Everyone’s different … weight loss is a personal thing. rather than relying on ‘one size fits all’ diets, writes Rachel Browne, many overweight Australians need to simply ask themselves: why?
It is the most important tool in weight loss and often the most overlooked. No, it’s not a high-tech exercise machine or a set of digital scales. It’s the human brain.
Almost two-thirds of the Australian population is overweight, so there is no doubt healthier eating is a concern for many.
We can hardly be accused of ignoring the issue; Australians spend about $750 million a year on weight-loss programs as well as surgical procedures such as lap banding and liposuction.
But experts believe this is money down the drain if we don’t examine the reasons we become overweight in the first place. and on this point, they say we’re better off exercising our self-awareness than sweating it out in the gym.
WEIGHT LOSS: IT’S a PERSONAL THING
American neuroscientist Daniel Amen believes personality type is a key driver of obesity, something he examines in his book, the Amen Solution: the Brain Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Keep it off.
He argues people with certain personality types (see box, right) are prone to overeating but can harness their traits to help them shed the kilos as well.
”The brain controls everything we do, including how we think, feel, behave and eat,” he tells S.Well. ”To understand obesity, it is critical to understand the brain.”
He has identified five types of overeaters: impulsive, compulsive, impulsive-compulsive, sad and anxious.
Amen’s research shows each group must avoid certain foods – and eat more of others – in order to lose weight.
He says conventional diets fail these people because they take a one-size-fits-all approach, rather than looking at why the person consumes food the way they do.
”Many diets actually make them worse,” he says.
One of his patients, Steve, weighed close to 275 kilograms. the 40-year-old had been addicted to alcohol and cigarettes for 25 years, suffered from depression and had weight-related health problems.
He tried unsuccessfully to lose weight and was considering suicide but he was too big to get up the stairs of his house to find his gun. After consulting Dr Amen he lost 172 kilograms over 18 months by eating to suit his personality type.
”Not only does Steve look and feel dramatically younger but his brain is younger as well,” Amen says.
”He has better focus, energy and a memory. Ultimately, Steve used his brain to change his age and in the process he saved his life.”
Amen believes most people are unaware of the part psychology plays in the maintenance of a healthy weight.
”Very few people talk about brain-directed weight loss,” he says.
Ditch The Diet
Health professionals are becoming increasingly interested in the psychological aspects of weight loss.
A dietitian with the Dietitians Association of Australia, Tania Ferraretto, works specifically in the area of eating behaviour.
She believes there is a lot more to healthy weight maintenance than simply eating less and moving more
”I get really annoyed when we constantly see new diets,” she says.
”They are so simplistic. most people know what they have to do to lose weight; they just don’t do it. so you have to look at why they are not doing it. and most of the time it’s nothing to do with appetite.
”It’s a complex issue. there is no quick fix, there is no silver bullet, there is no one diet that will suit everyone.
”That’s why people do need to look at their own individual situation and really look at the reasons why they eat the way they eat.”
She believes women are more prone to eating for emotional reasons than men.
”When we see men for weight loss, on the whole it’s often related to a lack of awareness,” she says.
”They’ll say they have to go to business lunches as part of their job. All they need is practical suggestions.
”They don’t have to think too much about it, they just have to do it … for most women it’s much more complicated. most women know what to do but for various reasons – and it’s often to do with emotions – they find it hard.
”It’s a generalisation but guys often manage stress or depression with alcohol whereas women do the same with food.
”Using food to comfort yourself or treat yourself is a common thing.”
Ferraretto asks her clients to keep a food diary, recording not just what they are eating but what is happening in their lives at the same time.
”If they find they overeat under certain circumstances we talk about other strategies … to cope in those situations,” she says.
”They learn how to manage without turning to food. You really do need to unpick the whole thing and try to work out what’s going on.”
The fact we’re spending millions on weight-loss products and yet, as a nation, we are still overweight suggests conventional diets don’t work. several books examining the psychological side of weight loss have appeared on shelves recently, including Marianne Williamson’s a course in Weight Loss. Williamson was inspired to write the book by Australian woman Grace Gedeon, a lawyer-turned-counsellor who lost 68 kilograms after changing her food habits.
The book has been praised by Oprah Winfrey and Gedeon and Williamson now run international workshops sharing their expertise.
Eating Personality Types
Description do you think about food constantly? are you planning dinner while still digesting breakfast?
Action Avoid high-protein diets because these foods are thought to increase focus – which compulsive types already have. Try eating more complex carbohydrates, which help the body produce more serotonin and improve moods.
Description do you lack control when it comes to food? are you the type of person who can’t stop at one slice of cake or one hot chip?
Action According to Amen, they should avoid complex carbohydrates because they will reduce control further. Try dopamine-raising foods such as chicken and oats because they are thought to increase concentration.
Description these people face a double-whammy when eating. Not only do they seem to ”crave” food constantly, they find it hard to stop themselves once they start eating it.
Action Amen believes these people can harness their compulsive-impulsive natures and try to switch their focus from food to exercise. Not only will the exercise help them maintain a healthier weight, if they are out in the park, they are away from the kitchen cupboard.
Description do you turn to trans-fat-laden foods for comfort when feeling depressed or overwrought? Or do you seek succour in sweets?
Action Amen recommends emotional eaters should increase their consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, found in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and fish. these can help calm the body.
Description do you use food for medicinal purposes when feeling tense, nervous or fearful?
Action Caffeine, found in coffee as well as cola drinks, energy drinks and chocolate, is a big no-no for these people. it will not alleviate their anxiety. instead, Amen recommends they try a diet high in the amino acid glutamine, which is found in lentils, broccoli and nuts.