Anyone who has tried to lose weight before knows that weight loss is not easy. Today, 75% of the United States population is classified as overweight.
Each year, Americans spend over $60 billion on everything from gym memberships to personal trainers, weight loss programs, and diet supplements, all in an effort to lose weight.
Does it work?
That’s a tricky question to answer, because it’s both yes and no.
Yes, many people experience success in their weight loss efforts with the old “Calories in, calories out” equation, right? Simple enough!
Yet research shows that keeping the weight off for good is an entirely different equation altogether.
On average, 95% of people who lose weight will regain all of the weight back over a 5-year period1, at most.
If you are like me, and have battled your weight since childhood, that is a sobering—scratch that—straight up depressing statistic.
When I share that research with audiences at local weight loss centers, or in session with my clients, I can instantly see the hopelessness enter people’s faces. Weight loss is tough enough on it’s own without that devastating statistic to further the point.
My intention in bringing up that statistic is not to discourage people from their health goals. Instead, it’s an invitation to consider that the way we are approaching weight loss maintenance does not work. It is simply not sustainable long-term, and worse yet, it never gets to the root of the problem exploring why we’ve been using food in unhealthy ways to comfort us in difficult emotions or even in attempts to meet our basic human needs.
If you want to keep the weight off for good, you must be willing to do more than put time in at the gym. You must also take the risk in being vulnerable enough to explore how being overweight since childhood has affected how you view your self (your identity, self-esteem, self-worth) and the factors in your life that led you to use food as a comforter.
Often some of the best personal trainers brag that they double as therapists, offering support to the difficult emotional aspects of the weight loss process. While that’s well intended, it’s also very dangerous.
After all, you don’t necessarily want to take nutrition and exercise advice from me—I might know a thing or two, but I have no credentials, and that’s way out of my lane.
A licensed therapist is trained to know how to best support people going through difficult life transitions—and weight loss is certainly one of them. They can help you make key connections between pieces of your story and your relationship with food.
If you have been overweight since childhood, here are five reasons why a counselor is just as vital as a personal trainer during your weight loss journey. They’ll help you learn these skills that will be vital to your long-term success.
- Untangling your identity from the number on the scale.
We live in a weight shaming society that makes it hard for overweight people to see themselves for anything other than the shame of being overweight. As a result, it’s almost a given to experience low self-esteem and self-worth for being overweight.
Over time, our identity can get wrapped up in being an overweight member of society. We become known for being the funny fat guy, the overextending friend, the helper, or the overachiever.
Ultimately, all these identities are ways we try to overcompensate for our perceived inadequacy represented in our extra large frames.
Counseling will help you identify all the subconscious ways you are holding your self-esteem and self-worth hostage because you are unhappy with the number on the scale. These sessions can help you begin to see yourself as separate from the number on the scale and set goals for your health progress that don’t involve the number on the scale (being able to last a little longer weekly in workouts, fitting into a favorite shirt, lowered cholestoral, etc).
Most importantly your counselor can help you to re-write your story, and idenity, without your body weight taking center stage. Through this you’ll begin to see the strengths and qualities you already possess that you’re weight overshadowed for far too long.
These strengths ultimately will be allies in a journey to develop a healthy relationship with food and yourself again. Once you escape shame, you will be well on your way to achieving the life you want to live, free of using food to fill your emotional needs.
- Learning how to discard All-or-Nothing or Black-and-White thinking and live in the gray.
The diet industry is the king of extremes.
Lose 20 pounds in 20 days by following this strict no carb, no liquids, no life diet!
The fine print we often don’t read is that after the diet is over, we’ll feel mentally exhausted and like we just got out of prison! So as soon as it’s over we run to satisfy every craving we had during the prison stretch. Of course one craving leads to another, and another, and before you know it the weight (and then some) comes piling back on.
If you’ve been overweight since childhood, there’s a good chance you’ve tried just about every fad diet out there and had this experience. This approach to your health is called All-or-Nothing/Black and White thinking, and in my practice just about every single person I counsel around food and weight loss seems to struggle big time with this.
The All-or-Nothing/Black and White mindset can often be a great approach in athletics and in climbing the corporate ladder, yet as an approach to your health, it is a big part of the reason 95% of people gain back the weight.
When we see food as a list of “good” and “bad” choices, we begin to get recruited into perfectionism, and believe me, no one is perfect. I often hear clients say things like “I was good today” or “I was bad all weekend.”
