I came across an interesting, but not surprising, article recently in the International Journal of Obesity.
Researchers found that people who perceived themselves as overweight were more at risk of gaining weight.
What might astonish most people is that this was true whether or not the individual's perception was correct.
The findings go against a common assumption: that if people know they're overweight, it provides more motivation to change.
During the more than three decades that I've been treating people with eating and weight problems, it has been clear that the more a person focuses on weight, rather than health, the harder it is to manage and lose weight and control eating. On the surface, one would think that perceiving yourself as overweight, as many people do, would spur you to correct the believed problem.
Naturally, you would think that when you really want to lose weight, the motivation to do so ought to be equally strong. However, that's not the case. Countless people continually go on and off diets attempting over and over again to fix a weight problem they focus on continually.
Compulsive eating and bingeing episodes seem to happen after periods of time when people are overly focused and aware of their weight and eating.
Researchers also found that study subjects were more likely to overeat when stressed. This certainly explains the greater likelihood of weight gain, but it shouldn't be surprising either.
Time and time again in therapy, when people with compulsive eating issues let go of the obsessiveness with their weight and relax and focus on health instead, they not only lose weight, but are able to manage their weight relatively mindlessly. They're usually reluctant to let go of their preoccupation but eventually decide to give it an earnest try because they become convinced of the logic: Their focus on being overweight hasn't worked, so continued focus is likely to give them the same results.
It was Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It is this realization that gets people who are fixated on their weight to try a more logical approach. Once they do, they learn that they had been taking the hard road. More focus and preoccupation with being overweight leads to failure, not success. It also leads to stress, which makes people more likely to overeat.
Camille was a smart, hardworking, successful professional. She didn't have an eating disorder but reported a lifetime of preoccupation with her weight and dieting. She was about 20 pounds heavier than ideal for her body and knew it, but she was never able to make weight loss last. "What's my problem?" she asked, exasperated. "I think you're too preoccupied, too anxious and trying too hard," I said. "Allow me to explain."
In a relatively short period, Camille figuratively took a deep breath and relaxed like she never had. She learned to take a more casual approach to her weight. She started to focus on other things in life that spelled health, peace and happiness. Gone were the anxiety and stress of trying to constantly control her weight and make it go down. Soon afterward, she started to notice that her clothes were looser, and people began to tell her she looked thinner. It seemed like magic to Camille, but the truth was that now she was simply following steps that were based on logic and facts about how she functions as a human being. It was the first time in her adult life that she didn't feel out of control with her weight and eating, and, ironically, it was because she let go of trying to control so much.
After many years of seeing this reaction in people loosening up and taking a more logical approach to weight and eating, it's no wonder that a study would conclude that people who consider themselves overweight are more at risk of gaining weight, and that people are more likely to overeat when stressed. Being preoccupied with weight creates stress. If stress makes you more likely to overeat, and overeating leads to weight gain, it's logical that you need to avoid becoming preoccupied with weight if you want to successfully control it.
It may not sound right to a lot of people, but that's only because they've believed for so long that if you want to lose weight you have to focus on it excessively. If you really think about it, you'll see where the logic lies. Follow logic and you'll usually succeed.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.