Gym membership, food diary, portion control: Check, check, check. Clothes that fit, cardio, emergency snacks: Three checks again.
You think you know everything there is to know about dropping pounds, but a recent survey commissioned by healthcare services company Orlando Health proved there’s one thing most of us are overlooking: our mental health. Blame this neglect for why an estimated 95 percent of diets seem to fail us.
In a national survey of more than 1,000 Americans, 31 percent of respondents said they believe lack of exercise is the biggest hurdle to achieving weight loss, followed by 26 percent who believe it’s what food you eat and 17 percent who pointed to the financial expenses of a healthy lifestyle. Only one in 10 of the respondents mentioned psychological wellness as a barrier.
“When you talk to anyone about weight loss, they will tell you they don’t exercise enough and that they eat poorly,” Diane Robinson, a neuropsychologist and program director of Integrative Medicine at Orlando Health, told The Huffington Post. “But we also need to understand why we’re eating.”
For many people, eating is an emotional experience. We are given “comfort foods” during hard times and we’re rewarded with sweet treats for good behavior when we’re kids. Many American holidays are focused on food, and often, we have a nostalgic or personal connection to what’s on the table.
“If we’re aware of it or not, we are conditioned to use food not only for nourishment, but for comfort,” Robinson said. “That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, as long as we acknowledge it and deal with it appropriately.”
After devouring a delicious meal, the brain releases dopamine, a chemical that’s associated with pleasure. Your body is satisfied, and you feel good. But emotional attachment to food becomes problematic when people heavily rely on food for that feeling. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “Sometimes the strongest food cravings hit when you’re at your weakest point emotionally.”
Understanding the emotional aspect of our food behaviors is key to maintaining holistic health. Previous studies, including one published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2014, underscore the complex relationship between mood, food and overeating. Hunger and food intake are regulated by much more than our biology: Emotion plays a critical role in determining what and how much we eat.
This new survey points to the fact that there’s work to be done on the inside in order to shrink the outside. At a time of year when so many of us resolve to improve ourselves, Robinson said smaller steps are key to real acheivement. As for weight loss, she said, “If you want to make a real resolution, resolve to get to know yourself better.”
Robinson said she suspects we have such difficulty checking in with our emotions when dealing with food because as humans, it’s difficult to look at ourselves through that lens. “It’s hard for us to label emotions and realize it’s the emotion that’s driving a thought or behavior. We don’t want to piece that together because it makes us uncomfortable,” she said. So many of us overlook the mental health aspect of weight loss because while we prioritize our physical health — you’d go to the doctor for a broken arm or virus — our emotional well-being is much more abstract: How do you know if you’re “sad enough” to see a therapist?.
While there’s more research to be done on the relationship between mental health and weight loss, Robinson said there are things people trying to lose weight can do today to get the brain to work in tandem with other weight loss efforts. If you keep a food journal, for example, you might also log your moods and track unhealthy patterns. Before you grab a snack, check in with yourself: Are you eating because you’re hungry, or for another reason? If your answer is the latter, you might consider looking deeper into the reasons behind motive. For some, working with a therapist may be the key to unlocking some of the emotional aspects behind food behavior.