How many times have you heard that in order to lose weight, all you need is a little self control? How many times have you beat yourself up for not having any willpower? What would you think if I told you there’s so much more to weight loss than that – and that the way you feel inside is far more connected than you realize?
So many women come to me frustrated about an inability to lose weight, and are surprised when I tell them exactly that. Sure, they might know that when they’re sad they turn to comfort foods that aren’t the most healthy choices. But they look shocked when I tell them that even if they resist that temptation, the emotions they’re holding on to could be sabotaging their weight loss.
Often, women tell me they’re doing everything “right.” They eat plenty of fresh organic vegetables, exercise regularly – they even know how important healthy fats are. But still, their bodies cling to extra pounds and they grow increasingly upset and anxious about the way they look and feel. They know that carrying around too much excess fat can take a great toll on their health, and they feel like a failure when they simply can’t change it.
What they don’t realize is that it isn’t just current emotional turmoil that can impact weight loss. Trauma and upset from long ago can do the exact same thing! That’s right — your old emotions and weight loss resistance can go hand in hand. And until you deal with your history, you may not be able to shed desired pounds. Let’s take a closer look at how this works.
The Subconscious Link Between Emotions and Weight
It’s not unusual for people to turn to food in reaction to strong emotions – both negative and positive. That’s especially true for Americans, who both celebrate and grieve with each other via an endless stream of edible offerings. And we do it without even thinking about it.
Understanding the position food has been given in our society and in your family, is the first step to changing habits – some of which started before you were even old enough to talk. Have you ever seen a baby on its first birthday, diving into a cake baked especially for them? They’re learning already that sweet treats play a starring role in celebrations. And think about any memorial reception you’ve been to. How many hearty “comfort food” casseroles were brought through the door by well meaning friends and neighbors?
Are you starting to see the connections between emotions and weight loss? Professional psychologists are. One survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center revealed that psychologists believe that gaining control over behaviors and emotions related to eating played a key part in losing weight and keeping it off. 92% of the respondents who provided weight loss treatment reported that they helped clients “address underlying emotional issues related to weight gain.” And more than 70% said that cognitive therapy, problem-solving and mindfulness were “excellent” or “good” weight loss strategies.
Related article: Lose Weight and Keep It Off – Finding What Works for You!
Cravings and the Reward System in Your Brain
When you give in to the call of the pastry at the office meeting, or head to the freezer for some ice cream after dinner, you probably beat yourself up, cursing your lack of willpower. But giving in to temptation has roots far deeper than lack of self-control, and if something goes awry with the messages your brain is sending, it often won’t matter how much you want to resist; you simply won’t be able to do so.
Your brain comes with a built in system to find what your body needs for survival. Many chemicals, called neurotransmitters, carry the information about what is essential to survival to the brain. The problem is that these neurotransmitters are also activated by pleasurable experiences not crucial to carrying on the human race. And outside substances or behaviors – alcohol, drugs, salty or sweet foods, and chronic overeating – do the same thing. When these neurotransmitters are too weak or too strong, your ability to exert control over the cravings you feel can be impacted.
There are four chemicals that are closely connected to your brain reward system: dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and endorphins.
Dopamine is a “feel-good” chemical. When the brain releases small amounts, our feelings of pleasure increase. But if that happens too often, it takes a lot more stimulation to feel anything. Like a lot of substances used to self-medicate, foods high in fat and calories cause an increase in dopamine, which makes them incredibly appealing, especially in moments of turmoil.
Serotonin promotes a sense of happiness and flexibility, free from worry. Many antidepressants on the market target this neurotransmitter. Low levels of serotonin can cause depression, anxiety, and rigid, inflexible thinking. The amino acids l-tryptophan and 5-HTP increase serotonin in the brain – and simple carbohydrates increase i-tryptophan. That’s why bread, pastries and sugar are what so many seek out to help themselves feel better.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a calming neurotransmitter. It relaxes the brain in times of stress and/or trauma. If GABA levels are low, the emotional part of your brain can become overactive. Emotional eating is often an attempt to calm that section of your brain down.
