Obesity in the United States is on the rise, with 42% of American adults living with obesity, according to the CDC. And in this new reality of coronavirus, the CDC states that obesity increases the risk of severe illness with Covid-19, making people 3 times more likely to end up being hospitalized (CDC on obesity and Covid-19).
If you’re one of the many millions battling with your bodyweight, even clicking on this article deserves congratulations. Because one of the key mindsets fueling obesity is also the one that makes obesity most difficult to face head on – Perfectionism. Dr Will Aguila writes, “As as a medical doctor and surgeon, I’ve found the majority of my patients suffering from obesity are actually perfectionists too. We’re not the lazy, procrastinating, passive-aggressive people that many think we are. We set very high, sometimes unreachable, standards for ourselves.” (read Dr Aguila’s article here).
Vicious cycle of rigid rules and over-eating
Many obese people are actually really good dieters, they just go over the top in restricting calories in a way that will always backfire. Setting impossibly rigid eating rules sets us up for binges later. Not only do our bodies start to crave the foods that will make up for all the calories we’re denying ourselves, but psychologically speaking – telling someone they can’t have something probably only makes them think about it more.
Can you identify with this scenario? Monday is the start of the diet….again (ugh)! A decision has been made to swear off ‘bad’ foods – carbs or bread or whatever. Salad and chicken forever, it seems. Watching partner and family eat spaghetti for dinner while making do with bland white fish and vegetables. Going to the gym and sweating on a treadmill. Day two is pretty much the same. Day three, feeling depleted and tired and sore. Maybe making it to day 4, or to the weekend, or past it, but eventually there’s a thing. A birthday party. Halloween candy. Donuts calling your name in the office break room. Whoops – I messed up my diet. So I skip the gym that night and have red wine and two plates of spaghetti that night. Carry on eating that way – maybe for a long time or maybe just until the next Monday – the official start-the-diet day and move forward with further evidence that I’m totally useless at this task of losing weight and that I can’t resist the foods I need to avoid to get healthy. It’s either impossible, I’m genetically doomed, or I’m plain lazy, but whatever it is, it sure feels better to escape into a night of binging than analyze where I went wrong.
All that is a true story – it was my story for many years. And in my struggle with food and perfectionistic belief systems, I’ve been a food restricter and an over eater. I’ve seen both sides and learned that I needed to find a way to be more realistic in my attitudes about my body, my food and my self worth. It’s a life’s work – caring for my mind like a garden. Checking it, watering and nurturing the good bits, picking out the weeds and dead bits. It’s work. The work of self care. Being healthy with food – and then also with weight – isn’t something we can achieve with strict rules. But with self awareness, attention to cycles we get into and a willingness to problem solve, we can get there.
Coping strategies for painful feelings
Here’s the thing about perfectionism: Perfectionism is more than wanting to do your best. It’s a set of beliefs that ties self worth to being perfect and equates slip ups to total failure. It feels threatening to not be completely successful. Threat leads to anxiety, which can lead to giving up as way to escape the feeling of threat. An extra added factor in obesity issues is that food makes us feel good. It numbs emotions, calms anxiety and distracts. A vicious cycle of thoughts, feelings and behavior ensues – if I’m not good enough, I feel bad, I’ll respond – try to feel better.
Perfectionistic mindsets make us feel more drawn to rule based diets – ones where we don’t need flexible thinking. Diets that claim big results by cutting out types of foods or promise change from intense short term restriction, such as juice cleanses, liquid diets. Perfectionists, who’ve learned the value of hard work and self control, see the value in strict, rigid diets. Just don’t eat, lose weight. Makes sense, right?
Unfortunately, these kinds of diets are the one’s most likely to fail – meaning any weight loss will be short term, rather than a sustainable body change. For people struggling with perfectionism and obesity, feeling like a failure with food is emotionally painful. And for anyone, emotional pain something we try to avoid. It’s a survival instinct to numb or escape pain and failure, if we can. It’s less natural to look at it full on, in it’s raw, honest, painful and complete form. It’s not that we don’t want to fix the problem, but the toxic combination of perfectionism and feeling like a failure has created blind spots that are anxiety provoking to try and understand. Things we may not even admit to ourselves keep the problem going. It’s not a lack of personal responsibility, it’s a coping strategy that helps us get through the emotional pain of failure. Admitting the pain of failure, the fears it evokes is a good first step. From there we can begin to understand the driving forces behind our food choices.
