When I talk to people struggling with excess weight, the same themes repeat themselves, often for decades. Does any of this sound familiar?
• “I’ve tried everything, but nothing has worked. I might as well give up.”
• “I must be genetically programmed to be overweight.”
• “I’m too old to start all over again.”
• “I know I should exercise, but I can’t stay motivated.”
• “I know the right foods to eat, but I give in to temptations and cravings.”
• “It’s all just too hard.”
When most doctors hear such remarks, they aren’t paying attention to the psychological implications – the doctor is trying to isolate a physical complaint. Beyond that, the vast majority of physicians, including myself, received no training in nutrition in medical school, which generally covers only the most basic training about weight (in lectures on endocrinology), and devotes almost zero hours to the effects of dieting. As for emotions, those require a psychiatrist or other therapist. They aren’t part of a typical physician’s job description.
It’s incomplete medicine when the mind-body connection is being ignored. In anyone’s story, the main themes aren’t incidental or irrelevant. When you feed negative input into the brain, it changes, shaping itself to conform to the messaging it receives. The brain has no mind of its own. It cannot choose which instructions to obey and which to ignore. You’re the one who possesses a mind, and you’re the author writing your story. This means that you have the most control. You can feed negative messages to your brain or positive messages – the choice is yours.
I realize that neuroscience treats the brain and the mind as one and the same. That’s because the mind is invisible while the brain is a semi-solid object that can be touched and measured. My position is different and I think closer to real life. The brain is like a radio receiving what the mind has to say. When you hear a concert broadcast, you don’t mistake the radio for Mozart. If someone whispers “I love you” into your ear, you’re the one who falls in love, not your limbic system. The mind comes first because the person comes first.
The Freedom to Choose Something Different
Your body is the physical record of your life story as you’ve lived it until today. Every pound represents a choice to eat a certain way, and each bite is silently influenced by a set of habits, a list of likes and dislikes, and how others around you are eating. If you’re unhappy with your weight, those extra pounds are likely to represent some unhappy experiences: moments of frustration, high levels of stress, anxiety over a job or a relationship. If your body represents your story so far, the natural way to change your body is to change your story.
In my experience, when someone is overweight, they say negative things to themselves over and over. Remember, when you change your internal messages, you aren’t just talking to yourself. You’re writing new pages in the book of your life. The key is to change the negative messages so that instead of reinforcing bad behaviors, you begin to reinforce good ones.
Here are a few of the common negative stories that people struggling with their weight tell themselves – and their positive antidotes. Keep in mind that the positive messages are just suggestions. Feel free to invent your own new stories, for that is the best way to really take control of the input your brain is receiving.
1. Old Story: I’ve tried so many diets and nothing has worked. I might as well give up.
New Story: Today’s a new day. Whatever happened in the past doesn’t count. There’s always possibility and a solution in the present.
2. Old Story: My genes must be programmed to make me fat.
New Story: I can’t change my genes but I can trigger other genes that regulate normal appetite. I know people who have lost huge amounts of weight. Their genes didn’t hold them back, and mine won’t either.
3. Old Story: I’m too old to start all over again.
New Story: Age doesn’t matter because when I lose weight, I’m going back in time. I’m reversing the aging process to get back to where my body used to be – and wants to be.
4. Old Story: I know I should exercise, but I can’t keep myself motivated.
New Story: I can shift my perspective on exercise and find ways to move my body that are fun, such as dancing, walking in nature, or simple yoga. Once I remember how good it feels to move around, motivation won’t be a problem.
5. Old Story: It’s all just too hard.
New Story: The hard part was deprivation, rigid discipline, and struggling against hunger. I’m not going to do any of those things anymore. Finding satisfaction is easy, and it’s my new path.
Whenever the familiar, negative themes run through your mind, stop and notice what you’re thinking. Then substitute a counterthought, a positive message. In this way, you jump-start the process of rewriting your story and changing your body as you do.