THE ROLE OF PSYCHOLOGY IN WEIGHT CONTROL


To support weight loss it is important to consider the contribution of psychology to weight management. An individual’s psychology can have a big influence on their weight.

Eating and Emotions
People often use food to satisfy or suppress emotional needs.

A classic scenario is using food for comfort. Our bodies’ response to food can be comforting. It is also a habit created as a baby, when we cry we get fed.

Somebody who is feeling sad or bored might use food to satisfy their need to feel happy or stimulated. Somebody who is feeling lonely or frustrated might use food to help suppress their emotions.

Using food to “deal” with emotions can create an unhealthy relationship with food, creating a habit of eating any time an emotion comes up. It also prevents the resolution and release of the emotion, storing it in your body and creating further problems.

Food is also used as a reward or punishment.

Food is often used as a punishment or a reward for children.
E.g. Given as a reward for good behaviour and taken away for bad behaviour.

Unfortunately it is usually unhealthy food (e.g. dessert, chocolate, chips) that is seen as a reward and healthy food that is seen as unfavourable, encouraging an unhealthy psychological preference for “treats”.

This can create a habit that psychologically “treat” foods make you feel good so when you feel down you use a “treat” to feel better. E.g. Someone feels sad so they eat a chocolate bar. Often, if the treat is unhealthy it will actually end up making the person feel worse, so they may have another “treat”… and another…

In contrast, when food is perceived as “unhealthy” people can also use it to “punish” themselves. E.g. If someone feels like they have failed at something and feel bad about themselves, they may eat lots of unhealthy food to punish themselves to feel worse.

Food can be used by some people for control.

Sometimes people who are in a situation where they feel they have no control may use food as a means to gain control. A person in this situation may see food as the only thing that they have control over. Unfortunately this is only a perception of control and may result in disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Overeating can also result from using food for control.


The Brain and Weight Management
Physiological aspects of our brain can also have an impact on weight control.

Scientists have identified a part of the brain called the hypothalamus to be responsible for eating behaviour. The hypothalamus communicates with other cells throughout the body to regulate how much and what to eat. Chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain create feelings of fullness or hunger in response to sensory information and messages from the body.

Hunger feelings can arise as a response to chemicals produced by the smell, sight or memory of a desirable food. They can also arise from chemical messages of a nutritional requirement within the body.

Feelings of fullness are thought to be monitored by a chemical called Leptin. Leptin sends a message of “fullness” to the brain in response to the proportion of fat cells in the body. The more fat in the body, the more leptin is produced, and less food is required to satiate the appetite. An obese person has chronically high levels of Leptin so the brain gets de-sensitised, and the “full” message to the brain is reduced.

Another major influencing factor is the pleasure response from food on the brain. Food promotes our brain to produce “feel good” chemicals such as dopamine, encouraging us to eat again. This is a major contributing factor to the emotional aspects of eating and can develop into an addiction.

People can have different levels of specific chemicals in their brain which may contribute to individual differences in weight management. E.g. Some scientists suggest that people with obesity may have fewer dopamine receptors than the general population, resulting in an increased likelihood of over eating to stimulate the “pleasure” response.



MANAGING THE PSYCHOLOGY


To support someone to lose weight it is important to address the psychological aspects. Some areas to consider are:

  • Develop a positive mental approach to healthy lifestyle
    • Focus on being healthy rather than losing weight.
    • See healthy food and exercise as being enjoyable (reward) rather than a chore (punishment)
  • Identify and address emotional issues
    • Identify emotional triggers for unhealthy eating and develop alternative strategies to deal with the emotion e.g. going for a walk, talking to a friend, take deep breaths.
  • Address brain chemical contribution
    • Exercise to increase dopamine levels instead of eating
    • Use portion control to monitor how much to eat, rather than rely on messages from the brain.
  • Positive thinking, affirmations and visualisation
    • Reframe success and failure
    • Visualise yourself as already being your ideal weight.
    • Use affirmations to reduce effects of emotional eating.
  • Set realistic, achievable goals
    • Monitor goals through journaling and diary writing
 
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