Updated: Jul 26
Reaching your health and fitness goals is often more complicated than just what you eat and how you workout. Ask yourself if there is a deeper psychological reason that you are not reaching your goals.
Most fitness programs, diets, tips and strategies focus on behaviors – cut out processed foods, drink more water, eat low carb, eat plant based, lift heavier, and so on… While it’s true that behaviors are critical to developing healthy habits, sometimes it is even more important to take a deeper look at our psychology.
"It isn't a matter of not knowing. I know what I should and should not be eating. I know I need to exercise... My problem is that I am not consistent."
“I’ve never really been thin, but my weight started to really get out of control in my twenties, after I got married. I’ve been obese for almost 30 years now. It isn’t a matter of not knowing – I know what I should and should not be eating. I know I need to exercise. I’ve read every book and tried every diet out there. I know they work! My problem is that I am not consistent. I don’t stick with it. I use food to cope. I use food to celebrate. I use food to relax. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’ve never touched illegal drugs. I eat. At this point, I’m not sure if my weight has caused problems in my marriage or if my marriage caused my weight gain. Probably both. Whenever I start a new diet or program I think a part of me expects to fail. I’ve been obese for so long that I can’t imagine not being this way. I don’t know who I am without this extra weight – who I would be thin. Being overweight has become a big part of my identity.”
Whenever I encounter this type of situation in my work, I do my very best to be encouraging and motivate her to stick to the program; BUT I know she may need a different type of help. She may lose a few lbs. but it isn’t going to last. Her problem has nothing to do with food, exercise, or weight. Her eating and exercise habits are merely a symptom of a problem – not the problem itself.
The following stories were inspired by The Psychology of Eating podcast. Real people discuss their eating and/or body image issues with psychologist Marc David. I was astounded by Mr. David's ability to pinpoint the problem and provide strategies in a single session. Here I give 3 examples to demonstrate the impact that our emotions have on how we treat (and see) our bodies. Again, these are stories that were inspired by real callers - I chose to not regurgitate the counseling sessions or use real names out of respect for the clients.
Karen grew up with a single mom and older sister. Her older sister left home at a young age, leaving Karen alone with an unstable mother. She watched her mom go in and out of relationships, develop a dependency on pills and alcohol, and battle bouts of depression. Karen essentially raised herself. She decided early on that she was NOT going to be like her mother. She would NOT need a man to take care of her. She would NOT need pills or alcohol to feel better. She would not be weak; she would be strong and independent. Karen did in fact grow up to be very strong and independent. But in her pursuit of independence she developed a different problem. Karen didn’t know how to lean on someone. On days when life was particularly hard, she desperately craved comfort but she didn’t know how to receive it and still be the women she vowed to herself she would be. So instead of relying on the comfort of a friend, Karen turned to the comfort of food. She went from a chubby kid to a severely obese woman. She spent most of her life as a chronic dieter – she tried everything but nothing seemed to work for her. She tried every fitness class and bought several at-home programs but didn’t get past losing the initial 10 or so pounds. On the outside, she was a fun-loving successful woman. Sure, she was overweight but she was the life of the party so… so what. But on the inside, Karen was lonely and felt out of control.
Karen didn’t understand that it is possible to be strong and independent AND need a hug sometimes. She didn’t need a fitness program. She needed to heal from whatever damage was caused from her childhood and let go of the idea that needing comfort makes her weak. Her weight problem was a symptom of her pain and loneliness. No meal plan or workout program was going to help until she was ready to deal with the underlying issues that caused her to seek comfort from food in the first place.
In spite of being a former collegiate athlete, Mike found himself 60 lbs. overweight when he turned 40. His career was on the rise, his wife and family adored him, and he was well respected in the community. But with his weight at an all-time high, he began to feel uncomfortable with himself. It bothered him that he could no longer do things that he was once able to do. Every now and then he would pick up running or start working out again, but once things got busy at work or home, he would stop to focus on “more important things”. In regards to eating habits, he could admit that he had a problem with portion control. Instead of stopping when he was satisfied, he would often allow himself to get to the point of being uncomfortably full. He did not like “diets” that restricted any kind of food. He knew he needed to make changes but had his boundaries on how far he would go to lose the weight.
A LOT of things were going on with Mike. One major issue was emotional maturity. He didn’t know how to let go of his own ideas of what the world should be and accept it the way it is. He wanted the world (and his body) to play by his rules; instead of the other way around. He was idealistic – he would see what he didn’t like, see that it could be better, and would want it to change. When it wasn’t within his power to change it, he would allow the nonconformity of the situation to impact him. This was immature behavior, driven by fear, anger, hurt, resentment, and insecurity – all from a past he had not yet dealt with.
Jeanine did not have a weight problem; but she knew that she had some very unhealthy habits related to food and exercise. She also knew that these habits had something to do with her past; but she couldn’t quite find the connection. Jeanine had a habit of binge eating one day and then eating nearly nothing at all the next. She was obsessive about exercising, working out “all of the time”. However, her goal for doing so was not body related at all. She wanted to be in control of her life and her eating. She wanted to feel strong. If she didn’t feel strong she felt like a failure. Feeling like a failure would cause her to panic and turn to food... Then she would feel even worse for over-eating... Then she would try to make up for it by not eating the next day and exercising like a maniac. The cycle went on for years.
Jeanine had taken some very hard hits in life. One of which being the loss of a child. That, added to a background of not feeling wanted, made a difficult journey for her. She thought that she had “dealt with it” so she couldn’t understand why she still struggled to find happiness. The problem was that Jeanine had a very specific measure of success that was actually unrealistic and, in some ways, unattainable. To Jeanine success meant looking and feeling happy all of the time. She thought she needed to feel strong within struggle. She didn’t understand or didn’t want to accept that some things you can’t just get over. Some feelings never completely go away. So, whenever the sadness would creep back in, it would send her spiraling down a self-destructive tunnel. Her self-imposed measurements for success were holding her back. She needed to let go of her idea of being happy and strong for a while – allow herself to go through unpleasant feelings without panicking. Jeanine needed to surrender to her normal human reaction to struggle.
Any eating concern, habit, or body image issue is almost always a metaphor for something else going on.
There is a degree in which it is normal and acceptable to use food for comfort or reward. It is in our nature to do so. Even as babies - we cry… we get food… we feel better. Food intake is associated with dopamine release. Dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters that contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. There is no question about it – food makes us feel good! But it is one thing to have the occasional pity party where chocolate fudge brownie ice cream is the guest of honor; and another to make unhealthy choices on a regular basis.
Any eating concern, habit, or body image issue is almost always a metaphor for something else going on. I often tell my clients that we are working from the inside-out. I ask that each person participate in personal development in addition to the fitness program. I am thrilled when I see people grow way beyond what they expected and make progress outside of physical fitness. It’s exciting to see both their minds and bodies reach new levels. However, there are also those that remain stuck. In these cases, I have to decide to either leave it alone and give them time to figure it out OR find a way to suggest a different type of help. (This is a very sensitive subject so the decision is not an easy one). It often takes the help of a caring yet earnest counselor to get unstuck.