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How tackling shame can help with reaching a healthy weight

Man who loves himself

Feeling bad about your size may be sabotaging your attempts to shape up. Ellen Wallwork speaks to the experts about why reaching a healthy weight begins in the mind.

Take a second to think about your body. Are you happy in your skin? If you’d like to lose weight, thinking about your figure may be an uncomfortable experience. Being reminded that your waist is wider than you’d like or the number on the scales is higher than you want can sap your confidence and lead to feelings of failure and shame.

You may have internalised stereotypes about ‘fat people’ being lazy and lacking in self-control, and so you believe that being overweight is a reflection on your character.

But according to a new report from the British Psychological Society (BPS), we must learn to let go of such harsh views because obesity is not simply down to an individual’s lack of willpower.

‘While obesity is caused by behaviour, those behaviours do not always involve “choice” or ‘‘personal responsibility”,’ states the report, which argues that people become obese because of a combination of factors, including genetics, responses to childhood trauma, a lack of available healthy food and sedentary lifestyles.

Harmful stereotypes

‘The common view that the cause of obesity resides within an individual has created negative stereotypes that have allowed weight bias and discrimination to go unchallenged,’ write the authors of the report, adding that people living with obesity should not be made to feel ashamed, as feeling guilty for having put on weight can lead to a vicious circle, resulting in further weight gain.

‘Being stigmatised is stressful. It can lead to feelings of distress, shame, guilt and failure,’ the report continues. ‘One way of coping with this stress is to use food to distract, soothe or anaesthetise uncomfortable feelings, but relying on this coping strategy increases food consumption and weight. Evidence has shown that stress results in biological, psychological and social mechanisms that maintain weight gain, including increased appetite.’

Guilt is a no-win game

This means feeling ashamed of your weight could actually be making it harder for you to eat less. A study by behavioural scientists at University College London found experiencing stigma from those around you only compounds the problem. So, rather than encouraging people to lose weight, fat shaming was found to lead people to put on more.

Dietitian Tracy Kelly explains why this has such an impact. ‘Imagine trying to win at something when it feels like everyone and everything is telling you that you aren’t good enough. When a person hears that enough, they start to believe it,’ she says.

‘Deep down there may be a real lack of belief that losing weight is even possible. Learning to tame your inner critic will help you change this trajectory. You can then rely on why-power rather than willpower and start building new neural pathways to new habits.’

Begin the self-care cycle

How can you tame your inner critic and break out of this cycle? Well, for one thing, don’t be fooled into thinking that if obesity is not a choice, then your weight is out of your control. In fact, Jane Ogden, professor in health psychology at the University of Surrey and author of

The Psychology of Dieting believes that feeling like a victim of your biology, society, or the food industry can be just as bad for your self-esteem as fat stigma.

‘You are not defined by your body weight,’ Professor Ogden says.

‘You have bodyweight that you can manage and take control of. You shouldn’t feel ashamed of your weight, but you should recognise the role of behaviour in your weight gain and then feel empowered that as an individual you can make choices that will help you to self-care in a positive way.

‘If you’re feeling guilty or shameful because you’ve gained weight, you’re not going to feel deserving of self-care so it’s going to be harder to take that positive step to look after yourself.’

To make a change, you need to stop viewing healthy eating and exercise as something you should do to be a better person, and start thinking about it as a form of self-care, which you deserve because you ARE a good person.

Step by step to a positive mindset

To start tackling negative thoughts that could be contributing to unhealthy behaviour, try these three techniques:

1. COM-B (Capability, Opportunity, Motivation to Behaviour)

Angel Chater, one of the authors of the BPS report, suggests using this term to get to the bottom of what is stopping you losing unwanted weight.

‘Ask yourself, what is influencing my behaviour?’ she suggests.

‘Is it my Capability (do I need to learn something new?), or is it the Opportunity around me (my friends/family/where I live or work), or is it my Motivation (do I really want to change my behaviour? Do I think it will make a difference? Am I scared of what will happen? Am I influenced by my habits and emotions?).’

2. Be a friend to yourself

Helen McCarthy, a consultant clinical psychologist who explores the topic of weight loss without dieting in her new book How to Retrain Your Appetite, advises talking to yourself as you would to a friend that you care about. ‘Developing self-compassion can be a powerful part of change,’ she explains.

3. Look in the magic mirror

Dietitian Tracy Kelly recommends a technique adapted from Jack Canfield’s book The Success Principles. At the end of the day, stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eyes, say your name, then acknowledge all the positive things you did during the day. Nothing is too small. It could be making your bed, how you talked to someone at work, or following through with better habits such as drinking water, making dinner, being kind to yourself. Then tell yourself, ‘I love you’.

Do this for 32 days. If you find yourself in bed without having done the routine, get out, switch on the light and have the conversation with yourself. If you miss a night, you need to start again.

‘This exercise may stir up a lot of emotions,’ says Ms Kelly. ‘You may even find yourself crying the first few times you do it. But keep at it. It will help to build self-esteem, confidence and deeper love and care for yourself.’

Need extra help?

Just as the critical views of others can make negative thoughts about your weight worse, some positive input could be just what you need to change your thought patterns, says Dr Chater.

‘There is good evidence that speaking to a psychologist can help those who are living with obesity,’ she explains. ‘It is important that conversations are centred on the person, without a sense of judgement.

‘If eating less and moving more was a simple matter, we wouldn’t have the current obesity levels,’ she adds. ‘Psychologists can help to understand the factors that lead to overeating, what is eaten, when and how much. They can help to understand barriers to regular physical activity and what influences sitting too much.’

This view is echoed by Dr McCarthy. She believes you’re most likely to find a psychological approach helpful if the reason you’re struggling with your weight is related more to how you eat than what you eat.

‘Something psychologists bring to a person in any sort of distress (eating-related or not) is an understanding that whatever has led to their current problems, the person was doing the best they could to survive and manage what was happening in their lives during the time the unhelpful patterns developed,’ she explains. ‘This means that apparently self-defeating behaviours are understood in terms of how and why they developed, and once this is understood, evidence-based strategies can be used to bring about change.’

Invite your friends in

Psychologists aren’t the only ones who can help, however, says Professor Ogden.

‘It’s also really good to talk to your friends, your family and people around you. Find out what works for other people and share the collective skills you’ve all gathered. Peer groups are good, being with other people in similar situations is good. Talking about it, being open about it and sharing your experiences is also good,’ she advises.

Seeking the support of others and being kinder to yourself may not seem like strategies that will have as much impact as a punishing gym routine, but challenging negative thoughts about yourself can be the first step towards developing a healthier relationship with food and your body.

‘Little by little, new patterns can form and your brightest, shiniest self can emerge,’ Ms Kelly says.

‘Will this happen overnight? No. It will take consistency to do things even when you don’t feel like it. But when you believe you can, you have someone championing you and you are surrounded by a community of people who want you to succeed, then anything is possible.’

Article sources and references

Date modified: 20 September 2021
First published: Sep 2021


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