When we talk about weight loss, we often talk exclusively about food and exercise. We are told that if we want to lose fat, all we need to focus on is the right kind of diet, and the right type of workout. This kind of thinking has dominated the conversation around weight loss for decades and not only is it misleading, it is largely unhelpful.
There are so many other parts of a person’s life that can contribute to their weight – emotional problems such as stress, loneliness and depression, for example. Time and time again, I’ve seen people who successfully change their diets, but are able to lose weight only after they’ve tackled their stress levels and any emotional factors that were playing a huge role.
If we are to lose weight and keep it off for good, we need to explore why we’re eating too much and why we continue to eat foods that we know are sabotaging our efforts. This means going on a journey of self discovery, and understanding why we’ve developed a difficult relationship with food in the first place. For many people, this challenge will be the most important.
Are you eating your emotions?
One of my favourite quotes is by Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist. He wrote: “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.”
I think this tells us so much about our problematic relationship with food. I see it playing out all the time in my surgery. People use food to treat their sadness, their stress and their loneliness. When their lives feel like they’ve got a gap in them, for whatever reason, they’ll plug it up with pizza.
I’m sure you’ve done this. I know I have. When I feel weary and a bit down, I’ll sneakily prescribe myself a chocolate bar or something sweet, and do you know what? It will help me feel better – for about 90 seconds.
It’s the same when I’m on long book tours in unfamiliar countries. When I’m away from my wife and children and there are no arms around to hug me, I’m tempted to run towards the chemical hug of some “blissy” foods that are just a quick dial of room-service away.
I’m not starving for energy, I’m starving for love.
Before diet or exercise, work on your sleep
After a terrible night’s sleep, we’re not craving fruit and veg and a cool glass of water from the tap. No chance. We want chocolates and doughnuts and pastries oozing with cream. This is why, if you’re struggling with excess weight that just won’t shift, sleep should be the very first thing you should look at, even before food and exercise.
Sleep deprivation makes weight gain much more likely. When you haven’t slept well, everything else you’re trying to achieve becomes much tougher. You’ll find it hard to resist tempting foods, you’ll be more emotionally reactive, hungrier for less healthy foods and, when you do eat, it will take you longer to feel full. Starting your weight-loss journey without sorting out your sleep is like trying to juggle while riding a bike.
Beat emotional eating with the Three ‘F’ exercise
If you’re the kind of person who’s drawn to food when you’re sad, lonely, angry, bored or stressed, I’d like you to do the following exercise:
FEEL: Write down how you feel when you experience a craving. Is it really hunger or is it something else entirely? Do you feel stressed or lonely? Has something just happened that’s made you feel bad or out of control? This will get easier with practice.
FEED: Now that you have identified the feeling, turn your attention to how you try to feed that feeling and resolve the underlying emotion with food. What do you choose to eat? When you consume your chosen food, how does it change the way you feel? Does it make you happier? Does it make you feel calmer? Do you feel less stressed? Or on the other hand, does the food do nothing to address the underlying feeling – is it simply a distraction?
FIND: Find a way to deal with the underlying feeling that does not involve food. Next time you feel a difficult emotion that you’re tempted to try and resolve with food, experiment with some of these effective alternatives instead:
- Try one minute of intense activity such as star jumps, press-ups, squats, skipping or dancing to an upbeat tune that makes you feel good.
- Do a relaxing activity, such as yoga or meditation, either in silence or using an app such as Calm or Headspace.
- Write down how you are feeling. Simply giving your feelings a name and seeing them written down is incredibly therapeutic.
- Phone a friend or perform an act of kindness.
- Try taking a short nap, having a shower or a relaxing bath.
- Drink a large glass of water – sparkling can be really effective!
- Go to a different room where you don’t usually snack – we often get used to certain behaviours in specific environments, for example eating crisps on the sofa.