Eat less, move more is the advice touted to the overweight ad nauseam, as if it were really that simple.
I have been in the business of helping individuals take off unwanted pounds for more than 30 years. Although success usually does include cutting back on unnecessary calories and moving more, there are a myriad of other factors that are part of the equation. Sleep, stress, metabolic factors, genetics and body type can all affect how quickly or easily you lose weight. And, without a doubt, emotional factors have a huge impact as well.
I'm not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and I would never attempt to analyze or prescribe solutions to a person who might have an emotional roadblock interfering with his or her weight loss goals. However, I can share with you some of the patterns and hindrances I've come across over many years of training and coaching my overweight clients. Perhaps a glimpse into these themes will help open your eyes to some hidden obstacles that have been holding you back.
Case #1: Whom would I be if I weren't the fat, funny one?
As long as John could remember, he was overweight. However, it never stood in the way of him having loads of friends and being happy. He could remember his elementary school teachers telling his parents how enjoyable it was to have him in the classroom; he knew how to be funny without being disruptive. His parents would beam with pride as they shared the feedback with friends and family. In high school and college, he had loads of friends. The girls adored him and thought of him as their trusted buddy and confidant. When broken-hearted by some other boy, they relied on John to cheer them up using his sense of humor.
Now, happily married with two kids, he loves overhearing their friends say, "Your dad is so funny!" When John's doctor told him he needed to lose weight to control his rising blood pressure and elevated glucose levels, he hired me to help him. Having made several failed weight-loss attempts in the past, he seriously doubted his ability to succeed. Each week he would set goals around sensible eating and making time for evening walks after dinner. The week would start off great, but by Wednesday, he was slipping back into old unhealthy eating habits and making excuses not to take his walks.
Frustrated, he couldn't seem to understand why he struggled to stick to his goals for more than a few days at a time even though he wanted to lose the weight so badly. One day I asked John, "If you were able to stick to your plan throughout the week, and you began to experience weight loss, what would that look like and feel like to you?"
I don't know who was more shocked by his response, John or me, when he stated, "If I was to actually stick to my plan, I know I would lose the excess weight. I wouldn't be fat anymore. That idea feels so strange. Whom would I be if I weren't the fat, funny one?"
Case #2: Who am I to be perfect?
Margaret had the kind of life that others envy. She was a brilliant economist, had a devoted and loving husband, two great kids who were excelling at school—even her dog was well-behaved and a joyful companion. Margaret and her husband traveled to exotic locations when on vacation and entertained friends often in their beautiful home. Being a compassionate, smart and insightful individual, family and friends came to her for advice all the time.
The only area of Margaret's life that she did not seem to have under control was her weight. She carried 30 extra pounds on her body that she had been trying to shed for many years. When we worked together, she tearfully said, "I've got everything I could possibly want, except a body I am comfortable in. I know what I need to do, and often do exactly that. But after a while, I fall off track and begin to self-sabotage. I find myself eating junk when no one is watching, and telling myself I just don't care. But I do care! This extra weight is making me miserable!"
I asked Margaret to spend some time visualizing herself as successful, to close her eyes and imagine a future where the self-sabotaging behavior was no longer a problem, and she was living her life in the body she desired. I told her to think about and even journal about the thoughts and feelings that come up when doing her visualizations. A few weeks later Margaret reported, "At first it felt fabulous. I imagined being in form-fitting clothing that was beautiful, looking in the mirror and feeling proud, being lighter and more energetic. But when I imagined my friends seeing me, I began to think they would be put off by the 'new' me or feel intimidated. After all, who am I to be perfect?"
Case #3: What if I find out I'm just not that interesting?
Bob was in his mid 40s when we began working together. He had an excellent job and was highly successful and respected, yet he still felt like a failure. Bob was unmarried and experiencing many moments of loneliness. He had always been overweight and extremely shy. Wanting desperately to find a woman with whom he could have a relationship, he attempted some online dating sites. Bob went on several first dates, but they never seemed to go any further than that. He was convinced women were turned off by his size. Bob thought that if he could lose the excess weight, it would increase his possibilities of women going out with him more than once, thus getting to know him better.
Despite being a highly motivated and creative goal-setter, he continued to fill lonely evenings with fattening junk foods. The pounds weren't budging. When we explored the pros and cons of losing weight versus keeping things as is, Bob stated that "the advantage to not losing the weight is I can continue to use it as an excuse for striking out with women. If I were thin, and they still rejected me, I would find out that I'm really just not that interesting. That would feel much worse than them not liking me because I am fat!"
Case #4: I'm keeping my family safe.
When Sue came to me for weight-loss coaching, she was concerned that she and her husband had steadily been gaining weight during their 15-year marriage. Particularly alarming was seeing two of her four children also show signs of rapid weight gain. Her own doctor and their pediatrician expressed concerns. She bought the groceries and cooked the meals, so Sue recognized the need to change her habits at home.
