Cognitive Therapy and Its Application to Weight Maintenance

The weight-loss industry is alive and well.  If one is overweight, the choices of diets, nutritional supplements, herbal remedies, exercise programs, support groups, and motivational programs are endless.  If devouring a carton of ice cream doesn’t stress you out, ruminating about one’s weight-reducing options can sufficiently reduce one to tears.

If there is a quick fix to maintaining the loss of weight, I have yet to see it.  There are plenty of ways to lose weight, but what about the process of keeping it off?  Often people bounce around from one dietary plan to another as their weight fluctuates during the quest for the perfect plan.  They may deny the reality that there is no panacea for proper weight maintenance.  It is a multi-faceted process.

Often, individuals become obsessive with the weight-loss pattern.  Weight-loss and weight maintenance can become a ritualistic, compulsive cycle.  Charlie Whitfield, author and addictions expert call the pattern the “repetition cycle.”  Anxiety and depression mount, followed by the urge to eat, leading to self-indulgence, and ending with symptoms of self-blame and guilt.  Then the cycle of abuse repeats itself.   Ironically, those who follow an addictive quest to lose weight may actually end up sabotaging their own goals.

From childhood, we become conditioned to believe that the only way we can change is when we are coerced.  Therefore, we learn to mistrust our instincts and believe that if we give ourselves enough rope, we’ll hang ourselves.  Without exploring the psychological issues that may be triggering weight problems, most people will be doomed to repeat a pattern of self-defeating behavior.  We must understand that we are more than the pleasure center of our brain.  We are much more than the darkest side of our soul.  Many may say that if I am not intolerant of my mistakes, how will I learn to motivate myself to change?  However, real change only occurs when we learn to respect and value who we are with all of our faults.

Because of its value in dealing with an individual’s thinking, distortions, and beliefs, cognitive therapy is one of the most effective therapeutic treatments for those who seek to lose and maintain weight.  Cognitive therapy helps people make rational assessments of their weight and assists people in responding with self-affirmation to their maladaptive thinking about eating and body perception.

Self-defeating thinking and behavior tend to perpetuate the cycle of unhealthy eating.  No amount of exercise or nutritional support will address the need for individuals to learn to rationally respond to their maladaptive eating patterns.  Unhealthy eaters are often overwhelmed by self-blame.  A downward spiral is set in motion by an individual’s self-perception.   Unhealthy eaters will label themselves as being “fat” (whether they are or not) and will chastise themselves for not making progress in losing weight.  Viewing oneself as an “overweight louse” is not an effective way of motivating for change.  In fact, personal browbeating for being less than perfect only intensifies the cycle of unhealthy eating abuse.  Self-blame is a form of tyranny which keeps one stuck in the midst of the problem.

Cognitive therapy teaches the unhealthy eater to quit the self-blame, realistically assess the problem, and to set practical goals for change.  The therapist may say, “Does eating too much make you a horrible person?  In the scheme of things, how awful was it that you ate that extra helping of cake?”  Realistic appraisal follows, “what do you think you can do next time to make sure that you don’t overdo it?”

Cognitive therapists also assess body misperception.  Many people who eat in an unbalanced fashion may tell others that they are fat.  Labeling oneself in a negative manner is one of many cognitive distortions that hinder weight-loss progress.  In many cases, the individual’s concept of their weight may be exaggerated.  The therapist may say, “Does calling oneself morbidly obese change anything?  Or where’s the evidence that you are as overweight as you think you are?”

Many unhealthy eaters experience thwarted anger.  Rather than direct their resentment at the source of their difficulties, they self-sabotage by internalizing anger and misplacing it through maladaptive eating patterns.  Some may feel frustrated by the conditional nature of a relationship, may have a family member who humiliated them about their weight, or experienced rejection through social betrayal.  As confidence was stripped away, self-doubt fueled their unhealthy eating pattern.  The self-blaming message becomes, “I guess I really am a slob, so the best I can do is to continue to prove it to myself.”

Unbalanced eaters can untwist their maladaptive thinking and meet their weight goals by:

  • Learning to rationally respond to negative thinking.  For example, instead of saying, “I’ll never meet my weight goals, I’m just worthless,” one might say, “Just relax and be patient, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
  • Identify cognitive distortions such as castastrophizing, labeling, personalizing, and black and white thinking.  An example might be, “If I can’t lose 5 lbs. this week, I might as well give up” (black/white thinking).
  • Instead of being unkind to yourself, talk to yourself in the same compassionate way you would to a dear friend who is experiencing the same weight problem.
  • Instead of assuming your negative thoughts are accurate, examine the evidence that supports your conclusions.  “If I don’t lose 15 lbs., will people really think I am hopelessly obese?”
  • Instead of taking full responsibility for your weight problem, you can assess the many factors that may have contributed to it and address those issues with the support of others.
  • Set a realistic agenda.  Ask yourself, “What would it be worth to me to stop my unhealthy eating?  How hard am I willing to work on a rational solution?”
  • Evaluate weight maintenance progress based upon the process – the effort you put in – rather than the outcome.  Your efforts are within your control, but the outcome may not.
  • Substitute language that is less emotionally loaded.  “I shouldn’t have eaten that extra helping” can be redefined as, “It would have been preferable if I hadn’t eaten more.”

Often, people will expose themselves to a diet that will dramatically assist them in losing excessive weight only to have the weight return.  Instead of “quick fix” diets, setting a realistic agenda for weight-loss is a more rational, thoughtful approach.  A slow, gradual loss of weight helps us to more easily adjust to the psychological ramifications of body perception change.  Weight-loss goals need to be established because we prefer the change, not because others want it for us.  Feeling coerced to change, or sensing that others acceptance of us is conditional upon weight-loss will lead to resentment and a feeling of helplessness in our quest to change.  Instead, we must vow to learn the difference between self-indulgence and self-respect and work to put self-kindness into our everyday experience and choose our relationships based upon these positive qualities.

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S. is an author, freelance writer and retired cognitive-behavioral therapist.  His book, Troubled Childhood Triumphant Life is about the impact of adverse experiences on adult functioning (New Horizon Press, 2010).


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