Useful steps for perfectionists overcoming obesity
For perfectionists, the idea of softening the super high standards they hold often brings the fear that they will have no standards at all, that they will be lazy or useless and that others will not tolerate them. These high standards are often unrealistic and punishing, but to give them up feels like allowing yourself to be a loser. Perfectionism is something that has limited usefulness, meaning it started off as a useful way to cope with some of life’s pressures and uncertainties. So, the fact that it has worked in certain times reinforces the idea that the same grueling set of beliefs can be applied to everything. What can you do if you recognize this cycle and want to be set free?
What do do instead – One Small Step
Instead of thinking in an all-or-nothing way about weight loss, make one small step and aim for slow, steady progress. Look for something you can commit to without feeling like you’re sentencing yourself to death by diet. You’ll need to start building a little nutrition know-how (see below), but even a small choice in the healthy direction makes a big difference. And although it only takes a 200 hundred calorie deficit to start losing weight, the small step doesn’t have to be about eating less to start being healthier. Try adding more vegetables to meals. Or commit to cooking at home more days per week, making something balanced and healthy from scratch. If you’re ready to make some healthy swaps that will cut the body fat, make the choice to swap fizzy drinks for water or herbal tea instead of wine when you need to relax.
Become a nutrition nerd, instead of a victim of diet culture
Diet culture teaches us to think of certain foods as bad. Other foods are seen as innocent, healthy foods. Diet culture teaches us to fixate on quick results. It tries to convince us that we don’t have the tools to lose weight without a special plan or newly discovered secret. Breaking free of unhelpful diet beliefs in our culture does require a little effort to learn about what’s in your food and what your body needs. (Check out the Healthy Eating Plate tool from Harvard University as a good start to meeting nutiriotnal needs Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate) Nutritional knowledge also helps when you want to enjoy foods previously labelled as ‘bad’ within overall healthy eating habits. We can start to see so-called ‘bad’ foods for what they are, nutriotnally speaking. For example, a donut – it’s a source carbohydrate and fat. It packs a a good punch of each, which is neither good or bad as long as it fits within everything else that day. Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy, fueling the brain and heart muscles. Fats support cell growth and healthy hormone balance. We need protein to help our muscles recover. Instead of googling ‘diets’, start looking at the packaging of food, or googling the nutritional content. A good nutritional goal is to include protein, carbohydrate and fat in each meal. Instead of cutting out carbs, thinking fat is bad or only eating protein, we need to grasp that our bodies need all of those – fats, proteins and carbohydrates – to both be healthy and lose excess body fat.
Prepare for mistakes
We all mess up. Eating a little extra, giving into dessert when you already had a donut earlier in the day, even full out emotionally fueled binges. These things happen. You will be far more successful planning ahead for what to do WHEN it happens than just expecting yourself to be perfect and never screw up. What do you need to do when you make a mistake? It depends on the mistake. One tip that never fails is this: No matter how massive the mistake, how long it’s continued, you can always pick yourself up and try again. Don’t wait until the next day. Don’t wait until the beginning of the week. Start with the next meal – make it a healthy one. Don’t hold out on yourself and give into a temptation to restrict and starve. Just start again. Other than that, take a few moments and ask yourself ‘why?’ – were you stressed out? unprepared for the day? waited to long between meals and were just too hungry to think straight? did you feel lonely, angry, sad, anxious? were you trying to block something out, and if so, what? Then make some decisions – what can I do to help myself the next time this happens? It might be about better preparation. It might not have anything to do with food – maybe you needed to reach out to a friend or find some way to relax.
What is your next step? If these issues resonate with you, I encourage you to think about where you’re at and decide how you can be more flexible in your thinking about food. The good news is that we can change with practice. Letting go of perfectionistic attitudes -towards your body and yourself – will become easier with time and patience.
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