When I was a child growing up in the seventies, obese people were few and far between. I do remember the occasional larger kid in my class, but overall we were a fit, active generation of kids with grazed knees and wiry legs stretching up from our roman sandals and desert boots.
Nowadays, you only need look around in any public space to see that we are, as a population, rapidly getting fatter. In 2017-18, the National Health Survey found that 67% of Australians are overweight or obese, up from 63% in 2014-15. And these trends show no signs of slowing.
A global & personal health crisis
The concerning reality is that excessive weight is often the first symptom of progression down a path to preventable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and certain forms of cancer. If current trends continue, obesity is expected to overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death. In light of these facts, the need for effective strategies for weight loss becomes urgent.
On a global level, the World Health Organisation has announced that we’re at a critical point, stating that ‘if immediate action is not taken, millions will suffer from an array of serious health disorders. Obesity is a complex condition, one with serious social and psychological dimensions, that affects virtually all age and socioeconomic groups and threatens to overwhelm both developed and developing countries’. Sobering stuff.
On a personal level, given a magic wand, the majority of overweight people would love to cast away their excess kilos. But magic wands are hard to come by – and the weight loss industry is booming as a result.
Empty promises from the diet industry
Unfortunately, while weight loss strategies such as dieting and exercise may result in weight reduction in the short term, these changes are rarely sustained over time.
Not only do diets fail to deliver the promised results, they’re also damaging to both physical and psychological wellbeing, leading susceptible people to experience low self-esteem and body preoccupation, and increasing the risk of developing an eating disorder. Surely there’s a better way to approach weight loss? Fortunately there is, and it starts with the most powerful tool you have: your mind.
Harnessing the power of your mind
Using a combination of food education, mindfulness and positive psychology strategies tailored to the individual, it is possible to allow the body to shed excess kilos, naturally and without food restriction.
When it comes to excess body weight, the outdated diet model focuses on the centimetres of our waistlines and the numbers on the scales. In contrast, a wellness paradigm encourages us to look at the bigger picture of our lives from the lens of self care.
Learning to eat for optimal health
One of the reasons diets fall down is they take a calorie restriction approach which results in an eventual return to the foods that created the problem in the first place.
Educating yourself about eating for optimal health, in contrast, lays the foundation for long-term health and wellness. When we know how to nourish ourselves in the way nature intended - eating predominantly whole, unprocessed plant foods - we can eat to satiety at every single meal, knowing that we’re fuelling ourselves with exactly what our bodies need to flourish. This is incredibly liberating for those who’ve spent years agonising over portion size and battling with hunger. Be careful where you obtain your information though, being sure to seek out quality research from reputable sources.
Learning to pay attention
Further to education, one of the many ways we can harness the power of our minds to achieve our wellness goals is with the practice of mindful eating.
Mindful eating has its origins in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, during which we become completely aware of what’s happening in the present moment, without judgement or preconceived ideas.
Mindful eating, then, is the process of bringing this focused attention to the experience of eating, which allows us to notice and understand the real drivers and motivators of food choice. It can also cause us to get more enjoyment from nourishing, whole foods like fruits and vegetables. Mindfully eating a strawberry, for example, can be an awakening experience – from first noticing it’s plump heart shape, vibrant red colour and glossy skin, to feeling the soft coolness against the tongue as you sink your teeth in, followed by a flavour explosion of the sweet, tangy flavour that only a strawberry can yield. As a result, mindful eating can cause us to desire healthy foods more, and unhealthy foods less.
One of the core precepts of mindful eating is to accept things as they are in the present moment - including your body, no matter where your health is at right now. This can be a challenging shift for those who’ve been indoctrinated into believing that punishing themselves mentally and physically is the only way into a smaller body. In a dieting mindset, natural feelings and impulses, such as hunger and cravings are denied. But here’s the truth: hunger (real, physical hunger, that is) is simply your body asking for nourishment. No more and no less.
Despite not focusing on weight loss as a goal, mindful eating actually shows better outcomes in weight loss over the long term than the traditional diet/exercise approach, with physical activity rates going up, and BMIs going down. Also reported are reduced cravings, binge eating and portion sizes, higher levels of body acceptance, less preoccupation with body image, and increased feelings confidence in one’s ability to make good choices around food.
Are you hungry for food...or something else?
Sometimes our hunger signals can get confused with our emotional needs. Emotional eating can be understood as using food as a way to avoid or diminish unpleasant emotions. Mindful eating helps us observe and stay with our emotions, without acting on them, allowing us to recognise the reasons, other than hunger, that drive us to eat. And the research supports this, showing that mindfulness training significantly reduces eating in response to emotions or external cues.
This really is a holistic approach, where we understand that food, rather than just being a collection of nutrients and calorie values, also feeds us in psychological, sensory and cultural ways. Knowing this helps us make better choices for ourselves, informed by science and based on self-compassion rather than self-loathing, and allows food to become the sensual, guilt-free pleasure that nature intended it to be.
Don't go it alone
It’s important to remember that lifestyle change takes a dedicated effort over a sustained period of time, so it’s vital to surround yourself with people who believe in your vision for a healthier you, whether they be friends, family or professionals you engage to support your wellness journey. Curious about beginning your own mindful eating practice? You can find out how here.
And if the going gets tough, remind yourself of this simple truth: when we have the correct knowledge about to nourish ourselves, and train our minds to have the presence to understand what’s driving our choices, the healthy options eventually become the ones we crave most, and the need for willpower around food becomes a thing of the past.
This, in turn, creates an upward spiral of positive choices and experiences that enhance our lives as a whole. And believe me, when you reach this place of balance for yourself, you’ll never look back.
If you'd like some personalised support on your wellness journey, you can learn more about coaching options here.
- references available upon request.