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Weight Loss Efforts Should Start With The Mind, Here’s How

Mind and Weight Loss

Each year, many Americans resolve to lose weight and take various steps geared toward doing so, from drinking shakes and eating pre-packaged meals to exercising more vigorously. For the most part, this leads to some pound shedding, at first. Yet over time, old habits return -- as do the pounds, and many dieters are left heavier than when they started.


Why is this vicious cycle so excruciatingly hard to break?

Through decades of experience as a psychiatrist and a bariatric internist, respectively, at the helm of several weight loss clinics, we have developed the firm belief that most diets have it backwards. Diet programs tell us what to eat in the hopes of changing our behavior. But in fact, behavior change must be rooted in the mind through corollary psychological change, or it simply will not sustain over time. This means we must change our thinking about food and weight loss.

Doing so is a multi-step process. Here’s how it works:

Gain an understanding of the biological principles of weight loss.

Contrary to popular belief, weight loss has little if anything to do with pure calorie count. Rather, it’s about the body’s insulin level, which is the real culprit behind weight gain and obesity. Quite simply, insulin causes the body to store fat. Any excess of it in the bloodstream will signal fat cells to store glucose as fat and to take in fatty acids from the bloodstream, storing these as fat too.

The body produces insulin in the first place as a response to an intake of high-glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates. So eliminating this type of carb -- which includes sweets, pasta, bread, root vegetables and certain fruits -- will lower insulin levels. Lower insulin levels lead the body to burn fat, causing weight loss.

Take ownership of your choices.

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Armed with an understanding of the biology of weight loss, we can take ownership of our choices, selecting from among the broad array of foods that won’t spike insulin levels rather than merely buying into products such as meal-replacement shakes, prepackaged meals and appetite suppressants, or into tactics such as counting calories that usually prove unsuccessful in the end. When buying into products and prepackaged meals we’re constrained to eating the same foods or going to the same restaurants over and over. All too often, we skip the evening out or go and eat next to nothing. Either way, we end up feeling deprived. Taking ownership of our choices by simply skipping the insulin-spiking foods makes for a balanced, sustainable life.

Address the thoughts and feelings involved in behavior around eating.

In our work, we have seen dieters yield outstanding results from using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which in effect retrains the brain’s reactions to food and weight loss, ultimately helping people control cravings and acquire healthy eating habit skills.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, at the core of every habit is a neurological loop located in the basal ganglia of the brain. It’s also known as a “habit loop,” and consists of three parts—cue, routine, and reward. The cue, or trigger, initiates the routine, which is rewarded to continue the habit loop. Habits become routine so that the brain can devote attention to several actions at once without us being mentally aware of it. Through CBT, dieters can address the habit loop underlying weight gain by identifying the trigger, changing their routine and finding a way to reward the new routine.

It’s also easy and tempting to resort to pleasurable foods as a perk-up when we’re feeling glum. When this happens, CBT can help dieters to stop for a minute and identify the underlying emotions. If we recognize and acknowledge a specific emotion as it comes into play, we can address the real issue instead of turning to comfort foods. A study in the Journal of Marketing Research found that people who have a better understanding of their emotions were more likely to pick healthier options and lose more weight than those who are less emotionally in touch, regardless of how much they previously knew about nutrition.

Overcome fear.

Fear is a particularly poignant emotional obstacle when it comes to dieting. Dieting elicits a frightening, vicious cycle of punishment through starvation and deprivation, reward through cheating days, resulting in feeling guilty due to excessive eating, and then the cycle repeats with punishment again. CBT also helps free dieters of this destructive chain of events.

It only makes sense, then, to start a diet not only with a plan for making food choices that support weight loss in a healthy, sustainable way, but also with a plan for leveraging the power of the mind.