If weight loss is your goal – and not dieting – leading behaviour change therapist Dr Heather McKee has three steps that will make all the difference
You should control your own weight, not the other way around, right?
The problem is… We are constantly bombarded with messages about how to lose weight and be healthy. It’s overwhelming and it’s confusing. Often these messages are not backed by the science of what is most effective.
It’s time to stop blaming yourself and your willpower. It’s time to cut through the sea of fads and quick fixes to understand the real reasons why most diets fail and learn the truth about what it takes for sustainable weight management success.
Instead of seeing food as fuel, as a joyful experience, they see it as the enemy and are fighting a constant daily battle
When my clients first come to me for habit coaching, they tend to have developed such a negative relationship with food that they are not sure what to or how to eat anymore. They are so wrapped up in the dieting mindset, of what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’, they no longer feel they can eat what they want and often avoid certain foods.
Instead of seeing food as fuel, as a joyful experience, they see it as the enemy and are fighting a constant daily battle with themselves about what they should and should not have. This is not a good place to be.
In this three-part series, I will be sharing the key evidence-based ways to lose, maintain and manage your weight without dieting, punishment or restriction. Importantly I will be focusing on those methods that lead to lifelong changes, rather than overnight results.
I’ve been working in the field of weight loss and behaviour change for over 10 years and there is nothing more heartbreaking and frustrating than seeing someone trying really hard to succeed at managing their weight and still getting nowhere or even worse going in reverse.
If you want to lose or maintain a healthy weight then you need to start by giving these 3 things up:
#1 Give up dieting
Research shows, 80% of diets fail in the first year, and even more in the second. After about five years, around 41% of dieters regain more weight than they originally lost. What is interesting is that this effect is strongest in those who started in the normal weight category.
Physiologically, this diet-induced weight gain can be due to a concept called adaptive thermogenesis. In short, it means that when you lose weight, a physiological response occurs – your body does not want you to lose that weight so it releases certain hormones to slow down the weight loss reaction. This is because breaking down fat is difficult for the body to do and it needs some energy to do it.
Even with all the willpower and self-restraint in the world to overcome the increase in these hunger hormones, your body is too smart and it will still adapt by slowing down the energy you burn at rest, making you feel fatigued. Essentially, this is our body slowing down our metabolism to account for the deficit in food.
In essence, by dieting, you can become hungrier and your metabolism can get slower. This feels counterintuitive right?
by dieting, you can become hungrier and your metabolism can get slower
Psychologically, dieting is known to be a precursor in emotional eating habits. A recent article in the highly regarded behavioural science journal Appetite found that the key factors implicated in emotional eating were not genetic factors but rather situational and psychological factors.
They found that the primary drivers of why we engage with emotional eating are twofold. Firstly, putting a restraint on our eating habits (which is often what dieting promotes) and secondly, stress.
What is even more interesting is that dieting itself has been independently linked with chronic psychological stress and cortisol production – two factors that are known to cause weight gain. Thus dieting can cause emotional eating patterns, promote stress and results in long term weight gain.
simply hearing the word diet can set us off on a feeding frenzy for fear of the oncoming deprivation
The detrimental psychological outcomes of dieting were demonstrated recently in a study of adolescents who lost weight over a typical commercial diet period of eight weeks.
At the end of the trial period, female adolescents had increased binge eating and decreased breakfast consumption. The male adolescents also had increased binge eating and decreased their exercise.
Ultimately, they found that not only did these teenagers gain back all the weight, but they also reported feeling hungrier and more food obsessed than before they started the diet.
This is scary, as it demonstrates how not only is dieting physiologically linked with weight gain, but that over time it can also lead to a disordered relationship with food.
Even simply hearing the word ‘diet’ can set us off on a feeding frenzy for fear of the oncoming deprivation. Researchers have found that merely telling people they are going on a diet the following week caused them to overcompensate and eat significantly more than others who were not told that they were going on a diet.
Simply using the word diet conjures up all sorts of feelings of deprivation – images of surviving on lettuce leaves in addition to gruelling daily workouts.
