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4 Half Truths About Weight Loss

What Every Dieter Needs to Know

4 Half Truths About Weight Loss

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There is perhaps no greater hope as the New Year approaches than to lose weight. Even Oprah Winfrey counted her one-time weight loss as one of the greatest achievements of her life (she since gained it back, lost it, and gained it back as most of us do.) [1] This hope is powerfully seductive—we pray for it at the altar of our scales, mirrors, and clothing options every day.

But, before you sign up for another diet program, whether one created by you or others, slow down, be careful, and think critically. Take heed of the fact that diet programs, even though America invests some $50 billion each year on them, almost never work.

Here is what I’ve learned from working with people on their struggle with weight loss for two decades.

4 Half Truths About Weight Loss

1. Diet and Exercise Are the Keys to Weight Loss

There’s little doubt that changing ones eating and exercise habits are essential to weight loss efforts. However, it is also clear that focusing on these alone is insufficient. In fact, research shows that trying to change eating and exercise habits is almost never successful. Telling a person to eat less and exercise more is like telling a smoker to stop smoking. The real question is not what to do, but how to do it.

The Whole Truth: Losing weight is no different than any other deep personal, psychological, or spiritual change; it only masquerades as a change effort that is straightforward and almost mechanical. Actually, it requires a real inner investigation of how you treat yourself, how you allow yourself to be treated in relationships, and how your work in the world suits your nature and meets your needs. I have heard many deny this truth, insisting that discipline is enough, but my experience, and tons of research, suggest that you will likely discover that these notions do not lead to sustainable change.

What to Do: Find out what really moves you to eat and then change your life accordingly. Make commitments to those things. If you can’t change those things, don’t assume you can change your eating and exercise habits. If those things will take time, then take time. Changing those things is your diet!

2. Self Hatred Is the Cure for Being Overweight

I know this is a strong way of saying it, but much of what is packaged and marketing as diet programs appeals to just that—how much we really don’t like ourselves! Almost everyone dislikes their bodies. In fact, 97% of women are cruel to the their bodies every day. It’s as if there is a big neon sign flashing in our faces, “Want to feel better about yourself? Want to look in the mirror and like what you see? Buy our diet program and your wish will come true!”

The Whole Truth: You can’t criticize yourself into losing weight. Putting yourself on a diet program because you don’t like yourself will usually be experienced as a kind of punishment, amplifying your self-hatred, and, in most cases, making you want to eat even more. The truth is that we naturally resist being criticized, even when we think that it is good for us. As one client told me, “As soon as I decide to go on a diet, I begin to eat chocolate and I don’t even like chocolate.”

What to Do: Instead of criticizing yourself get to know the power, ferocity, and nature of your self-loathing or self-criticism. The power and fierceness behind this criticalness is often useful; the opinions and attitude toward yourself is rarely so. If you don’t deal with this inner criticism, it is unlikely to go away for long even if you lose weight. In fact, it may be the hidden impetus for derailing your efforts. 

3. You Have to Really Want to Change to Be Successful

You have probably heard that old joke: How many people does it take to change a light bulb? One, but it really has to want to change. The real desire to lose weight is certainly one thing you will need in making sustainable change, but many people really want to lose weight and are unsuccessful. The fact that yo-yo dieting is the most common result for those who diet proves that the desire to change by itself won’t do the trick.

The Whole Truth: While you must really want to change your habits and body, you also have to really love your body and the deeper needs that drive you to eat as they are.

What to Do: Imagine a person walking in the desert. They have no water; they haven’t had a drink for two days. Someone offers them water but it is tainted; it might even make them sick. They reach out, take the water, and begin to drink. Now, feel a real empathy and compassion for what lead them to drink. That is how you must learn to feel about yourself when you reach out for food. That doesn’t mean you must eat, it means you must allow the compassion for yourself to enter the moment of wanting to eat. Otherwise, criticism will fill the space and the change effort will likely be thwarted.

4. You Would Be Healthier If You Were Thinner

I don’t need to jump on this bandwagon by citing the reams of data about obesity and the costs and risks to your health. There are plenty of voices, inside you and outside of you, echoing this half truth.  

The Whole Truth: Being overweight, or even mildly obese, is not necessarily bad for your health. In fact, a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association just last year reported being overweight was associated with significantly lower mortality and that mild obesity was not associated with higher mortality. Further, gaining and losing weight has been repeatedly shown to be dangerous to your health.

What to Do: Start with a non-judgmental exploration of your current body size, shape, and eating habits. Reflect on what you like least—the size of your body, it’s looseness, your unwillingness to put limits on your eating. Now imagine that you need some of these qualities in your life. For example, you may need to be bigger or take up more space in relationships; you may need to be looser and more relaxed; or, you may need to break the rules or limits that others or the culture put on you. In this way, your body may be expressing, in a symbolic or psychological manner, a way to be healthier.

Losing weight can be a wonderful self-loving goal or it can be a self-critical goal that is likely to fail. Don’t simplify it and use it as a way to turn against yourself. Instead, use it to deepen your entire life and make it into a task worthy of your deepest self.


[1] Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter, When Women Stop Hating Their bodies: Freeing Yourself From Food and Weight Obsession. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).


You might also like:

Why She Ate: A Diet Story

7 Essential Truths about Weight Loss Efforts: Parts 1-3


David Bedrick Psychology Today

Join my Diet Circle starting January 9, 2015!


David Bedrick Psychology Today

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