Annette Nay, PhD

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Understanding the Psychological Aspects of Weight-Loss
Annette Nay, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1997

Dieters often feel deprived while limiting the intake of fats and sugar (Sheppard, 1993). This feeling can be compared to a dry drunk. A dry drunk constantly wants to drink but does not do so. People must reframe from the feeling of being deprived. They must choose to set limits so they can do what is best for them. Reframing their feelings will provide them with a better chance for weight-loss. They will also have a better chance of keeping the weight off in the future. They will be able to have the right frame of mind to eliminate the foods, extra fats, and/or sugars that are putting on weight. It will also help them keep a consistent healthful weight in the future (Nay, 1996).

Change is difficult for significant others in the life of those who are overweight or obese. The obese person may encounter sabotage from significant others in their weight-loss effort. Change in any system, such as that of a family, is seen as a threat to others in the same system. Overweight people in the same system as the weight-loss individual, may have been dependent on the weight-loss individual for validation of their right to be obese when the weight-loss individual was doing nothing for his or her overweight state (Kelly, 1993; Minuchin, et al, 1978).

A person does not have to be overweight to sabotage a significant other's weight-loss program. All systems try to maintain equilibrium or to stay the same. Changes in part of a relationship means other changes must be made to bring the relationship into balance again or to a new level of functioning. Most individuals will fight changes in their lives (Minuchin, et al, 1978).

Change in people's basic needs can cause strong feelings or a drive to have them back. The strongest needs people have according to Maslow are safety, shelter, food, and physiological well being). These needs also include exercise and being healthy. When people do not have a basic needs met, they fill an insufficiency, which motivates them to fulfill that need (Liebert & Spiegler, 1990. Those who do not obtain these needs feel a yearning to do so.

Some obese people have been able to reduce this drive by using defenses described by Carl Rogers. Two of these defenses are perceptual distortion and denial. When people have anxiety over conditions of worth they reduce anxiety by using defenses. Some obese or overweight individuals feel little or no anxiety over their obesity or overweight state. Since their feelings go directly against a basic need, they may be using one or both of Roger's defenses (Nay, 1996).

Both Maslow and Rogers believe that people want to become the best they can be to be or to be self-actualized and reach their greatest potential. This innate need keeps most obese and overweight people trying diet after diet to feel good about themselves (Liebert & Spiegler, 1990). Obese and overweight individuals will continue searching for "magic potions, belts or something else that will cure them" (Bailey, 1991).

Changes in interrelations of families can have drastic effects on a family member's personality. It may effects their entire lives, in some way or another (Wolman, 1982). How this person chooses to deal with change may be the basis of obesity, being overweight, food abusing, or addiction (Sheppard, 1993). Change can happen in one's ordinal position in the family (Wolman, 1982). Blended families occur in great numbers today, causing each member of the blended family to deal with the problems of their new ordinal position. It also means dealing with the loss of the old position as well (Schwartz, 1985).

The overweight or obese person's addictive thinking allows guilt-free overeating for certain or special occasions. Others eat before going out to dinner so they seem to have great willpower or do not appear to eat as much as they do. Overeating sometimes occurs when someone else is paying the bill for the meal (Schwartz, 1985).

People's thinking about food often cause them to put on extra weight. Bulk packaged rates on goodies allow obese or overweight people to feel they are spending wisely and getting a good deal. Ultimately they end up bingeing or overeating to keep the food from spoiling. The big deal was not such a good deal after all.

Some individuals may feel that if they do not get their fair share now, someone else will take it and they will not get any. This often causes eating or overeating when people were not hungry to begin with (Schwartz, 1985).

Many people, while on vacation tend to overindulge on their eating, thinking it all right because they will never be here again or be able to try this type of food. The tendency is to suspend all healthful rules about eating while on vacation (Schwartz, 1985).

Overeating happens when people rationalize reasons for their needing more food. Examples often used include pregnancy, growth, physically demanding work, or larger stature. Other rationalizations happen to people do to time constraints. They feel if they do not eat now, they will not be able to eat later, do their schedule, or the clock, not physical says it is time to eat. Over eating often occurs while some people clear the table. They tend to eat the leftovers instead of giving themselves permission to throw the food away or put it away (Schwartz, 1985).

There are those that overeat before starting a diet and then again after concluding the diet. Also there are those that eat before exercising so they feel they have enough strength to exercise. They also eat after exercising because they think they have expended so many calories that they are starving and deserve to eat again. Some eat particular foods at certain times because it has become a ritual. This often happens when people eat traditional foods during the holidays (Schwartz, 1985).

Some individuals eat because of shame and despair after they have blown their diet. Their self-talk is such that they tell themselves they have blown it for the day and there is no sense to stick with the diet for the rest of the day. They often end up bingeing (Sheppard, 1993).

