The Psychology of Weight

By Laura Newsome
In the modern age, words like “health,” “fitness” and “diet” have become commonplace in our everyday language, and the means of achieving size-two proportions have been cast as an epic battle between willpower and hunger pangs. Yet, despite a crescendo of social pressures to get and stay thin, an astounding number of optimistic dieters regain every pound they’ve lost, along with a few more for good measure. Shedding light on the shame cycle of yo-yo dieting, new research is proving that metabolic fluctuations can be a far more powerful force than willpower.

Current research shows that after people lose a dramatic amount of weight, their bodies do everything possible to regain lost pounds. Enacting a primitive starvation preservation system once critical to human survival, the body enlists the help of a hormone called ghrelin that works to stimulate hunger, while simultaneously dampening another hormone called leptin that suppresses hunger and increases metabolism. Dramatic weight loss radically alters metabolism to the point where the same muscles burn fewer calories after weight loss, and the brains of recent dieters light up more dramatically when they view unhealthy foods.

Offering a ray of hope amidst research indicating that once you’ve been fat you’ll always be fat, is the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks 10,000 people who have lost large amounts of weight and kept it off for more than six years. While most participants pay extra attention to everything they eat, exercise most days a week and eat an average of 50 to 300 fewer calories per day than the average person, they are living proof that it is possible to break the cycle of weight gain.

Defining “Diet”
For many people, the word “diet” is infused with a lifetime of negative connotations. It draws forth memories of criticism from friends and relatives, breezy promises of losing 10 pounds in 10 days and a string of fad diet failures too numerous to count. “The term ‘diet’ is used in the media as a word of restriction and depravation—almost a term of judgment,” says Melody Barton, M.S., a wellness coach at Life University. “I wish we could get back to the meaning of the original term, which just refers to your ‘diet,’ meaning what you eat.”

Perhaps America’s struggle with weight begins with the psychological translation of the word “diet.” By turning a neutral word for everyday food intake into a code word for willpower and depravation, many people have developed an unhealthy view of eating. Such restrictive behavior has led to a litany of starvation programs—celery and smoothie diets, all-meat diets, no-carb diets—that inevitably fail due to their harsh strictures and lack of nutrients. “So many diet plans are about depravation, and I don’t like to look at the healthy choices people make as a diet because you can’t be on a diet forever,” says Dawn Pompey Strickland, D.C, co-owner of Strickland Chiropractic in Dalton, Pa. While the designers of fad diets get rich quick, participants often gain back more than their initial share of pounds, spurred on by binges triggered by weeks and months of caloric and nutrient depravation.

History’s Changing Body Images
Adding to the unhealthy cocktail of diet stigmas and twisted weight loss psychology are the digitally distorted body images plastered across billboards, ads, fashion magazines and television commercials. Through the myopic lens of the media and consumer culture, health and beauty comes in stick thin, six-foot frames with gaunt cheeks and more bones than muscle tone. “The media focuses on being skinny instead of being healthy,” says Strickland. “Appearances can be very deceiving, and very thin people aren’t always healthy. You have to look at the bigger picture.”

At the beginning of human history, our standards of beauty linked with exterior traits that signified internal well-being in the form of good health and good genes. Facial symmetry signified proper gestation, while long, shiny hair and good skin indicated a history of proper nutrition. Height and muscles in men and hip and bust proportions in women signified good genes for creating healthy offspring. While mate selection is no longer the life and death proposition it was during our hunter-gatherer history, humans as a species still prize long-held standards of health-related beauty.

Over the centuries though, modern technological and aesthetic “advances” allow people to mimic the appearance of beauty without actually being healthy. Thick foundations and blush can give the appearance of a rosy glow, while a person could be suffering from high cholesterol, ovarian cysts or a sexually transmitted disease. Teeth whiteners, hair extensions and the magic of Photoshop can hide the crippling effects of drug addiction. Many body-builders may seem like the picture of health even as their blood is racing with a cocktail of dangerous steroids. Over time, plastic surgery, fertility treatments and medications are morphing our long-enduring standards of beauty. With the help of modern medicine, a Marilyn Monroe-sized frame is no longer idealized by the beauty industry as a symbol of fertility and womanhood.

In fact, modern views of beauty are the exact inverse of the voluptuous, glowing Rubenesque models that decorated art galleries and salons in previous centuries. “Everybody is different and that’s not something to be maligned,” says Barton, who coaches people striving to achieve social, emotional, physical, mental, spiritual and career satisfaction. “When I see a person who is not heavily overweight and they have good muscle tone and are active in some way, I see them as healthy. If you have shiny hair, strong teeth and have a glow about you, you may not be a size two, but you [may well be] healthy.”

