The Psychology of Weight

The Psychology of Weight

By: Nthabiseng Shongwe

The conversation about obesity is uncomfortable and is often avoided by society as well as in close company. It is a battle primarily fought on the physical front, and yet growing research shows that the fight goes beyond more than what meets the eye, affecting mental and emotional health as well as relationships.

According to a government report published in 2019, about 41% of women and 11% of men aged 15 years and above suffer from obesity in South Africa (Nglazi, M. D. & Ataguba, J. E., 2017). Further, the prevalence of adult overweight and obesity has increased, and this has been linked to economic growth and deficits in balanced nutritional diets. Obesity also contributes substantially to deaths and disabilities from non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and some cancers, and with numbers on the rise, the situation becomes even more urgent, particularly for women who are disproportionately affected.

While the physical aspect of personal weight remains the primary focus of multiple interventions – that is, directing efforts towards improving diets and increasing amounts of exercise or physical activity – there are other dimensions of well-being that have to be engaged if a person is to adopt the behaviours that will help them reach healthy goal weights that can be maintained.

Significantly though, South Africa is undergoing a nutrition transition explained as the “linked demographic and nutrition transitions that produce lifestyle shifts that are associated with rapid increases in the risk of major diet-related chronic diseases.” (The United Nations University, 2001). Contributing factors to the country’s nutrition transition include rapid economic development since the new democracy in 1994, urbanisation, and increased female labour force participation (i.e. working outside the home) (World Bank Development Indicators, 2020).

Simply put, this means that what South Africans are now able to put in their fridges because of economic growth and socio-cultural shifts, e.g. more processed foods and non-nutritional eats, is changing their diets and affecting their overall health and well-being.

However, individually, the contributing factors do not result in the rising prevalence of obesity and overweight and would otherwise be encouraged as positive indicators of growth in a country.

Still, in wanting to encourage lasting behavioural change for those suffering from weight-related issues it is required that we also look at the emotional, psychological, environmental, and relationship influences on a person’s life to determine if, and to what extent, these factors play a role in severe weight-gain or weight-loss.

To beat our brains and some of the behaviours that stop us from achieving healthy weight goals we need to think about setting ourselves up for success.

We need to address the eating habits responsible for putting on weight and replace them with healthier meals which can be supported by a medical weight-loss programme such as Slender Wonder that shows how to shift towards new ways of shopping and cooking.

Below are some recommendations for successful dieters once they return (post-diet), to their everyday eating patterns (UCI Health, 2020):

  • Plan your meals: Decide in advance what you’re going to cook, then shop for and limit yourself to those choices.
  • Keep healthy snacks available: Stocking your workspace with apples, nuts or other good snacks will empower you to bypass the pastries set out at a conference table or treats shared in the break-room.
  • Get consistent nights of good sleep and manage stress: Mild yoga, meditation, or calming apps can help you get much-needed sleep and reduce stress in order to focus on healthy choices and avoid the weight gains associated with too little sleep and too much stress.
  • Avoid psychological eating: Instead of treating or comforting yourself with food, choose non-food-related rewards such as listening to music, reading a book, taking a trip, or buying a new outfit – break the habit.
  • Divert negative self-talk: Instead of blasting yourself with criticism or discouragement (“I can’t do it, I’ll never keep the weight off”), look for tools to help you redirect your thoughts and stay positive. Try affirmations or download reminder apps that keep you surrounded by positive energy and motivation.
  • Exercise: Get moving. In the Slender Wonder Weight Management Program, the majority of people who have maintained their weight loss over an extended period of time also exercise or get moving a minimum of 30 minutes a day.
  • Be accountable: Go to your check-ins, partner with a friend, and keep a journal to help you reflect on your journey about what you eat and how you feel. Set a goal you can work towards and try a little bit each day to hit the mark.

In terms of our relationships, friends and family are an integral part of our lives. Having someone that you can count on is very important when you’re going through difficult times or trying to make big shifts. It can be extremely hard seeing a loved one suffer from any condition and this is when support is even more important.

To help, below are a number of ways in which you can support a loved one on their journey to better health (Knight, 2019):

  • Accept their feelings. You need to accept the feelings of a person struggling with their weight and most importantly understand that these feelings are very hard to cope with and you may or may not see what they see. The feelings regarding their appearance are real for them. Do not judge them.
  • Be a good listener. Open a safe space to talk. People with weight issues can find it hard to acknowledge and share their thoughts and feelings in most cases because they find them embarrassing. You should understand that talking is the first step in seeking help, thus you should do your best to be there for your friend or family member.
  • Help them seek treatment and support. On many occasions, people experiencing weight problems and additional mental health problems reach out to family and friends first before they seek professional advice. This means that the support that you can offer is very valuable. It is important to know that you do not require any special training to be able to emotionally support a loved one suffering from obesity or being overweight. Being available and doing small things can be extremely valuable.
  • Support them in their self-help practices. Simply accompanying a person to their self-help sessions or to their therapists can be very valuable for them. You can even be an accountability partner or attend exercise classes together. Having a partner helps.
  • Offer practical support. By giving a hand with practical issues such as household chores or childcare you can give a person struggling with obesity and overweight more time to attend therapy sessions or gym and training classes.
  • Acknowledge small wins. Living with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours is very challenging and celebrating e.g. the less time spent engaging in a certain behaviour can motivate a person with obesity and overweight.
  • Learn what triggers compulsive behaviours. Certain situations can be very difficult and can provoke repetitive behaviours. Although sometimes situations like that cannot be avoided, doing your best to gradually work the situation out can be of a lot of help.
  • Try not to get involved in debates regarding appearance issues and encourage people to do the same.

Although it can be quite challenging and sometimes distressing being close to someone who suffers not only from obesity and overweight but also related mental health challenges, a lot of support and resources are available that can help you and your loved one cope with the daily struggles that the issues pose.

Most importantly, you should remember that at the end of the day the emotional support that you can offer is the first step towards making the life of your loved ones better, and the journey towards healthier lives by lowering levels of obesity and overweight is achievable.

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