Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: The Bad Smell of Stinkin’ Thinkin’

Learn how the relationship of thoughts, feelings, and behavior affect our eating and exercise habits.


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We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.

In this article, we’re exploring how the relationship of thoughts, feelings, and behavior affect our eating and exercise habits. Thinking takes center stage.

Before we get started let’s clarify a few concepts and terms. Each of us has thoughts we can’t entirely control. Sometimes we know certain thoughts are ridiculous and we can easily dismiss them and ask ourselves, “Where did that come from?” We won’t be scrutinizing those thoughts. Instead, I want to focus on thoughts that matter — the ones that influence behavior and shape our attitudes and beliefs.

Beliefs are simply thoughts we accept as true. If your mind was a garden, thoughts would be seeds that quickly developed into seedlings. Beliefs and attitudes are the mature plants. Therefore, thoughts are full of potential to help us and provide a sense of well-being. Too often, however, they derail us — and that’s where this chapter can help. Let’s look at three clients whose thinking directly affected their attempts at weight loss:

  • John needed to make changes in his diet before being approved for bariatric surgery. As I explained the MyPlate principles of healthy eating, John snapped back at me, “I’m not doing that. Nobody eats that way!”
  • A client named Karmen told me her personal trainer said she was obese because she’d ruined her metabolism. According to him, regular, intense workouts were the only way to solve her weight problem.
  • Becky’s mother always told her she’d never find a good man if she was overweight. Now 32 years old, 75 pounds overweight, and still single — Becky felt unlovable.

Can you see how John, Karmen, and Becky handicapped their weight management efforts before they even started? John’s belief that only freaks would eat a balanced diet was like putting up a huge DETOUR sign on the road to weight loss. Karmen was overwhelmed by thinking her metabolism was forever ruined, and only a lifelong extreme exercise program would treat her condition. She was bound to give up. Becky’s mother primed her to feel lonely and hopeless in pursuit of a relationship. She quickly dismissed any man who showed interest in her, yet paid close attention if anyone seemed put off by her weight. Eating would become her friend, her solace.

These three examples above show how thinking can have a clear, direct relationship to weight. However, sometimes the beliefs that affect eating and physical activity are more subtle and indirect:

  • At work, Steve’s philosophy was, “If I don’t do this, it won’t get done.” At the same time, he had high standards for work and wouldn’t delegate tasks to others. This led to 14-hour days with no time for exercise. Being strapped for time and chronically sleep deprived, he often ordered carry-out and drank caffeinated sugar- sweetened beverages all day long.
  • For years Sarah tried not to even think about her family, but she couldn’t get them out of her mind. Her alcoholic father’s relapse made her both angry and sad. Her sister’s lifestyle choices led to financial problems, and Sarah felt obligated to help. Sarah seemed to always feel upset, and to keep those emotions under control she distracted herself in some way — often by eating something she knew she shouldn’t.
  • Lisa often thought about how terrible it would be if she disappointed her boss, her husband, or her kids. She believed she needed to be everything for everyone, and this led to anxiety she couldn’t control. She felt anxious much of the time and eating became her Xanax.

The First Steps Toward Change

The first step toward thinking differently is to recognize beliefs and feelings behind the behavior we want to change. Examining situations and their outcome helps pinpoint our problematic behavior. For example, let’s consider Lisa from the last paragraph and imagine how she might respond to the following scenario:

Lisa’s boss asks for a volunteer to lead a fundraising project (situation). Lisa thinks, “My boss will be disappointed in me if I don’t do it,” (thought) and despite her already overcommitted schedule, she feels pressure (emotion/feeling) to take on the task. For Lisa, this becomes a question of which option is most unpleasant: the anxiety of not volunteering versus the anxiety and stress of accepting extra work she doesn’t want. Either way, she feels stressed because her thinking has created a lose-lose situation.

Lisa could think differently: “I’m not sure what my boss expects, but even if he does want me to do this (and I have no evidence that he does), it’s unreasonable for me to be everything for everybody. Other people in the office can benefit from taking a turn. The people who truly care about me will still feel that way even if I don’t always do exactly what they want.” She could also talk to her boss in private about his expectations. Thinking differently helps Lisa feel less anxious about her situation. Her new thinking may feel awkward at first but allows her to make the brave choice of saying “no” to more responsibility.

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