Psychological Traps and Weight Loss

‘I’m too busy…, too old…, I don’t have time to…’ sound familiar?

We all have an inner voice that seems ready to sabotage our desires to make healthy changes in our lives, these psychological traps can become the narrative through which we live our lives, reducing our chances of success and becoming hugely debilitating.

The Wellbeing Lounge welcomes guest experts into our weekly podcast to share their professional opinions and support. We spoke to Dr. Helen McCarthy award winning author of Retrain your Appetite to discuss the lies we tell ourselves when making healthy changes and when trying to lose weight. She discusses the problems and gives her top tips to overcome the myths and psychological traps and pave the road to be more successful.

The diet industry in the UK is worth over £2 billion. With every new diet there seems to be a list of rules attached that if we follow are claimed to help us lose weight fast. Dr. Helen reminds us that we are not all starting on a level playing field when we choose to diet. We are all biologically different with varying hormone levels and internal drives to eat, so diets are always going to affect us in different ways. Dieting should not be about extreme changes but about retraining the way we eat to have improved habits that stick long term.

One myth we need to bust is ‘Hunger is a bad thing’. Due to the modern lifestyles, advertising and accessibility to a such a large variety of food people tend to eat beyond being full and eat when we are not actually hungry. However, we should consider mild hunger to be an ally to weight loss. Hunger is the digestive system telling the brain that the previous food has been used up, it is at this point that the body will turn to its stored energy-fat. Therefore, if we can tolerate a little mild hunger then we will start to use up that excess fat store resulting in gradual weight loss. This should not however be taken to extreme hunger as that can lead to stress eating, reversing the effects!

Eating can be associated with emotions. When a young child falls over, they may be given a treat to make them feel better, this follows us into later life when we have a hard day physically or emotionally. Eating can also simply come out of habit. A trip to the cinema that involves buying a large tub of popcorn or sweets. When focussed on an activity such as watching a film our brains are not paying attention to flavours and volumes of the foods that we eat leading to overeating.  Thoughtful changes in these habits, that allow us to still have treats can be beneficial to our long term dieting aims.

The rules of dieting can set us up to that feeling of failure when we break them. The ‘What-the-hell’ effect hits in, we’ve eaten one biscuit so we may as well continue and eat the whole pack! This perceived failure can then lead to the whole diet being abandoned or cycles of overeating that can lead to obesity in the long run. We need to learn to be kinder to ourselves allowing flexibility to the rules so we don’t abandon our efforts to change all together.

Dr. Helens top tips for making healthy weight lose changes:

  1. Feeling of hunger can lead to anxiety and emotional eating. To allow us to tolerate mild hunger we need to calm our brain and activate our parasympathetic nervous system. Pause, take a breath, and think or say out loud ‘I know hunger means I’m burning fat.
  2. When visiting a cinema or somewhere else where you would normally treat yourself consider taking a small snack with you rather than buying the oversized snacks available. Alternatively, go for a small treat after the cinema, allowing your brain to be fully aware of the textures and flavours and enjoy the experience more fully.
  3. Strict rules can lead to failure. Shift the rigidity of the rules allowing the flexibility to know they will not always be followed. Tell yourself a lapse or a treat is OK, you are not abandoning your efforts altogether.
  4. Habits from any diet need to stick to make change long term. The changes need to fit your unique lifestyle and routines. Look at which individual habits you have are unhelpful and change them one by one, not all at once.

For more information and tips from Dr. Helen McCarthy you can read her book ‘How to Retrain your Appetite’ or visit her website


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