Shedding those excess kilos requires more than just crash-dieting.
Despite the advice to keep calm during the festive season, most of us still gained weight.
Now, we are in that season where we make the resolutions to be “better” people, eat healthily, exercise, join a running club and so on. That requires behavioural shifts that may be difficult for many to start, or just too difficult to maintain.
We have learnt behaviours from our families, our friends and those close to us that are difficult to get rid of. We eat more and more and exercise less and less; we binge on fast food and alcohol.
Life just becomes more sedentary and the food becomes faster. Technology has helped us to walk less and less. Why step out of your car to get that burger, chips and coke combo when they can give it to you through your car window?
Besides the weight gain, we are also at risk of developing chronic illnesses like metabolic syndrome, diabetes mellitus and hypertension. Because behavioural change is so difficult, many industries have been built to cash in on our struggle to change behaviour.
There is now a market for crash diets, the lose weight now schemes, the diet that’s working wonders for a celebrity, the magic pills that will make you lose the weight in 21 days. Weight loss has become a multibillion-dollar a year industry. Corporates are making a killing out of these lose weight now schemes. Advertisers lure us with images of a healthy and happy life spent running along the beach with the sun shining overhead, then heading home to eat our grapefruit and take our diet supplement.
And sugar is very addictive so many people struggle to cut it out of their lives. When we eat foods that contain a lot of sugar, a massive amount of dopamine is released in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. When we eat these foods often and in large amounts, the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate. Now there are fewer receptors for the dopamine. This means that the next time we eat these foods, their effect is blunted.
We will need more junk food next time we eat in order to get the same level of reward. Sugar and other junk foods, due to their powerful effect on the reward centres of the brain, function similarly to drugs of abuse like cocaine and nicotine. This is basically how sugar and other junk foods hijack the brain chemistry to make us crave more and eat more.
Dieting is not the answer. Overly restrictive diets can slow metabolism, requiring further calorie restriction to lose weight. This dieting can also have negative side-effects, including depression, anxiety, irritability, obsessive thoughts about food, binge eating, and not feeling full, even after a binge.
The most effective weight loss programmes are those that combine diet, exercise, and psychological intervention. The reality of long-term weight loss is a lot more complex and involves learning a new set of life skills. Once you decide to lose weight, know that it is not a short-term process, it is whole lifestyle change.
It is a process of change that needs to be managed. As important as it is to focus on what you eat to lose weight and keep it off, it is equally crucial to consider physical activity and maintaining lifestyle changes over time.
The problem is, making changes to your lifestyle is hard. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic in this country, nor would estimated healthcare costs for physical inactivity be so high.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing how you think about yourself, how you act and circumstances that surround how you act, is an effective treatment for a wide range of problems, including weight loss. Key to it is its focus on making changes and sticking to them.
The following CBT strategies help people to lose weight and change lifestyle behaviour:
If you want to meet the goals you set, consider the following three factors: The more specific a goal, the more likely you are to achieve it; ambitious goals are good, but overly ambitious goals can be discouraging; regular feedback on progress improves outcomes.
When it comes to weight loss, a goal to eat nuts for dessert, rather than cake, is specific and can be clearly tracked.
Specific goals around exercise or types of food you will eat – behaviours you have control over – are better than goals to improve body weight, for instance, which may fluctuate for reasons outside your immediate control.
Self-monitoring requires that rather than beating yourself up for not attaining a goal, you attend to your own individual experiences. When you self-monitor, you begin to notice barriers, pay attention to physical cues and identify challenges to changing your behaviour.
Too often, we rely on negative self judgment to stay motivated and, in so doing, fail to recognise and plan for real barriers. You can think of yourself as a scientist when you self-monitor.
You may want to keep a log of your food intake or exercise routines, for example. Doing so will help you to problem-solve when life has got busy, or you get off track. With greater awareness of your own experience, you are better able to find ways to maintain new behaviours.
3. Feedback and reinforcement
It can be helpful to get feedback from outside sources. Having a healthcare provider regularly check in with you can provide an external measuring stick.
Feedback about your diet or exercise routine can provide motivation, or help you adjust your behaviour. Outside feedback also can help you keep your expectations ambitious but realistic.
Maybe even get a weight loss partner, a friend who will be travelling the road with you.
4. Boosting the belief that you can do it
When you go into any situation with the attitude that you will surely fail, you greatly reduce your odds of succeeding. It is essential to focus not just on behaviour, but also on your perception of your ability to make the changes you want.
The best way to improve your belief in your ability to succeed is actually to have some success. Setting concrete and achievable goals, such as taking an after-dinner TV show walk, can build your confidence to set more ambitious goals.
If you’re looking to improve your sense that you can do it, it helps to look for people in similar circumstances who have made the difficult changes you are trying to make.
The use of incentives to support change in behaviour has been widely studied and the concept is now being applied to regaining and maintaining physical health.
Examples include companies that offer lower-priced onsite fitness facilities as an incentive to exercise, offering cash incentives and gift cards, providing free health coaching and offering insurance premium discounts to those who meet certain standards.