Dieting success often follows a crazy logic—a logic more consistent with a Zen Koan than that practiced by the rational mind of the dieter or the diet program developer. (See past posts for more about Zen Koans.) As discussed in my last post, many people diet for the “wrong” reasons—reducing shame and self-hatred—reasons that rarely lead to sustainable weight loss. On the other hand, people can eat too much of the wrong foods and develop unhealthy eating patterns for “good” reasons—reasons that are fueled by deep, albeit unconscious, needs.
While conventional dieting strategies assume there is no deeper wisdom reflected in what appears to be unhealthy eating patterns, if people are going to try to change their eating habits, it is imperative that they understand these deeper needs and motivations.
A Dr. Phil show provided good examples of women trying to lose weight whose task was made extremely difficult by the fact that they had developed eating patterns that were fueled by deeper and essential needs—“good reasons.” Dr. Phil’s guests were all women who wanted to lose weight before their wedding day. Dr. Phil’s strategy was to motivate these women to diet by offering to buy them wedding dresses in sizes significantly smaller than they were at the time; he amplified their motivation by having the dresses modeled by women who fit into the smaller dresses (and offered a “wedding ring upgrade”—which is as likely to be ineffective as it is offensive).
Consider the woman on the show who said that eating helped her control her anxiety. Eating was her coping strategy. What would happen if we took her coping strategy away without helping her deal with her anxiety? It should come as now surprise that her anxiety would likely increase, making her desire to eat even stronger. In all likelihood, this would reinforce the well-known vicious cycle where dieters deprive themselves of food without addressing the underlying needs, and then turn to eating to address those needs when the deprivation grows too strong. The pattern is commonly referred to as yo-yo dieting.
Or, consider the woman who kept putting off her wedding day because she hadn’t lost sufficient weight. What deeper need might she have been meeting by eating? In a way it’s quite simple—eating put off her marriage! Based on my experience, it is likely that her eating was a message about her subconscious resistance to getting married. She may have had concerns, desires, or fears that needed to be expressed and addressed before she proceeded. If she doesn’t take the message of her eating seriously, she may simply continue to derail her wedding plans, keeping everyone thinking, including herself, that she is not getting married because she is not thin enough. As a result she, like many dieters, would keep hating her body and feeling ashamed of her inability to change.
Actually, it is quite common for issues around eating and dieting to be woven into issues people have in their relationships. Specifically, there are many cases where one partner is critical of his or her spouse’s body features, weight, or eating habits. Feeling unloved and shamed by this puts the spouse in a double bind: If they diet and lose weight, then they don’t feel loved for who they really are; but if they don’t lose weight, then they don’t feel loved for who they are. The way out of this torturous paradoxical situation must include a real discussion between partners about how they feel and what they need to feel loved. Dieting and losing weight is no substitute for this kind of intimate dialogue, just as dieting and losing weight for the woman who used her weight to delay her marriage was no substitute for respecting her hesitations.
Again, like the Zen Koan, deeper answers to the weight-loss dilemma are not as logical and straight forward as they may appear. While most people and diet programs embody the belief that more discipline and motivation are required for success, strategies based on this logic are often powerless to help people lose weight because they have no awareness of the underlying needs that fuel their eating patterns or a real strategy for addressing those needs.
David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW is the author of the book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. You can also click on The Diet Project to read real client stories and learn more about David's research on diets, body image, and eating patterns.