Is Psychology Making Us Sick?

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Why We Eat the Way We Do

Finding the root cause behind our negative relationships with food

Americans spend billions of dollars on the diet industry, yet see little lasting results. Given the bleak outcome of most diet efforts, we must ask ourselves: Do we really understand why we're going on a diet or why we eat the way we do? If we fail to understand and empathize with the reasons why we have issues with food, we’re failing to grasp the real problem. The Why is so important and yet so undervalued. So, how do we go beyond the quick diet fix and truly understand our relationship with food?

People eat for real reasons—and they are very rarely just stress or comfort. They are more powerful and psychologically deep reasons. For example, one client was struggling with her weight. She told me that above all, she loved Starbucks Caramel Mochas. I had her reach for a cup on my desk, pretending that it was her Starbucks Mocha. Then I tried to take it from her—what a diet program would try to do. She held on tight. We wrestled the cup back and forth until eventually it stopped being playful. She was serious. Here's an excerpt:

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Me: “Why won’t you let go?”

Client: “It’s my happiness!” It was a powerful moment.

Me: “What in your life is making you unhappy? What is preventing you from being happy?”

This was the moment when we started to get to the deeper issues. This woman’s love of the Starbucks Mocha wasn’t about the coffee drink, it was about being able to reach out and attain her happiness at will, something she was struggling to do in other areas of her life.

Often weight problems are seen as a lack of control with regard to food, but in some cases, they can actually be a lack of control in other areas of life. As this client herself stated, she was looking to exert more control, to find something that would make her happy instead of looking at her life to see what she needed to make her happy.

Months later, here’s what she had to say: “I realized it wasn’t about being skinny, but that I am worth being happy. Part of this was changing some things in my personal life, but part of it was realizing that I'm worth something, even if I’m overweight…I learned to love myself again. The journey of losing weight, keeping it off, getting in better shape, has been a steady progress and I’ve been able to stick with it because I’m just doing it to make me happier and not just to please somebody who thinks I’m too fat.

Notice how she’s not saying, “I’m worth loving myself and losing weight”—that’s part of it, but more importantly, she’s was learning that she was worth being happy and doing things in her life career-wise and relationship-wise that made her happy. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Relationship changes are often a big part of larger-scale, deeper-thinking weight-loss programs. Career changes, inner changes, changes in how you relate to yourself that have nothing to do with food and exercise—food and exercise are incredibly important, no doubt, but I have found that people are more successful when they examine the deeper factors that are moving them.

And so for this client, the “diet” program became less about changes in food, and instead became about life changes toward her happiness. 

Of course, it’s far easier to tell a person to calorie count or to work out. Most programs say that health is important, that it’s necessary to take responsibility for nutrition and exercise. But these programs don’t touch those deeper areas; they don’t get to the root of it. According to research, about 5-10% of the time, people actually sustain any weight loss after a diet, in fact, many people end up gaining more weight than they lose. [1]

Without understanding the deeper motivations, these weight-loss programs become psychologically superficial in their dealings with health and the wholeness of a person. This is why the Why is so important.

Consider the example of a client who loved hamburgers. She loved everything on them—tomatoes, bacon, cheese, mayonnaise… When she went on a diet, she tried to eliminate the hamburgers, or at least to take off the cheese, the bun, or the bacon, but this strategy failed because she “loved” hamburgers and didn’t want to give up the trimmings. I started to dialogue with her.

Me: “Why don’t you want to go without the cheese?”

Client: “It’s just not a hamburger without the cheese!”

Me: “What about the bun, why don’t you want to give up the bun?”

Client: “The bun makes it a perfect round sandwich, you have to have the bun!”

Me: “Do you have to have everything the way you want it?”

Client: “I don’t have ANYTHING in my life the way I want it!”

Aha!

So, we devised a plan to make changes to her life in accordance with what she really wanted and the way she wanted it. For example, her family had recently painted the inside of her house without her pursuing her own preferences. So, part of her “diet” program was to talk to her family and change the paint in several rooms of her house! Who would have ever thought that could be part of a diet program? For her it was. Finally she was reaching for what she really wanted; instead of a hamburger, she was reaching for a “hamburger life.” Gradually, the hamburger became less tasty, because it was less psychologically necessary. The hamburger itself was not be the problem, it was a symptom of the problem—a way she expressed herself. Now she needed to express herself similarly in other ways and in other areas of her life.  

Delving into the root cause of our negative relationships with food is hard work. Finding the Why is not a quick fix or a fad diet that will have you ready for the beach in two weeks or less. Instead, what this method reveals is our deepest needs, wants, and desires. The authentic self will not be easily ignored, silenced, or pushed aside, regardless of the reason. Even under great adversity, it prevails. 

 

[1] Traci Mann, A. Janet Tomiyama, Erika Westling, Ann-Marie Lew, Barbra Samuels, and Jason Chatman, "Medicare's search for effective obestity treatments: Diets are not the answer," American Psychology, 62, no. 3 (2007): 220-233. And Glenn A. Gaesser, Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health (Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 2002 [1996]), 77.

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You might also like:
Think Your Diet Needs More Discipline? Think Again
7 Essential Truths About Weight Loss Efforts: Parts 1-3

David Bedrick Psychology Today
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David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW, graduated from Lewis and Clark’s Northwestern School of Law. He is the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. more...

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