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The Mental Side of Dieting
by: S.L. Gillespie

There are many four letters words that come to mind when we think about dieting. Everything from ‘“hell” to my personal favorite, “die with a t” are used to describe what some might say is a necessary evil – the reduction of weight and more specifically, the reduction of unwanted body fat.

While the debates about “it’s not how much you eat but what you eat” and “less calories in than you expend” rage on, the most overlooked aspect that can make or break your dieting efforts is the mindset you hold while attempting one.

Without realizing it we actually have the power to change the way we feel about something, and therefore its impact on us, by how we present it to ourselves. I say “without realizing it” because although many might agree with the above statement regarding simple everyday attitudes such as ‘if we see good in a situation we feel good and if we think bad things about something we feel bad’ no where have I ever seen this mode of thought abandoned more quickly than when we approach a “diet”.

Our brain is programmed to attach a meaning and emotion to a word so quickly that we are completely unaware of it. Think a word, and if it is one you know the meaning of, it quickly springs forth along with some degree of an accompanying emotion, depending on the framework in which the word is being used when you are speaking or thinking about it. Think of the word “joy” and while you ponder its meaning how do you feel? Think of the word “anger”, contemplate its meaning and while you roll it around in your mind, notice any subtle changes in how you feel just repeating the word to yourself. While elementary demonstrations, the above should give you the basis for my next point…think “diet” and how do you feel – deprived? Sunk? Defeated? Few people have a positive reference for the word and yet all words have the meaning we assign them.

Obviously, as children we learn the given meaning of words through of studies of language in school and yet as our intellect grows and expands, we develop the ability to use the same word while assigning it a different meaning in a given context. I’ll give you a funny example…I moved to the U.S. eight years ago (and recently became a U.S. citizen, whoo hoo!) and in Canada we use the word “pissed” to mean “drunk”. The first time I was out with a new group of friends one woman began to tell the story of her and her boss at work and said “You should have seen Barbara and I on Friday morning…I was so pissed” and I turned to her and said “You were drunk at work at 7 in the morning?” She laughed and replied, “No, I was mad”. Further in to the conversation I remarked “Well we ended up going to Kempi’s and I was just pissed” and she said “Oh no, you two had a fight” to which I quickly responded “Hell no – I was drunk!” To this day I have to run the conversion of “pissed” through my mind to determine the correct meaning of the word. We all continue to have a good laugh about being unable to understand who gets drunk and who gets angry in the group.

So getting back to the mindset of “dieting” – if you view it as something that is unpleasant and “hard to do” then that will really set up the dieting game for you – it will be unpleasant and hard. And how long do most of we humans hang in there when something feels that way?

One way to lessen the mental “burden” of dieting is to reframe how you represent the word “diet” to yourself. Here is a vitally important point: our behavior is driven by either the desire to avoid pain or gain pleasure. How we represent any given situation to ourselves – whether we link pleasure or pain to it, will determine the force behind our actions. If you are able to create enough leverage with yourself of what you will look like, feel like and how happy you will be at a particular weight (pleasure) then “diet” is a tool that serves you to get there. It can be viewed as the way you obtain the goal you desire; it is a plan that you follow to get what you want.

On the other hand, if you focus more on all the negative aspects of calorie restriction (pain) then that will outweigh (no pun intended) your desire for a lean and fit body. Alternatively, consider what would happen if you were extremely overweight and the thought of being unable to enjoy playing with your children or dieing prematurely due to obesity related disease caused you so much pain that you were driven to look at “diet” as a way to save your life (pleasure)? And why then do people keep procrastinating about the “diet” and decide to start tomorrow? Because at some level they believe the “diet” (taking action) is more painful than being overweight is (putting it off). What is your perspective?

Once you develop the ability to reframe your current food program (D.I.E.T. -Declining Instead of Eating Too much?) the next step in gaining control of the mental side of dieting is positive self-talk (and by the way, I’m referring to a context beyond “I’m a good girl and I deserve a cookie” here).