Endorphins are chemicals that naturally stimulate pleasure or reduce pain. Because they’re a natural parallel to drugs like heroin, endorphins are very connected to cravings, addiction, and losing control.
Understanding that natural substances in your brain can be behind your behaviors can lead to solutions, instead of self-flagellation.
Childhood Experiences Could Be Behind Your Weight Loss Resistance
We are learning more all the time about how our early experiences can impact our health. The groundbreaking ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study has given us a wealth of information about how early trauma is associated with health problems such as heart disease, depression, and obesity.
A 2010 article in Time Magazine outlined the connection between a high ACE score and obesity. People with four or more identified ACEs had almost double the risk of becoming obese. Food can become an escape, a way of self-medicating to hide from the pain of abuse or other trauma.
And then there’s the biological effects of stress response, which reaches far back in the evolutionary process. Periods of stress early in life can set your genes up to send the message that your body needs to respond to any stress by storing fat, in preparation for the next period of famine. And these biological changes can be handed down from one generation to the next. So it may not even be your childhood experiences that are impacting your weight loss resistance!
Emotions Influence Hormones Critical to Weight Loss
Our body systems are intricately linked; they don’t function in isolation. But many people fail to understand all the paths that lead from one to another. For instance, you might have a thorough understanding of how hormones impact your weight, but have no idea what impacts your hormones.
Hormones are essential to the body’s fat-burning capacity. Hormones carry messages throughout your body, and react to the various ratios of fat, carbohydrates and protein you consume. Stress changes the levels of hormones present in your body, causing the physical symptoms many people recognize.
What isn’t so easily understood is the connection between stress, emotions, and weight gain. Some of the most easily identified sources of stress are traumatic events, work deadlines, and family needs. But it’s important to know that how you feel about life events — current or past, acknowledged or not – is a huge source of stress that can also send your hormones spiraling in the wrong direction, causing you to hold on to, and even gain, weight.
Two hormones that are certainly connected to emotions and weight gain are insulin and cortisol – which are themselves connected. Stress causes a release of cortisol, and elevated levels of cortisol leads to visceral fat storage. Cortisol also impacts insulin sensitivity, appetite, and food cravings.
The feelings you hold inside send out a distress call, which activates your stress response, which impacts hormones – and you probably don’t even know it is happening. That’s why it’s so important to examine not only physical ailments, but what’s happening psychologically as well, when faced with weight loss resistance.
Related article: Are You Someone With Weight Loss Resistance?
Why Do We Hold On So Tightly to Emotions – and Weight?
Ask any woman who is carrying extra weight around if she enjoys it and you’ll likely hear a resounding “NO.” And you’ll get the same answer if you ask if she enjoys holding on to past hurts. So why are both such common issues?
The culture we live in bears some of the responsibility. How many times have you heard someone say “women are so emotional” like that’s a bad thing? How many phrases can you think of that encourage us to hold our feelings back: have a stiff upper lip; don’t let them see you sweat; big girls don’t cry; hold yourself together — I could go on and on.
We learn when we are very young what the expectations of those around us are – and it’s tough to break free from those expectations even as adults. In the work world, women often feel pressure to be stoic, and not let their personal lives interfere with productivity. And it’s hard to change your mindset even after you leave the office.
And then there are the messages we receive about what’s acceptable behavior in others — even when we know it doesn’t feel right. Women face inappropriate comments and gestures constantly, and all too often we’re told that we are being too sensitive, or taking it wrong. We’re told “boys will be boys,” and taught to just ignore it.
I experienced this first hand in college. Every day, on my way to class, if I went down a particular path I dealt with men whistling, cat-calling, and making inappropriate comments as I passed by. I was so uncomfortable with this that I began getting up earlier than I needed to so that I could take a different route to class. Instead of confronting them on their inappropriate behavior, I let myself be inconvenienced. I, like so many other young women, assumed it was my responsibility to just deal with it. I felt objectified at the time and did not know at that time how to deal with it as a young woman.
