The Psychology of Dieting

From a psychological perspective, losing weight is too often a huge imperative for dramatic change when the reality is that small, permanent changes have the best outcome. Almost all dieters have large targets and short time-scales which invariably lead to disappointment and self-loathing. Always consider the psychology of dieting for the best weight loss outcomes.

Rapid weight loss is not only short-term, but in the end the dieter often weighs more than they did at the outset creating the classic yo-yo dieting syndrome that so many people experience. The dangers of dramatic weight loss are more long lasting than the short term drop in weight.

By Annie Gurton, Psychological Therapist & Counsellor

dangers of dramatic weight loss

Too frequently, dieters expect a lower number on the scales to correlate with a happier life. Everything that is unhappy in their lives at the moment will be eradicated or transformed once the scales show a weight loss, and the greater the loss the more dramatic the improvement of their happiness, popularity and success.

Dieters will consult lifestyle coaches, pay for expensive programs, have high hopes and expectations, only to realise that nothing much has changed – even if they do manage to lose some weight. Disappointment and deeper self-loathing seem to be the inevitable aftermath of most weight loss programs.

There are frequently unintended consequences with dramatic weight loss programs, mainly involving relationships with those around. Marriages and partnerships often suffer, and the psychological health of the dieters is rarely examined. And if there are any psychological flaws before a strict food-limitation diet, they are sure to be deepened afterwards.

Use a Psychological Professional

Some overweight clients benefit from initial work in the psychological therapy room, where they can, with the help of a professional, determine the causes of their poor eating habits and low self-esteem. Once the roots of their psychological viewpoint are identified, it can become much easier for them to set clear and healthy guidelines, which have a sustained impact.

Part of the problem is that, because dieters are impatient, they choose life-plans which are bound to fail. Too often they include strict negative messages, which cannot persevere, such as ‘I must not ever eat chocolate,’ or ‘I will not eat fats/bread/drink alcohol’.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that fats are essential to the healthy functioning of our bodies, the whole ‘negative/prohibitive’ approach to dieting creates a psychological atmosphere, which cannot, will not succeed in the long run. Sooner or later our bodies and minds devise ways to cheat, partly because psychologically they don’t like to be told what not to do, and partly because the physical cravings for necessary nutrients eventually overwhelms the resolutions.

The Positive Diet

Imagine for a moment a diet where you can eat almost whatever you want. In fact, there are certain foods that are mandatory. Every day you must eat half a head of celery and half a lettuce, with generous ample portions of vegetables and fruit. You must eat a selection of nuts including brazils, almonds and walnuts, and dried fruit, and small amounts of meat and/or fish. You must eat liberal amounts of butter and small amounts of cheese (cheese about the size of two pats of butter, as well as five or six pats of butter). These are all compulsory. You can dress the salad with salt, olive oil and vinegar. All of these things you can have – in fact must have – quite freely.

Only when you have eaten those, can you have the chocolate you want although in general sugar is to be avoided. Some alcohol is permitted. Carbohydrates have to be eaten in the mornings (and none after 4pm). Macadamia and cashew nuts are to be avoided, and so are processed foods like sausages or transfats. Treats like crisps and sweets are not banned but can only be eaten after the day’s volume of raw and cooked vegetables and fruit has been eaten.

For many people a diet like this represents a major shift, yet it is surprisingly easy to adopt as a permanent lifestyle. You feel full most of the time, and if you are hungry you eat fruit. Weight loss is steady and permanent, unless changes are reversed and alcohol consumption goes up or dieters start to eat carbohydrate in the evenings.

On this kind of diet plan, where the emphasis is on what you must eat rather than what you must not eat, the psychological shift is towards working with your body and its nutrient-needs rather than against it. The body and mind accept it far more easily, and because the body is getting plenty of fats in the form of butter and olive oil, far fewer cravings develop.

Many people watch TV shows like The Biggest Loser and see dramatic weight loss promoted as an ideal and achievable goal, but it should be remembered that these are just freak shows for titillation, and almost all the weight losers gain it again afterwards, along with broken relationships and a bettered sense of self-worth.

Dieting is Not Good for Mental Health

As well as having unrealistic expectations of the changes that weight loss will bring, the mind can develop severe distortions of self-image. It can imagine that one small area of the body is disgustingly ugly, or that overall we are much heavier than we really are. These are serious mental health issues and need professional intervention, and when this is available these thought patterns can be overcome.

Weight loss can increase self-confidence, and if someone is truly distressed by the number on the scales then a moderate and permanent weight reduction can be hugely powerful in increasing self-esteem. But for many people weight loss does not change anything and disappointment is inevitable. Often changes need to be made in other areas, such as social circles, activities and interests, or self-belief.

Only when a positive attitude to weight loss is developed and the expectation that huge loss is possible or desirable is dropped, or the belief that a big loss will make a big difference, can dieting be enjoyable and permanent.

For more from Annie Gurton, visit, or call (+61) 423 632 657

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