We worked together on planning healthier meals and snacks for her family. Although she made a few minor changes, there seemed to be a celebratory meal, holiday or guests visiting every week. At those times, Sue couldn't get herself to cut back on the lavish meals and treats her family was accustomed to. Although losing weight felt like an important goal, she couldn't stand the thought of her family or guests feeling deprived.
I asked Sue to chat with me about the role food played in her family when she was growing up. Sue was the only daughter of two parents who grew up during the great depression. As a child, she was told stories about the years her parents had little to eat, and how her grandparents used food stamps and rations to put meals on the table. Far surpassing their parents' lifestyle, her dad was a highly successful businessman and her mom a stay-at-home wife. Food and money were never issues. Holidays in her home were a gathering of grandparents, aunt, uncles, and cousins with tons of delicious food and treats, a tradition that Sue continued in her own home. Sue could remember her grandparents saying how lucky she was to live during a time when she could feel safe and secure that there would always be enough to eat. "Wow," she exclaimed, "I guess I am just trying to keep my family safe with food!"
Case #5: Food is love.
Lois was a chubby kid and grew to be an overweight adult. A bright, fun loving young woman with a promising career, she was concerned that her weight might stand in the way of advancement. She knew that to continue climbing the ladder, it would be necessary to get in front of management and customers more often. Feeling self-conscious because of her size, she noticed that she would stay quiet during meetings rather than speak up and share her great ideas. She decided that losing weight would increase her confidence and therefore advance her career.
When I asked her what she believed was her greatest obstacle to losing weight, Lois stated, "I feel happy when I indulge and miserable when I try to restrict myself. But of course, I feel more miserable after the fact. I tell myself I will abstain from the treats, but put them in front of me and I can't resist them. I have no willpower!" When I asked her what she thought about when she was indulging, she realized most of the time she was reminiscing about her childhood. Lois's dad left when she was only eight, so her Mom raised her alone. She remembered feeling sad and abandoned by her dad, and would cry often. Trying to cheer her up, her mom often took Lois out for ice cream or to the local candy store or bakery for treats. Those were her favorite times. Her mom unburdened by work or housekeeping, gave Lois her undivided attention, and was relaxed and fun to be with. Even if her Dad wasn't around, Mom took care of her and she was loved through food!
Case #6: You can't control me.
Terry could not remember a time since college when she was not trying to lose weight. She had tried every diet imaginable. Despite having some success, she would always put back whatever pounds she had lost and then some. When we started working together, she said this would be her last attempt. If she was not successful this time, she swore to give up trying.
We began with small lifestyle changes, building upon one another. It was slow and, at times, frustrating for Terry, but she began to consistently lose about half to one pound a week. Terry incorporated walking into her daily routine, learned to recognize when she was no longer hungry and stop eating, and modified her favorite recipes to healthier versions. When we celebrated a year of working together and a 48-pound weight loss, I asked Terry why she thought this time she had succeeded.
"You never told me what I could or couldn't eat. You helped me create a food plan that was flexible, and I could make decisions based on how I felt and what I thought I would enjoy," she said. Terry began telling me about her parents, a topic we had never talked about before. They were well-meaning and quite loving but incredibly controlling. She grew up with strict curfews, rules around how much TV she was allowed to watch, how many hours a day she had to study, and when she was allowed to visit or talk on the phone with friends.
Being "health nuts," her parents also had rigid restrictions regarding food. There was absolutely no junk food in the house, groceries were purchased at the health food store only and fried food and sugar were thought of as "poison." When Terry went to friends' homes, she would raid their fridges and pantries, indulging in all of the treats that were forbidden in her home. When she went off to the local community college (she was not allowed to go away for school), Terry purchased greasy foods in the cafeteria and always had dessert. At those times, always feeling that she was sneaking from her parents, she would think, "you can't control me!"
From these stories, I hope you are able to see how often we have the best of intentions, yet struggle to reach our goals. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, introduce the theory of conflicting commitments in their wonderful book, Immunity to Change. Without an understanding of the reasons why we hold on to the very behaviors that keep us from getting where we so desperately want to go, sustained change will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
Awareness is the first step toward breaking down the barriers. Once we are aware of why or what we are doing, and how it is in a sense protecting us and keeping us safe, we can begin taking small steps, or doing experiments to see what happens. For many, this is the road to success.
However, others will still struggle, and could benefit enormously from working with a mental health care professional. As a coach, I recognize a few signs that will tell me my client needs some additional assistance in order to move forward. When clients come to their sessions week after week having made goals but not following through, feel as if their sabotaging behaviors are uncontrollable, or are constantly blaming their situation on the past, others or circumstances, it's time to suggest working with a therapist.
So if your weight-loss journey seems more like an uphill battle that will never end, despite being highly motivated, do some thinking around what competing commitments you might be holding on to. A good coach or therapist, or even talking with a trusted friend, can help you shed some light on your situation. In the meantime, call upon your own self-compassion and recognize that you are doing the best you can, and weight loss is indeed way more complicated than just eating less and moving more.