Nowadays we are increasingly exposed to stimuli, influencers or advertising of all sorts that promise us miraculous diets and to quickly and effortlessly achieve a healthy weight, therefore well-being and a better life. In most cases what they sell us is an illusion that only contributes to increasing our unease. The term “diet” itself is often misunderstood and very particular emotional and psychological meanings are attributed to it. In this article I would like first of all to clarify the definition of diet, placing it in a perspective of psychological support.
Definition of diet
In accordance with the definition proposed by Treccani in ancient Greek medicine with “diet” meant the way of life, the set of rules of life (nutrition, physical activity, rest, etc.) aimed at maintaining the state of health. Nowadays however, over all in the last 30 years, with changes in beauty standards, fashion industry etc. the concept of diet is mainly limited to the restriction and limitation of various foods, theoretically aimed at achieving therapeutic or preventive purposes, even if increasingly focused instead only on aesthetic canons, with all the related consequences such as guilt, discrimination, self – punishment if these standards are not met (diet culture). It is therefore essential nowadays to associate the concept of diet with that of psychological support; above all because often many diets are already undertaken during pre-adolescence, independently and without adequate support, during an age in which both physical and identity development is in full swing.
Why dieting without psychological support is a risk
Several studies have shown that embarking on a diet without adequate knowledge and professional support is one of the main risk factors for the onset of eating disorders, especially in adolescence.
Sometimes embarking on a diet can be a way to feel gratified and to manage stress in the absence of adequate affective and emotional regulation. On the contrary, it can happen to eat not out of hunger, but in response to feelings, stress conditions and emotions, especially anger. Eating in excess can therefore be the response to a change in emotional state that is impossible to manage in other ways. The paradox is that this change in state can also be caused by the fatigue of having embarked on a diet or by the frustration of not being able to follow it, creating a dangerous vicious circle.
Emotional regulation refers to the set of processes and strategies we use to influence our emotions, experience them and express them in a functional way, more specifically:
- Understanding and acceptance of one’s own emotional states
- Ability to tolerate both positive and negative emotions
- Displacement and non-suppression of the unpleasant emotion
- Use of adequate and flexible strategies to cope with the emotional load
The so-called “diet culture” also poses a threat. the set of socially accepted beliefs that value the ideal of thinness associated with the idea of beauty and health, thus promoting a series of behaviors aimed at achieving it which can potentially going to undermine the self-esteem of the most fragile people, pushing them towards potentially harmful and self-destructive beliefs and behaviors.
If you have therefore decided to embark on a diet, it is good to reflect on the reasons that prompted you to make this decision.
In the case of an objective medical need to embark on a diet, psychological support may be useful for coping with the stress and fatigue that this entails.
Intuitive Eating: Lose weight with the help of psychology
Losing weight with the help of psychology means embarking on a path of self-awareness and acceptance.
The risk factors we have talked about can contribute to the onset of eating disorders such as Binge Eating Disorder (uncontrolled eating disorder), which can lead to a condition of being overweight and severe mental illness.
The theory of intuitive eating it can encourage a greater connection with oneself and therefore increase one’s awareness, also with respect to the cultural influence of diet culture. This theory was proposed in 1995 by American nutritionists Tribole and Resch, based on 9 principles:
- Forget about “restrictive diets” as a mental category.
- Honor your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Ignore the opinions of others around you.
- Learn to choose and appreciate all foods
- Listen to the sense of satiety
- Acknowledge your emotions
- Respect your body
- Love the movement, don’t understand it as a restriction
Evidence-based therapies for weight loss thanks to psychology
To lose weight with the help of psychology it is therefore important to take into account various factors: as already mentioned, difficulties in emotional regulation and cultural influences, but also living in a problematic family environment can potentially cause the onset of eating disorders, therefore strong difficulties in relating to a diet path. The most suitable evidence-based therapies for support in this sense are psychodynamic (including psychoanalytic-relational), systemic-relational, cognitive-behavioral.
With cognitive behavioral therapy you can go to work specifically on emotional regulation problems that can lead to the use of food as emotional compensation, through 3 strategies
- cognitive restructuring
- Problem solving
Cognitive restructuring consists in modifying negative and dysfunctional thoughts regarding food and one’s body image, helping the person to develop more positive and realistic thoughts. Problem solving, on the other hand, aims to help the person solve practical problems that can hinder the process of losing weight, such as difficulty following a diet or finding time to exercise. Finally, acceptance focuses on understanding and accepting your thoughts, emotions and feelings without judging or avoiding them, in order to better manage stress and negative emotions.
Psychodynamic therapies, on the other hand, focus on identifying the root causes of dysfunctional eating behavior, which are often rooted in relationship or self-esteem issues. This therapy can help develop a greater awareness of one’s feelings and needs, improving the ability to self-regulate.
Finally, systemic-relational therapy focuses on the person’s relationships with others, particularly with members of one’s family. This therapy can help improve relationship dynamics, develop greater awareness of cultural and social influences on one’s diet, and identify and resolve any family conflicts that may affect one’s ability to diet.
In summary, psychological therapies can represent an important support for weight loss, helping to better understand and manage emotions and interpersonal relationships, identifying the root causes of eating disorders and developing cognitive and behavioral skills to better manage diet and physical activity .
Practical tips for losing weight with the help of psychology
Here are some psychological strategies that can help you lose weight:
- Identify your emotions: Many times we eat not because we are hungry, but because we are bored, stressed, sad or happy. Recognising and learning to manage the emotions that lead to binge eating may be helpful in reducing the frequency and intensity of emotional eating episodes.
- Practice food awareness: Eating slowly and focusing on the flavors and sensations of food can help reduce food consumption and promote better digestion. It also helps to recognize the feeling of satiety and avoid overeating.
- Avoid crash diets: Diets that are too restrictive or that completely eliminate one food group can lead to increased anxiety and stress, making weight loss more difficult. Furthermore, they may lead to an unfavourable perspective on food and the development of eating disorders.
- Learn to recognize negative thoughts: Often negative thoughts about our body or diet can sabotage our weight loss plan. Learning to recognize these thoughts and replace them with positive, motivating thoughts can help keep you motivated and focused on your weight loss goal.
- Seek support: Seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional can help keep you motivated and overcome any mental blocks. Additionally, it can provide an emotional support network to help maintain a positive state of mind during the weight loss process.