When we think of food in these black and white terms, we often set ourselves up to fail in the moments where we are not perfect. A meal where you intended to go no-carb turns into a side of fries, and then the panic button gets hit! “Crap. I just caved in! What’s the point…I already blew my diet, might as well really enjoy it.”
Before you know it that side of fries often turns into a side of cake, which rolls into an eventual late night snack, and a few days later (and ten more All In! meals later) you are back in panic mode with loads of shame.
Sound familiar? That’s the hallmark of an All-or-Nothing/Black and White mindset, and it’s always the culprit in seducing us into turning one slip up into a series of complete derailments.
That process not only takes a toll on your health goals, it also develops a dangerous pattern of negative self-talk, shame, and beating yourself up that will erode your confidence and self-esteem over time.
Counseling will help you begin to explore and let go of these rigid All-or-Nothing/Black and White rules you’ve created about food and help you respond to moments where things don’t go according to plan.
If being healthy is a lifestyle, you will surely never be perfect. If you can learn to live in the gray area a bit when it comes to food, not only will you still manage to lose weight, but you’ll also be more capable of eating in maintenance when you are keeping the weight off for good.
- Clearly identifying the emotions that trigger you to overeat.
For those who have spent a lifetime battling our weight, we know that food is more than just nourishment. Food is a comforter, a companion, and a safe haven from stress, anxiety, loneliness, and even depression.
We all have a handful of emotions that trigger us to run to food. I realized in counseling sessions with a licensed therapist that my trigger emotion was fear of abandonment.
There was a back story to that fear from my childhood, and while talking about the past didn’t necessarily change the events from my history, it did help me understand why that feeling pops up in my life. It turns out there is a perfectly good reason for me to have this fear, and since I was a little boy, food was the one constant that I could turn to in those times to make me feel better.
Getting to the root of the problem by understanding what is truly driving you to overeat will help you learn new ways to respond to that feeling/emotion.
When we find the context for our behavior we understand why we do things, and this allows us to have more compassion for ourselves. Compassion motivates and sustains positive change. Shame does the exact opposite.
While many people might overeat for similar feelings—many of my clients name anxiety, loneliness, fear of failure, or fear of rejection, for example—everyone’s back story on how that came to be is different.
Many people are terrified of exploring these emotional triggers, but my work with clients, and my research with NBC’s The Biggest Loser, showed me time and again that those people willing to take the risk of exploring the past always have greater success in their weight loss journeys.
A licensed therapist provides a safe space to do this processing and exploration, and can introduce tools that provide new ways of responding to your trigger emotions.
Once you are aware of your trigger emotions, you can learn to respond to them differently. For a client who realizes that fear of abandonment often recruits them into isolation with food, they now have a choice in accepting or declining that invitation.
Instead, they may chose to decline the invitation to the food party and: a) learn to develop safety and comfort in turning within to acknowledge, validate, and self-soothe that feeling without food or b) learn to express that fear or concern in the relationship that it originated in.
- Making weight loss a piece of a bigger change process—and no longer the main focus.
My research with NBC’s The Biggest Loser showed that when weight loss is the side effect, or a piece of a bigger life shift, people are more likely to lose weight and keep it off.
Making a lifestyle change is always more successful long term then simply setting out to lose weight. Counseling can help you examine the reasons you are motivated to lose weight and even uncover additional motivation for your healthy transformation.
A goal of practicing greater self-care, self-respect, or self-love likely includes making more time to go to the gym, putting boundaries around work, and making time for spiritual practices. But people often lose track of this when their main focus is simply to lose weight.
A licensed therapist can help remind you of the bigger picture and create goals for more global change in your life that support your weight loss journey.
- Helping you realize that you are not alone.
One great reward of taking the risk of talking about your struggles with a counselor is that you are met with validation that you are not alone in struggling with food.
Often when we struggle with emotional pain, we isolate, and over time we begin to believe we are the only ones struggling or using food to comfort or meet emotional needs. So many times clients light up with excitement when they hear that they are not the only ones who feel “obsessed or addicted to food.”
“You mean to tell me other people think about food like this too!?” is a common response.
Yep. You are not alone, and you are certainly not crazy.
When you realize you are not alone with this stuff, it can create a huge sense of solidarity and hope. The beauty is that hope is often the seed that leads to empowerment. When we know we are not alone, we feel more courage, more energy, and the conviction to fight for healing and advocate for the life we desire to live.
1) 1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012