“Its simple you just need to eat less and exercise more” “Just try a bit harder” “I managed to do it so I don’t see why you cant”
Although these comments may be well intentioned they aren’t particularly helpful, can add to a person’s sense of frustration and may lead to self blame, shame and reduced confidence.
“If other people can do this why do I find it so hard” “I just don’t have enough willpower” “Its all my fault there must be something wrong with me”
Every day we are bombarded with messages from the media and dieting industry telling us weight management is about personal control, willpower and discipline. We are led to believe that if we work hard enough, and find the right diet, we can be whatever body size and shape we desire. So if our weight doesn’t respond in the way we want there’s a tendency to slip into self-blame. For some people this can trigger emotional overeating, the adoption of extreme weight management measures, or to give up completely believing they don’t have what it takes to improve their situation.
What Science Tells Us
Although society believes struggling with weight is self-inflicted, the science tells us something very different. Improving our understanding of this can be really helpful as it may shed light on where to focus change and can improve understanding of why its been tough in the past. When someone understands they may be battling their biology it can help move them move away from harsh self-judgments and towards increased self-compassion.
“So there are real scientific reasons why I find it more difficult than my friends”
“So it isn’t all my fault
How the Body Controls Weight
The processes involved in weight control are incredibly complicated and there is no one single cause explaining why people gain weight. Rather, there are hundreds of possible factors and interactions between our genes, environment, biology and behavior. Although our genes and biology determine how easy or difficult we find it to manage weight this doesn’t mean our fate is sealed and nothing can be changed. However, it does explain why it may be challenging and why there are people who don’t struggle in the same way.
The most likely way genes influence weight is through their impact on the complex system that controls hunger and fullness. The hypothalamus in the brain acts as the control centre, receiving messages from all over the body and switching hunger and fullness on and off. When the stomach is empty, a hunger hormone signals the hypothalamus to switch on hunger so we seek food. As we taste, chew and swallow food nerves are triggered and fullness messages begin to be sent to the control centre. As the stomach stretches and digestion occurs more messages are sent and when a certain level is reached a sense of “enough” is experienced and eating stops.
For people gaining weight there may be something different about the quantity, quality or timing of these signals so it takes longer for the sense of “enough” to occur. Eating is also influenced by factors other than hunger and fullness. We are hard wired to seek pleasure so signals from other parts of the brain involved in how food makes us feel emotionally, as well as the sight and smell of food, will also have an effect. Sleep and stress can play an important role in weight control and managing these may be part of the solution for some people.
Although this is an incomplete explanation of how the body controls weight it does give a flavor of the complexity and range of factors involved. Although we don’t get to choose our genes, hormones or how the body controls weight, it is possible to influence how we respond to various situations and the decisions we make.
Changing our Attitude is Helpful
For people who blame themselves for their weight and feel shame about their eating the first step is to recognize and accept it isn’t their fault. This isn’t, as some may suggest, ducking out of taking responsibility, or finding excuses not to change, it is the first step towards being able to respond in a helpful way. Negative, self critical thoughts don’t usually result in healthy choices they just make people feel bad which can perpetuate or trigger unhelpful behaviours. So much of what people blame themselves for are not character flaws or a lack of willpower they are simply the actions of a person in challenging circumstances doing the best they can with their available skills and resources. Only when self-blame and shame are addressed is it possible to respond in a helpful way to the challenges that arise. So begin the process of forgiving yourself, move towards self-care and self-compassion and keep reminding yourself of what the science tells us about why weight control is difficult. This really can be the beginning of being able to make different choices.