13 June 2008

Fear makes us fat

In theory, losing weight is simple, right? You just have to eat less and exercise more. But if it were really this easy, why aren't we all doing it? A psychologist answers.

In theory, losing weight is simple, right? You just have to eat less and exercise more.

But if it were really this easy, why aren't we all doing it?

Well, for many of us, fear stands in the way of achieving our weight-loss goals, says Cape Town psychologist Daphne Cooper, who spoke at a seminar on weight loss at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) on Thursday.

Cooper identified several factors that play a role:

1. Our brains are wired in a very specific way that can be traced back to early times when periods of feast and famine governed our ancestors' eating patterns. "To this day, the threat of deprivation [i.e. dieting] is enough to send us into panic mode."

2. Another "problem" is that eating is pleasurable, which means that the idea of giving it up causes stress. "Going on a diet is really the worst way to lose weight, as it makes you go into a panic state that's associated with fear, stress and anxiety."

3. Images in the media that portray the message that "stick-insect thin is beautiful" cause anxiety, as achieving the "perfect" body simply isn't possible for most of us. Then fast-food restaurants are often advertised by images of young, skinny, healthy-looking people indulging in large, unhealthy meals. The comparison between ourselves and the people in these pictures puts us in a fearful position.

4. Many of us also believe that things are the way they are and that we can't change them, also in terms of body weight. This makes us feel stuck – a situation which causes stress.

5. We also tend to put a lot of things off "until". For example, you avoid going on a date or on that beach holiday until you've lost weight. Through this, Cooper says, we put ourselves in a very scary position, and we sometimes waste a lot of energy raging against the gap between how we believe things could be and the way things are.

6. And then, she says, we're often too hard on ourselves. Just listen to what you're saying to yourself when you stand in front of the mirror. Telling yourself that you're looking disgustingly fat in your jeans certainly isn't going to make you feel better about yourself.

Research shows that stress can cause weight gain. When you experience stress, the brain sends a signal to the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Researchers have found that high levels of cortisol can increase appetite and food intake, and later, fat deposits in the trunk and abdominal area.

Cooper believes that it's not so much food that makes us fat, but rather fear and the resultant stress.

The way out
"The opposite of fear is love," she says, noting that our task is to expand our boundaries of love.

She explains that we should look at the way in which we speak to ourselves. Here, she refers to Martha Beck's The 4-Day-Win, in which the author explains that everyone of us has a "dictator" and a "wild child" within us.

The "dictator" is the part of you that's strict; who becomes cross when you had a piece of chocolate cake and who convinces you that you should start dieting on Monday. The "wild child" is the part of you that says "I don't care" and who makes you indulge when you're tired and vulnerable.

To win the "battle", you need to get into the part of yourself that's the observer. In other words, get off the battlefield and take control of the situation; don't let your actions be governed by the "observer" or "wild child".

Cooper also mentions other ways to overcome the fear:

  • Fall in love with life. Rediscover everything around you and fall in love with things that nurture and fill your soul. "When we do that, food and exercise falls into place."
  • Make choices."Recognise that you always have a choice. Don't just think you have to do something."
  • Breathe. If you become stressed, just take a few deep breaths. "There's nothing like breathing to get you back into the present moment."
  • Catch your lies. Confront those ideas which you think are truths, such as the images in the media, and substitute them for real truths.
  • Savour and enjoy the food you eat and the life you live. "Make your life fat in order to be thin!"

- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, June 2008)

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