If you picked up any health or lifestyle magazine it wouldn’t take long to find an article on the latest celebrity diet and an abundance of advice on how to shift unwanted pounds. More reliable sources of information on the subject from fitness professionals and nutrition experts give a similar message; eat less and move more. This of course on face value is correct, if you consume less calories than you burn you will lose weight. It is also true that to maintain a healthy weight and body you should consume more unprocessed foods and focus on building a menu around fresh fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. So the question is; if it is that easy, why do so many fail?
I believe the reason for this is because many people do not understand the psychological factors that are associated with dieting success. These factors range from understanding habitual behaviour, theories of behaviour change and finding true motivation. If a diet program can incorporate knowledge of psychology it will not only help an individual reach their goal weight, but improve the chances of keeping their weight off for life.
Human beings are habitual by nature. From birth human development is dependent on the brain creating neural networks that remember actions and feelings so that we are able to learn to survive. Eating is obviously an essential component of survival so from very early on if our lives we begin to develop a pattern of behaviour that is associated with food. This could be a certain feeling associated with foods (positive or negative), it could be a particular time you eat or an order that you eat in. The simple fact is, by the time you have reached adulthood the neural networks associated with your eating habits are deeply entwined with everything you do; so it is no surprise to find out losing weight is slightly more complicated than having a young fit and perfectly toned fitness professional telling you not to eat certain foods.
Professors at the
have dedicated many years of research to understanding habits and how they can have a negative affect on life. In their book, “The no diet diet”, Professors Fletcher, Pine & Penman explain how that changing non diet based behaviours can actually help untangle the web of neural networks associated with eating behaviour. They suggest that taking time to make small changes in your life such as; reading different papers or magazines, watching different television programs, taking up knew hobbies and taking different routes to work allow the body to break out of routine and make a natural adjustment to its metabolic functioning, resulting in weight loss of up to 2lbs a week. Unlike many other diet books, this has years of scientific research and results to back up its claims. Looking at this habit breaking task from another perspective can see it as a great way of practising and building up will power before attempting to cut something as addictive as processed sugar from a diet. University of Hertfordshire
Understanding behaviour change cycles are vitally important in planning a successful weight management programme. For example; a well known theory in social psychology is the theory of planned behaviour. This theory has shown that a person’s behaviour can be predicted using knowledge of their attitude towards the behaviour, subjective norms about the behaviour and said persons perceived behavioural control. What this means in relation to dieting behaviour is that knowledge of a persons attitude towards food and diets, what they believe others will think of them if they do or do not diet and whether they have the tools to succeed in their weight loss goals can be used to predict their action. These important nuggets of information should be established during a consultation with fitness professional or a nutritionist, however if you are deciding to seek dieting success with no external help then you should take time to think about and write down the answers to the points I have highlighted. If you happen to have a positive attitude to the idea of dieting, feel that others will be supportive and you feel you have the necessary will power and support network around you then you have a greater chance of success.
Timing when to start a weight management programme is also essential for success. By this I don’t mean that you should peruse your diary to find a week where you have no social engagements, but choosing a time when you are ready for change. Dr. James Prochaska and colleagues have studied behaviour change interventions for many years and have established six stages of behaviour change. These are; pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination. Establishing which stage you are at can help determine what is needed to help move on to the next stage and most importantly whether you are ready for change in the first place.
Pre-contemplation is a term used to describe the stage in which people are in denial over their need for change. Take for instance a person who is lives on fast food and consumes dangerously high quantities of alcohol. They may see an article on the dangers of processed food and skip over it or become defensive if any body questions them about their negative behaviour. Pre-contemplators are not ready for change and usually will only start a weight loss programme under pressure from those around them. Contemplation is the stage when a person acknowledges that they have a problem and like to talk about it, read about it and think about it. In fact they like to do anything except act on it. This stage of change can take some people years to overcome whilst they research their problem deeply in hope of finding the Holy Grail that will send them on the path to change. Others may contemplate for a short while and move on to the next stage; preparation. This is quite simply preparing for action. In the case of dieting behaviour it can involve seeking out a personal trainer or gym membership, planning meals, deciding what foods you are going to cut out of your life etc. A key part of this stage is to go public. Fear of failure is something that holds many people back when committing to any sort of change, so going public adds a certain amount of pressure to the situation, but can also be the factor that pushes a person into action. The action stage of any change period is busy and time consuming. In dieting behaviour it is a period that seems all consuming whilst a routine of new foods and exercise dominate your thoughts, whilst trying to combat cravings and negative influences that make it their mission to bring you down. This is why before action the preparation stage is key!! It is also important to recognise that in most change cycles, individuals get most support from peers before action. Once someone is visibly changing it is not unusual for external support to dwindle as they believe that you have already succeeded; however every successful change cycle needs a maintenance period in which the new behaviour becomes engrained into a routine. This maintenance period can last from 6 months to a lifetime before you can safely put yourself in the termination stage in which there is no danger of resorting back to old habits. In a weight loss programme this maintenance phase is as important as many people lose weight quickly before regaining even more a few months down the line. Remember CHANGE NEVER ENDS WITH ACTION.
What these six stages of change show is that there is much more to weight loss than just deciding to go on a diet. Before you should even consider starting a diet plan it may be worth trying to establish what stage you are at. Once this is established you can work on getting to the action and maintenance stages. I imagine if you are taking the time to read an article of this nature you will be at least in the contemplation stage so I recommend a task for you; write down all the negatives and all of the positives involved in losing weight. Once your list of positives outweighs the negatives you are ready for change.
True motivation must come from within. Understanding this simple statement is necessary to plan a successful weight loss programme. As explained in the pre-contemplation stage, those who attempt a weight loss under duress will ultimately fail, which in principle is the same as somebody whose motivation is to lose weight to make someone else happy.
So, in danger of sounding a bit like a bad actor, what is my motivation? There are two types of motivation; intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is gained from an internal satisfaction of completing the task in hand. Research has shown that if a person has intrinsic motivation they are more likely to complete a task, however in the case of dieting and weight loss it is unlikely they will have an innate desire to lose weight or change their eating habits or they would not be overweight in the first place. However, what can be established is a person’s true desire to lose weight. A great way of doing this is to take time to write a letter to yourself and explain in detail why you believe that losing weight will change your life. It is important not to focus on why it will make others happy, instead focus on the emotions involved and why you think your life will change for the better. Extrinsic motivation is influenced by external factors such as rewards that are gained from success. These can be anything from material rewards such as a new clothes or a holiday, to more personal rewards such as improved self esteem from the compliments that others are showering you with. I suggest that anyone entering a weight management programme should take time to create a motivation wall. This should contain anything that motivates you to succeed, such as; old pictures of what you used to look like, words and quotes that inspire you, pictures of a beach reminding you of the holiday you are going to take etc. This motivation wall can be referred to in time of need when you feel like giving up giving you a boost.
So, as you can see the psychological factors involved in weight loss are too important to ignore. Losing weight is not rocket science, but it is also not as simple as being told to change. Remember you have to take time to break old habits and form new ones. You have to understand your behaviour cycles and establish your attitude to change before being able to plan and maintain a new diet. But before all of that, you need to want to do it in the first place. Change for yourself and you will experience success and happiness.
For more information on planning a successful weight management programme email me at email@example.com