Sometimes people's eating is automatically driven. When food is easily accessible, like bowls of candy or popcorn, people passing by grab a handful and eat it each time they go by. This eating is done out of want instead of need, which causes excess weight. There are times when people's concentration are  completely involved in something, like a conversation or watching TV, while they automatically eat. When this happens they do not realizing how much they are eating. They often eat large quantities of food before they realize it. This habitually happens when activities are paired with food. An example of automatic eating is consuming a whole bag of popcorn before the movie has begun (Schwartz, 1985).

Family sayings which are handed down from one generation to another, such as: "Take all you want, but eat all you take,” or “You must clean your plate, before you can leave," often causes individuals to overeat (Schwartz, 1985).

Some people do not know when they are hungry. They do not know what a hunger pain is really like, because they are continuously eating throughout the day. When they smell an appealing aroma, it sets off their appetite and they begin eating again. Others are thirsty or feel a little off health-wise and mistake the feeling of illness as hunger for food (Schwartz, 1985).

Some people eat to prove their power. Food is used to gain bulk. They believe that size or bulk gives them a sense of power. There are others who have been sexually and/or physically abused, who overeat to gain bulk in hopes that their being overweight or obese will keep them from being abused (Schwartz, 1985).

Other people eat because they are rebelling against authority figures. These individuals try to prove they are grown-up by eating when and whatever they want (Schwartz, 1985).

Some diets are accompanied by depression. Frustration from dieting and depression from failing to lose weight leads to two choices. People will either continue to put on weight, rationalizing that it doesn't matter (Liebert & Spiegler, 1990), or they will search out another diet (Bailey, 1991). This behavior adds to the list of diet failures and brings more depression and/or bingeing (Davison, 1990). Diets are not the answer. Continually eating healthfully, listening to what the body needs and eating reasonable amounts is the answer (Schwartz, 1985).

Strict diets can cause depression in women who are predisposed to being depressed (Harvard Medical School, 1992). Depression is suffered by many obese individuals, due to self-blame, self-loathing, a feels of isolation, being forsaken by their peers and the world or lack of self confidence, Due to poor mental and physical health, overweight or obese people have a pessimistic outlook on life and feel exhausted or agitated. Often they dwell on past events, “awfulizing” or exaggerating them to the point of causing more depression and overeating (Wolman, 1982).

Depression is also suffered by physiologically food addicted individuals as they try to deny the body starch and sugar. The physiologically addicted person's natural endorphin sites have shut down causing this person to abuse starch and sugar to get the chemicals to help them to feel normal. If they do not do so, depression sets in (Sheppard, 1993).

Due to poor mental and physical health, obese people are unable to sleep, which causes more depression (Wolman, 1982). Continuous dieting failures give rise to more cycles of depression, bingeing, and perhaps purging (Davison & Neale, 1990). When a person gets deep enough into depression the chance of suicide is always a possibility (Nakken, 1988; Wolman, 1982). People with depression who commit suicide are not necessarily responding to interpersonal difficulties, but consider themselves worthless. They believe their lives have become unacceptable and unmanageable due to excessive, unbearable emotional pain (Winokur, 1981; Alcoholics Anonymous, 1976). Food addiction leads these individuals to feel this way about themselves and their lives (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

One major reason for addiction is that people cannot find happiness and peace of mind in normal ways. Either they do not know how or it is just too hard. Instead they abuse a substance like food to find a false sense of happiness and/or control in their lives.

There are three basic stages in any addictive process. First, there is a change in the thought process. Second, there is a change in how people deal with life's ups and downs and relationships with others. Third, their lives and their physical and mental well-being erodes to the point where there is no control. As a result suicide may become a viable way out of their problems (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

Addiction may happen more easily to those who are predisposed to it, but no one is exempt. The nature of addiction is insidious. One could be suffering from addiction and not be aware of its existence (Nakken, 1988; Minirth et al., 1990). Addiction results from choices we make each day (Nay, 1996, Sheppard, 1993). To find control and happiness in their lives, the addicted person focuses on food as a substitute for love and acceptance by family, friends, God, community and self (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

There are those who abuse food. These are those who love to eat food. They enjoy the crunch of food, and/or love to create with it. As a result of these joys with food, they over indulge and/or abuse food. These people are not considered food addicted, but many are well on their way (Nay, 1996).

There are three types of food addicted individuals. Each type of individual has his or her own definite stages of behavior and thinking. These are the emotionally, psychologically, and psychologically addicted individuals. The emotionally addicted person's cycle starts when s/he is unhappy, stressed, or feels loss of control and chooses to change mood through food consumption. After s/he has eaten, and gain the wanted mood change, s/he feels in control again. After this wears off, the guilt or shame from food abuse sets in, causing him or her to feel unhappy again. This chemical high wears off and depression commences, it sets up another opportunity to abuse food and the cycle begins again. When this cycle has been engaged in for a time, and it becomes a set pattern of response, addiction is formed. This allows the "addictive self" to have control over the "normal self." When this happens the psychologically addicted person has developed (Nay, 1996).