Since dieting (and some diet products for that matter) has been linked to over-consumption and ultimately weight gain over time, it’s time to ditch the word diet, give up dieting altogether and take a more healthy, long term mindset instead.
#2 Give up ‘diets in disguise’
That is anything from juice cleanses to detoxes. Anything that involves restricting yourself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight is considered a diet.
In reference to juice cleanses, research has shown that even as little as one juice a day is associated with increased risk of type two diabetes and long-term weight gain.
This is because the process of juicing often removes the majority of the insoluble fibre, vitamins and minerals that make fruit healthy, thus you are left with sugars, in high doses and no protein for that full feeling.
No published research currently supports the safety or efficacy of juice cleanses or fasts. In terms of weight loss, the concept of a detox is a bit of a farce.
Your body only has a certain capacity for daily removal of toxins. Detoxification is a continual, daily process that is enhanced by daily practices such as drinking water, having fibre rich whole grains, fruit, vegetables, lean protein and so on. There is no known way – certainly not through detox treatments, to change this system.
#3 Give up punishing yourself with the scales
I want you to imagine this scenario: you set yourself a target to lose a certain amount of weight this month. You try really hard all month, eating all the right things, going to the gym, controlling your portions, saying no to going out for drinks after work. It’s tough, but you persevered, staying motivated by the thought of that upcoming event or holiday.
Then you get on the scales and… you haven’t lost any weight. How do you feel? Does this make you want to stick with what you’re doing? Or throw in the towel? You ask yourself – where did I go wrong? Maybe I need to do more exercise? Maybe my portions weren’t small enough? You berate yourself – if only I had more self-control; more willpower.
Does this sound familiar? We are led to believe that focusing on numbers on the scale is the key to success. For some people, regular daily weighing can help them be more at ease with daily fluctuations in their weight.
However, for the rest of us focusing on numbers on the scale fosters an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. This mindset has an extremely negative impact on your weight loss success, it can lead to obsessive thoughts about food and weight.
It can encourage you to negatively focus on your appearance, rather than focusing on what makes you happiest. These two goals (appearance vs. happiness) then get mixed up to the point that you feel you can only be truly happy with yourself when you achieve a certain weight.
All this focus on weight loss as the goal is dangerous and can have a negative impact on your long-term success.
what successful weight maintainers had in common was their focus on the process; the daily changes they needed to make consistently for success to occur
In some of my own research into what leads to successful long-term weight maintenance, the scales were rarely mentioned. In fact, we found that successful individuals (i.e. those who had lost and maintained a significant amount of weight) tended to focus on weight loss as a lifestyle change rather than a diet.
Unsuccessful dieters viewed dieting as something that was temporary, whereas those that achieved long-term weight maintenance were dong something different. It was focused on making consistent, daily changes, in their words ‘simply leading a healthy lifestyle’.
Interestingly, the evidence has shown that often those who are successful in weight maintenance experience a shift in their identity – rather than feeling restricted or deprived by their weight control practices (such as, through dieting), they feel more liberated, both in their lifestyle and also in how they think and feel about themselves (for example, through focusing on developing healthier habits).
The key factor that these successful weight maintainers from our study had in common was their focus on the process; the daily changes they needed to make consistently for success to occur, rather than the outcome (kg/lbs lost on the scales).
The truth is, weight loss needs to be gradual in order for it to be maintainable, it needs to be achieved through positive, daily, sustainable changes in your lifestyle.
weight loss needs to be gradual in order for it to be maintainable
Albert Einstein is widely cited as saying, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’. Ultimately if you have dieted and failed, and dieted and failed again, it’s not you that has failed it’s the diet that has failed you. It is time to let go of this dieting mindset once and for all. It will never work for you.
In the next part of this series I will be continuing to support you with evidence-based ways to lose or maintain a healthy weight without dieting. Each month, I will be sharing more of the secrets no one tells you about long-term weight loss success.
A leading expert in behaviour change, Dr Heather McKee has a PhD in weight-loss psychology and specialises in coaching for habit change and weight loss, using evidence-based techniques; drheathermckee.co.uk
Her vision is to revolutionize weight loss and behaviour change to empower people and show them that it can be it enjoyable, sustainable and successful.
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