When people ponder the possibility of shedding a few pounds, unhealthy body image is often the biggest instigator. Motivating factors behind weight loss can encompass everything from seeing an unflattering picture of yourself to enduring disparaging comments from a friend or loved one. “I see a lot of people who have external motivations for losing weight. But if they just want to fit into a dress, I try to get them to see that internal motivations will last longer and help them make a lasting change,” says Strickland, who also teaches fitness classes as a certified fitness trainer, writes a blog called and is currently finishing her first book, “Your Health, Get to the Point.”

A Lifelong Lifestyle
While Strickland acknowledges that it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, weight-loss wishes gain permanence when they involve the desire to be healthier, more active, eliminate joint pain and prevent chronic illness. “There’s an epidemic in this country of people who are not satisfied with their choices, and the root of their problem is a lack of self-respect,” adds Barton. “There are a lot of unseen power struggles that go on in our lives and having a healthy mind, claiming responsibility for your own life and knowing your values and who you are at your core is the key to achieving weight loss success.”

While it’s evident that a weight-loss journey will be unsuccessful if it is mired in the twisted psychology of depravation dieting, negative body image and empty external motivations, lasting results can only be achieved by fighting through the daily challenges that wreak havoc on a healthy lifestyle. Ultimately, the goal of a successful weight-loss journey is to build up a higher percentage of healthy choices than unhealthy ones. “If you’re really working to be healthy, the weight loss will come,” assures Strickland. “I find that when it comes to food choices, people think they’re eating a lot less than they really are. They don’t practice portion control and they eat on the run. People get caught up in their day-to-day business and they’re always taking their children to activities, and they stop fitting time in for themselves.”

Besides respecting and valuing oneself through dedicated personal time, the pressures surrounding dramatic life changes can sidetrack even the most motivated health converts. “In our lives, whether it comes to our jobs, friends or family, we unconsciously build systems of abuse and sometimes our desire to better ourselves upsets those systems and makes the ones we love feel uncomfortable,” says Barton. “In those first few weeks, you really have to be aware of the choices you make and protect them from outside sabotage.”

When it comes to making a lifestyle change you can get behind, Strickland recommends gradual changes to prevent burnout. Making sure you get enough sleep, managing stress levels and making water a drink of choice are great places to start. She also recommends regular chiropractic care, eating whole foods, balancing meals and eating five to six small meals a day. Lean proteins, good carbs and good fats should be surrounded by servings of fruits and veggies at every meal.

“There are an endless amount of things that are contributing to our weight troubles. We ingest artificial foods and toxins that have a negative effect on the body, and people get addicted to sugary and salty foods and miss out on the simplicity of listening to their bodies,” says Barton, who warns against the perils of white sugar and flour. “A lot of people don’t even know what hunger feels like—there are too many chemicals and sugars that are confusing the body.”

While a wholesome diet is one of the foundations of wellbeing, a moderate strength-training regimen and 30 minutes to an hour of cardiovascular activity five to seven days a week is just as important. “To keep my patients moving on a regular basis, I try to see what is working for them and what their lifestyle is all about,” says Strickland. “You don’t have to exercise hard to be active, you just have to find ways to move around that are fun for you.”

By adopting a vitalistic outlook on life that seeks to balance energy expended with energy ingested, people are better able to enact gradual lifestyle changes that help the body thrive and perform the tasks it was designed for. By focusing on healthy foods that fuel the body, would-be dieters may think twice before chowing down on a box of artificially engineered chicken nuggets. “Organic food and exercise—that all has to stem from a healthy inside,” says Barton. “If something isn’t feeling right in your life, ask yourself what’s not working and what you can change. Be energized in your own life and adjust for the benefit of your own health and happiness.”

Get Started, Stay Motivated
By acknowledging that every health story has peaks and valleys, plateaus and rockslides, people are better equipped to summon the kind of mental balance and strength needed to tackle any surge of leptin. By adopting a vitalistic view on life, the health of the body becomes an outpouring of the health of the mind, and weight loss journeys become lifelong quests free of deprivation, immoderation, shame and guilt.

“The hardest part is getting started,” assures Strickland. “Start by making one healthy choice a day—maybe a 20-minute walk or start drinking more water. If you try to do too many things at once you’ll get overwhelmed and give up. A habit takes 21 to 30 days to set, but if you stick with it, I can guarantee that within a month you’ll start seeing changes that will keep you motivated.”

While Barton believes it takes anywhere from three to six months for a mental, physical and psychological shift to take root, the most important indicator of success is motivation. “Most of the time we are not motivated to change until we have enough reasons to force the change, which can sometimes be described as pain,” she says. “We become dissatisfied with our current state, and these negative feelings expand until we build up enough internal convictions and reasons for making a change that we can move forward without looking back.”