10 Psychological Hurdles Keeping You From Losing Weight (and How To Overcome Them)

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A few weeks back, I discussed nine (more) reasons you might not be losing the weight you want, and I got a lot of responses. Those were mostly “physical” reasons grounded in physiological terms we usually use to describe weight loss or gain. In other words, they were the ones you expect, things like eating too little and tanking the metabolism, suffering from “hidden stress,” disordered eating, or training too hard with inadequate nutrition. Today, I’m doing something a bit different. Instead of couching everything in the body, I’m focusing more on the ways in which our minds (which, of course, are part of the body, but we typically separate the two in common parlance) trip us up and prevent us from losing weight.

Let’s jump into it.

You’ve Developed Poor Habits

Habits become ingrained in our days and in our brains to the point where it just doesn’t feel right without them. Now, if your habits take the form of regular exercise, eating plants and animals, and getting good sleep, you’re in good shape. If your habits look a little different, you might not be:

The coffee and crueller (stat!) on the way to work. The handful of candy beans every time you pass the candy-loving receptionist’s desk. The nightly six pack. The propensity to plop down on the couch and stay there for hours after work. We’ve all got some bad habits, and depending on their composition, they can disrupt our ability to lose weight.

It’s easy to recognize our bad habits, but it’s tough to break the cycle using sheer willpower. Instead, try to understand the underlying contexts that give rise to the habits. That way, you can target the contexts – the situations, the emotions, the cues – that trigger the habit.

It could be as simple as taking a different route to the bathroom to avoid the receptionist’s candy-laden desk, or it could be as hard as examining why you feel the need to drink six beers at night.

You can also replace the bad habit with a good one. If you’re craving that morning pastry, eating a piece of sweet fruit instead might be easier than just going without altogether.

I recommend The Power of Habit for those looking to learn more about habits, how to break bad ones and create new ones.

You’re Afraid of Being a Social Pariah

We are social animals. In fact, acknowledgement and indulgence of that fact is crucial for maintaining and supporting personal health. It’s the rare person who can live without social contact with other humans and remain happy and healthy. That innate drive to be accepted by and avoid offending those around us, however, can also keep us from making the right dietary choices when those around us are constantly bringing cookies into the office, going out to eat at the Chinese buffet, ordering wings and fries at happy hour, and so on.

There’s no easy way to relish social pariahism, although I think a healthy dose of it leads to superior health (more for being independent/your own man/woman than for any dietary advantages it confers). You can’t just decide to be happy about being the weird person who turns down the birthday cake. You can, however, decide to be the weird person who turns it down. Sometimes there’s no easy way around the hurdle, no strategic path. Sometimes you just have to bull your way through it and bear the consequences. Like running hurdles on the track, scaling this particular psychological hurdle gets easier the more you do it. Turn down the cake a few times and you’ll realize that it’s not so bad after all and people really don’t care.

Just don’t make a big deal out of it when you say no. Don’t get indignant or lecture-y.

You Still Fear Fat

Years of indoctrination from mass media, your family, doctors, “experts,” and pretty much everyone can have you convinced that fat is a scary, inherently dangerous macronutrient – even if you can intellectually accept its place in the human diet. No matter how many studies you read exonerating dietary fat as the cause of heart disease and obesity and diabetes and how many success stories you hear from people who ate fat to lose fat, there may always be a voice deep down inside saying “you know that stuff will kill you, right?” Even though you know it’s not anything to worry about and a high-fat diet actually can be incredibly healthy, the animal instinct is strong and stubborn. And yet if you don’t shake that fear of fat even as you reduce your carbohydrates, you’ll end up on a low-carb, low-fat, overall low energy diet that won’t get you anywhere but stuck and stalled.

It’s tough to shake indoctrination, but it can be done. Read GCBC, at least the first half that deals with the diet-heart hypothesis to have your fear ripped asunder to be replaced with a strong yearning for butter. Read the success stories on this very site from people who ate lots of fat and lost weight, improved their blood markers, and lowered their risk of developing heart disease. Taken together, clinical research and personal anecdote combine to form a powerful de-conditioning agent.

You Eat for Comfort

Comfort eating has an initial utility, I’ll admit. If you’re stressed out and can’t handle the situation, eating something that comforts you and lowers stress can be helpful, regardless of the nutritional composition of the food in question. However, if that becomes a habit, if you find yourself eating fried chicken and waffles four nights a week in order to make yourself feel better, your weight loss will almost assuredly halt – or reverse itself altogether, leading to an entirely different kind of “feeling bad.”

The problem is the stress, not the food. If you just keep switching up the food without addressing the root cause, you’ll never truly break through. You need to figure out what’s stressing you out and then take steps to reduce or mitigate it. If that means taking specific steps, like avoiding a particularly caustic personality in your life or switching jobs at the first available opportunity, so be it. It might also require taking a more general approach to stress reduction, like daily meditation, a morning walk, or some time in nature. Better yet, take both specific and general steps.

You’re Stuck on What Worked at First Even Though It’s Not Working Anymore

The initial weight loss is a rush. It comes so quickly and so effortlessly (for many people) that people often assume that doing whatever caused that first big burst of change will work in perpetuity. They become wedded to the initial method, even as it stops working. People tend to do that – to identify strongly with a belief or a group, especially if it’s generally worked very well for them. This identification often persists even when it stops working, or stops working quite so smoothly. It’s “normal” human behavior, but it can still be counterproductive or even destructive.

Maybe early on you didn’t have to think about caloric content, but now you should consider it.

Maybe early on you didn’t have to exercise much beyond walking, but now you could really benefit from more.

Maybe early on you didn’t have to worry about anything but diet, but now you should explore the other important aspects of Primal life.

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Listen to Lew’s recent podcast with Mark Sisson

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