wisdom.
The following are the problem eating categories:
This refers to the behavior of people who know nothing about nutrition. I know it's hard to believe given the amount of available information -- books, magazines, TV, Internet -- but many still have very little nutritional literacy. If you fall into this category you may be significantly overweight and on your way to a variety of degenerative diseases. A subset of clueless eating is alcohol consumption. There are far more calories consumed while drinking than most people realize and, for many, it constitutes a significant amount of excess weight.
Trance eating refers to a form of negative multitasking. While doing something else -- reading, watching TV, emailing, etc. -- you're eating, completely oblivious to what you're doing. Eating in a movie theater is trance eating at its most obvious. It's remarkable how someone can walk into a theater with a container of popcorn the size of a Volkswagen, sit down, put the container in their lap and eat every last kernel without any consciousness. Research suggests that, not only do people not remember how much they ate, they also do not have the sensations of fullness that should accompany eating.
One other note about trance eating: If you're compelled to finish everything on your plate, it's probably the consequences of your mom telling you when you were a child a variation on the theme "there are children starving in Uganda." Over time this maternal command functions as an unconscious hypnotic suggestion, and you follow it regardless of the fact that you have already had enough to eat.
Of all the substances that we ingest to make ourselves feel better, food is most often the drug of choice. We eat when we're anxious, sad, depressed, angry, worried, annoyed, ashamed or guilty. Coping with difficult emotional states is no easy task, but that's no excuse for constant abuse of food.
Ironically, psychological research suggests that individuals who score higher on the neuroticism component of personality tests tend to be more successful at losing weight than people who score in the normal range. What this means is that a certain amount of anxiety and OCD (obsessive compulsiveness) is a good thing when applied to positive lifestyle management skills. It keeps you worried and focused at just the right levels to take good care of yourself. Think of it as a little nuttiness being a good thing.
One of the lesser-known facts about sleep deprivation is its effect on appetite. For reasons not fully understood, lack of sleep wreaks havoc on the hormones connected to appetite. In short, you eat more and gain weight. You need 7 1/2 hours of sleep on average. I know you enjoy watching "Leno," "Letterman" and "Conan," but your health is more important than their ratings.
This is the "well intentioned" form of problem eating, but equally useless. Diets fall into a category of experience that is doomed to failure. The moment you choose to engage in a weight-loss strategy that has an expiration date, you can't possibly succeed. The only difference between this kind of eating and the others is the belief that something good will come of it. It won't. Stop doing diets now unless you've chosen one that you intend to be a permanent lifestyle change.
In reality, most people's eating problems are a combination of several of the above. Consequently there are a lot of patterns that need to be changed, but the first and most important step towards change is identification of the problem and awareness.
Changing your eating habits is tantamount to changing your religion. There is not a single stitch in the fabric of your life that will not be affected by the process of losing a significant amount of weight. The way you see, think and feel about yourself, the way others respond to you and the day to day patterns that structure your life will be entirely different. There are also a lot more choices available as you become, in a literal sense, a different person.
This is especially true for people who have always been heavy, since being at a healthy weight is like being in a country where you're just learning the language. Developing the skills to cope with all of this is no easy matter. And it takes an enormous degree of courage to succeed.
As everyone already knows, beginnings tend to go well. There's excitement, energy, commitment and all the other good things that go along with "newness." But as we all know, "newness" has the shelf life of a shooting star. It's bright, fun, fast and over. Hence, most New Years resolutions falter by the end of January.
This is where we get down to the single most important concept in life: maintenance. Simply put, maintenance is the following statement: "I am going to continue doing what I am already doing." It sounds so simple yet it's difficult to master. And weight management is the poster child for maintenance failure.
The mind is wired for journeys. Our life is structured as a narrative that involves getting from one place to another. And successful stories, variations on the Myth of the Hero theme made famous by Joseph Campbell where difficult obstacles are overcome, are the most compelling. So losing weight is a journey that we follow by the numbers, literally. Once achieved, once we get to that magic number of pounds that reflects success, we're there. We've achieved our goal and the journey is over.
But the moment you get complacent about having achieved your goal weight, you're doomed to failure and gaining everything back. This is where healthy anxiety and useful OCD need to kick in to insure you will never get completely comfortable. In and of itself, successful weight loss is dangerous, since it gives you the illusion you've achieved your goal. You haven't. You've just started. Weight-loss maintenance involves creating a totally different lifestyle algorithm, the step-by-step changes that must last a lifetime.