For those that haven’t read the basic articles on my site regarding the subconscious (SC) and conscious minds a quick overview is needed for me to take this further:

Conscious mind:

  • Identifies incoming data
  • Analyzes situation
  • Decides on what to do
  • Sets goals and judges
  • Likes to try new things
  • Thinks in the abstract
  • Houses short-term memory
  • Is time bound (past and future)
  • Programs the sub-conscious mind

It can only hold one thought at a time. In essence, it is the reasoning, choice and decision making part of your brain.

The Subconscious (SC) mind has a greater role in your success and future serving a much larger function:

  • Controls automatic body functions (heartbeat, digestion, growth, etc.)
  • Controls the body’s emotions
  • Gives the ‘fight or flight’ bodily response
  • Controls two types of automated behaviors that have been learned
    1. physical actions (walking or riding a bike)
    2. mental actions (attitudes)
  • Houses the memory banks and records everything sensed by your five senses (holds all real & imagined life experiences)
  • Is programmable & is programmed by the conscious mind
  • Lacks ‘editing’ capability (cannot tell the difference if incoming data is real or imagined, true or false)
  • Cannot determine if your thoughts are helpful or harmful & accepts them all as true
  • Has creative problem-solving abilities
  • Instantly takes in & cross-references incoming information with information stored in its memory banks

To really grasp the significance of the subconscious mind consider this – while the conscious mind has the limited processing capacity of about 2000 bits of information per second (and about 1 to 3 events at a time), the subconscious mind records thousands of events and 4 billion bits of information per second. It has recorded every word you have ever heard (consciously or unconsciously) and every event you have been a part of, whether you were actively engaged in it, just passing by or watching it on television…everything.

The easiest way to remember these two? The conscious mind commands and the subconscious obeys.

The above is of utmost importance when it comes to dieting for many reasons, the most obvious, revealing the ramifications of the impact of our “self talk”. If your thoughts are those of “I’m fat”, “I’ll never lose weight”, “I have no hope of ever getting to X% body fat” then be scared, be very scared because your fat cells are listening. Just as any other habitual program you run is imputed by your conscious mind so too is the one governing your weight loss efforts. The belief “my family is all fat so it’s my genetic heritage is to be fat” will only serve to create exactly that. If you’d like to explore this concept more there is a great book called “Your Body Believes Every Word You Say” by Barbara Hoberman Levine that covers this topic in depth.

As noted above, your SC mind only has the ability to hold one thought at a time so the importance of keeping it focused on what you do want and off of what you don’t want will help build the SC files in your mind that support weight loss. Volumes have been written by many self-help gurus on the positive impact

Affirmations have so my aim here isn’t to teach you something you may already know. What I believe is important is how the programming occurs. Targeted efforts to overcome negative thinking for a specific topic (in this case weight loss) are worth the time they take to do them. Since the mind thinks first in pictures and second in emotions, I would encourage you to create a campaign around your self-image (more specifically how you perceive your body) and apply your positive self talk efforts here. I mean, how are you ever going to create the body you’ve always wanted if you keep walking around saying “I feel so fat”? It is the little every day conversations we have with ourselves that are the most damaging…”God, I must be 40% body fat after all the junk I ate yesterday”; “I just look at food and I gain weight”; “I just know that at my age it is going to be too hard to lost weight…” this leads to stuffing more than just more food in your face – it also plumps up the SC programs that run your body.

You can quickly tell what your core beliefs are by becoming aware of how you respond to compliments. When someone says “you look great” do you automatically shoot back “nah, I think I’ve actually gained weight”? That thought is from your unconscious (SC) mind and demonstrates clearly how you see yourself. This is the kind of stuff you have to play detective with yourself about. It is imperative that you become conscious of your self-talk and subsequently, your self-image in order to change your thinking (literally and figuratively) about it. I have often felt that the reason most people are unable to reach their physical goals is due to their defeating, self-perpetuating programming and beliefs. I’m approaching a soapbox tirade so will wrap up the point I’m making here…until you are able to talk to yourself like someone who is slim, healthy, ripped, buff, cut or whatever it is you choose to look like – YOU WILL NEVER BE!

It becomes evident from the above distinctions that drive our behavior that dieting is more than a simple act of eating less food. In order to be successful at losing weight, whether it is for a competition or to excel in sport and life, we must address the mind game behind the dieting game to achieve our outcome.

© Copyright 2006 S.L. Gillespie – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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