The prevalence of obesity is growing exponentially with recent statistics suggesting that one in four adult Canadians will be recorded as over-weight or obese in their lifetime. Obesity has detrimental effects on an individual level in that it leads to both physical and mental health problems such as Type II diabetes, cardiovascular difficulties, higher risks of depression and anxiety and issues pertaining to self-esteem. Obesity also impacts negatively on a wider societal level as the higher frequencies of illness lead to increased pressures on healthcare and employment systems. What is most disconcerting is that despite the very real risks associated with a trend towards an obesity epidemic, positive treatment effects (i.e. weight-loss) and in particular sustained positive treatment effects (i.e. sustained weight-loss) can be extremely difficult to achieve.
This difficulty is something that many, if not most of us have been subject to. Estimates suggest that the large majority of us have attempted some form of weight-loss treatment in the past. Most commonly these treatments are behavioural in nature – for instance we restrict our diets or increase our levels of exercise. Alternative treatments such as surgical procedures have aimed towards addressing the physical aspects of weight-loss. Though these treatments can have extremely positive and long-standing effects, they do not work for everyone. What is becoming increasingly clear is that these behavioural and medical methods in isolation neglect the psychosocial components that underlie successful sustained weight-loss. In other words, most routes that we take in order to lose weight and then to keep this weight off, do not address the psychological aspects of the process.
Consider for example the idea of restricting the number of calories that you intake each day. You might successfully behave in a way that results in you consuming 500 less calories daily than you would have previously. You might do this for a month and start to notice some changes physically. Now sometimes such noticeable changes can spur a person on further and motivate continued weight-loss. Sooner or later however you hit a road-block, as your weight-loss levels off and your motivation steadily decreases, the behavioural action of eating healthily starts to become more of struggle. Eventually you lose all motivation and your restrictive eating behaviour becomes too difficult. You resume your previous eating habits and regain the weight that you previously lost.
This situation might not resemble all experiences with this practice but it is likely to resonate with many. The problem with this example is that the chosen treatment encourages a restrictive practice without providing an opportunity for developing self-regulatory eating habits. Self-regulation refers to how an individual responds intuitively and effectively to stimuli in their environment. Self-regulatory eating is a psychological process that has been shown to be associated with maintained weight-loss. As such, weight-loss treatments that incorporate opportunities for the development of such skills are necessary in order to tackle the oncoming obesity epidemic.
Thankfully, research has started to pay serious attention to the psychological correlates of successful weight-loss. A recent study carried out by a team at the University of Adelaide in Western Australia, compared weight-loss maintainers and non-maintainers on a number of psychological correlates and found that weight-loss maintainers demonstrated significantly higher levels of agentic thinking than their non-maintainer counterparts. Agentic thinking refers to cognitive processes that allow a person to plan and complete actions that contribute to achieving their goals. This finding therefore suggests that promoting agentic thinking can contribute to maintained weight-loss effects.
Many of us entered the New Year with resolutions to eat better or lose some weight. Given that we are now approaching the brighter months, consider how successful your resolutions have been thus far. Think about whether or not you have been addressing the underlying psychological processes required to help you gain and maintain these effects. Behavioural changes are most certainly required for weight-loss but addressing what is going on in your head is equally as important.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.