The “me too” movement is finally giving women a voice, and the power to speak up and say that these cultural norms are not okay. It’s helping women understand they don’t have to put up with this kind of thing the way that I did. But it has only just begun, and if history is any indicator, it will be a very long time before there’s a real shift in culture.
Meanwhile, some women are developing protective behaviors – such as gaining weight so as to appear “unattractive” and avoid unwanted attention. But they don’t know they’re doing it, so they head down the road of negative self-talk, sometimes leading to deprivation, followed by binge eating, and even more weight gain. And this roller coaster ride of emotions takes its toll, sending hormones reeling.
So how can we avoid this pattern?
Breaking Up the Negative Relationship Between Emotions and Weight
In my book The Core Balance diet, I dedicated a whole chapter to the importance of psychological healing when it comes to finding optimal balance in your life – and your weight. The chapter was titled “Your Issues are in Your Tissues,” because that’s really what’s happening here. As you internalize the negative emotions – fear, disgust, anger, and more – your body has to process them. And it often hangs on to them far longer than it should.
Those emotions are stressful, and we’ve already talked about what happens when your body faces constant stress. Your life becomes one long reaction, rather than a choice about who you want to be. How can you break this negative cycle and heal your mind and spirit? Here are a few quick tips.
Face Up to Old Hurts
What negative conversation do you have buried deep inside your tissues? Have you told yourself you are ugly, unworthy, or unlovable? Where did this story come from? If you won’t acknowledge your prior experiences, you can’t let them go.
Keeping emotions inside allows them to build up like a dormant volcano until you are poised to erupt, setting off involuntary reactions to everyday situations. If you aren’t ready to reveal your deepest feelings aloud, try keeping a daily journal.
Reach Out to Others
While you shouldn’t solely depend on others for validation, reaching out to a friend or trusted professional when negative emotions crop up can be a great release. Talk therapy and alternative therapies like biofeedback and hypnotherapy can be very effective ways of dealing with past issues and getting rid of negative emotions – and weight that’s been hanging on too long!
Be Kind to Yourself
Emotions have great power – but you do too! Many emotions are perceived as negative, and we beat ourselves up when they crop up. But emotions aren’t bad or good — they simply are. You can’t control what you feel, but you can certainly control how you react to it with a little practice. Change your internal conversation. Instead of running through a list of all the reasons you aren’t good enough, try creating a list of all the ways in which you are an amazing, strong woman.
Exercise is a natural mood booster, and a great way to release pent up emotions. It doesn’t matter what you do — dance, run, walk, skip, stretch — as long as you love it, physical activity can have a big impact on how you feel. And chances are, if you’re grooving on a dance floor or running a 5K, you won’t be reaching for chips or cookies or even wanting them!
Balance Your Brain Chemicals
As I talked about earlier, the neurotransmitters in your brain can determine how successful you will be at making appropriate choices when it comes to food. You may need to work with your health care practitioner to have an amino acid profile completed. This will help determine appropriate supplements for your unique neurotransmitter needs.
Enjoy the Natural World
We spend so much time cooped up inside, tending to others or working to pay the bills. It can be tempting when you do have some down time to collapse on the couch or head for your bed, but spending time outside can be so much better for your mood – and your weight loss goals. Walking barefoot on the beach or getting your hands dirty in your garden can reconnect you with the Earth and boost your spirits. Direct sunlight on your skin increases vitamin D production, which can lift your mood and make you feel energized.
To Look Your Best, You Have to Feel Your Best
It’s nearly impossible to address physical ailments – including unwanted weight gain – if you don’t also address what’s happening in your mind and with your spirit. Your body is programmed to protect you – even from your own hidden hurts. Taking the time to examine, honor, and release the feelings you have been carrying around inside is the first step towards feeling your best. When you are in control of your emotions, instead of allowing your emotions to control you, you just might be surprised to find how great you feel — and how good feeling great can look, too!