The physiologically addicted individual is formed when the cyclical behavior of the causes the body to gain a tolerance to the chemical-high gotten from foods. This causes the addicted person to increase the abuse of food to get the same high. Going without the chemicals gotten from starches and sugar causes the physiologically addicted person to go into physical withdrawal or depression (Nay, 1996; Nakken, 1988).

The addicted person needs large amounts of food to get the chemicals s/he needs to stop depression and/or cope with life. This causes the bingeing or acting out behavior to become out of control. The addict acts out more frequently and in a more dangerous manner. S/He may engage is such behaviors as bingeing and purging. These actions may frighten the addicted person into stopping the addictive behavior until s/he rationalizes himself or herself into resuming the behavior, again (Nakken, 1988).

After the "addictive self" has taken over, it substitutes "addictive logic" to explain away the illogical actions the individual is engaging in. These excuses are denial of the abnormal changes in the person's life. When the "logical self" tries to point out flaws in the "addictive logic," the "addictive self" points out the pleasurable aspects of the addiction. This delusional way of thinking becomes a part of the individual (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

The more individuals substitute food for control over life's problems, the more isolated from others they become. This is because any questions about the individual's "addictive logic" is perceived as an attack on the individual himself or herself. This causes problems between the addicted person and others. The addicted person pulls further away, further isolating himself or herself (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988). Negative thoughts, illogical thinking, self defeating behaviors, and bad feelings about oneself classify obesity as a personality and emotional disorder (Sheppard, 1993, Wolman, 1982).

Objectification is taught and practiced by the addicted person. To support their addiction, addicted people treat other people as objects. In doing so, addicted people takes away the other's humanness. This allows addicted people to use others they care about to get what they want without feelings of guilt. Addicted people cannot understand why others get upset when treated this way. They think they are dealing with others fairly. Again, this leads addicted people to feel righteous indignation and withdrawal further from others. The "normal self" watches as loved ones are hurt and pushed away. The "normal self" feels ashamed and to copes, by blaming others (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

Shame, blaming, guilt, and scapegoating become a normal way of life for addicted people. Significant people in the addicted person's life feel guilty because they have rejected the addicted person. To overcome their guilty feelings they label the addicted person. This allows them to reject the addicted person without guilt. When the addicted person finally hears his or her label, the addicted person accepts the label, and uses it as another reason to commit the addictive act. Those who cannot completely reject the addicted person, due to confinement of proximity, find a reason for having the addicted person around. Thus the addicted person is usually used as a scapegoat (Nakken, 1988).

Being blamed for everything causes the addicted person to act out addictive behavior even more often (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988). Loss of control of the addicted person's behavior causes ritualistic behavior, secretiveness, and constant lying. Throughout this, the "normal self" feels increased shame, isolation and loss of control. Due to the feeling of shame and an unwillingness to acknowledge one's loss of control the addict's life becomes more and more secretive. The cycle becomes so ingrained that it becomes more and more ritualistic and secret. The "addictive self" would rather tell a lie than the truth, even when there is no reason to lie (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

At the end of the addictive cycle, the pain from loneliness, shame, and anger at the "addictive self" are almost continual. Abusing food does not cover the pain any more, it only adds more pain. When eating no longer eases the pain, the addictive logic breaks down. The pressure of so many stored feelings the addicted person has covered over with food abuse mounts up. The pressure becomes so great that it causes physical stress such as ulcers, uncontrollable crying, depression, fits of rage, paranoia in the form of free floating anxieties, mental break-down, heart attack, or suicide. "The 'addictive self 'wants to be alone, but the 'normal self' is terribly afraid of being alone" and dreads each new day (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988). The addicted person usually has problems with all aspects of his or her life, including work and family (Sheppard, 1989). S/He faces physiological, psychological, spiritual, and emotional breakdown. (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988). Stopping the addictive cycle abruptly not only causes physical withdrawal but a grieving process for the lost relationship with food (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

Throughout the whole addictive process, the "normal self" has watched the "addictive self" abuse and reject loved ones and is unable to stop the "addictive self" (Nakken, 1988). After many failed attempts to control the "addictive self," the "normal self" chooses to get rid of the "addictive self" in any manner possible; this includes suicide (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

Besides suicide there is only one other way out from this stage of the addiction and that is intervention. Most addicts are stopped through intervention by friends or loved ones. The chances of recovery are good even though the process of a complete lifestyle change is difficult and requires total commitment by the addict (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

There are minute, but distinct differences between the food abuser and the food addicted person. These differences take place in steps, first, emotionally, then psychologically, and finally, physiologically. The food abuser binges (eats excessive amounts of food in a short period of time) on food because of the love of food itself. This is not good for two reasons. Overeating causes people to be overweight or obese. It sets the stage for the abuser to slip into emotional addiction (Nay, 1996).

Emotionally, the food abuser becomes an emotional food addict when s/he chooses to use food to control mood, stress, and or loss. Psychologically, the emotional food addicted person becomes a psychologically addicted when s/he falls in to the addictive cycle. This is where the addicted person abuses food to control his or her life or emotions. S/He feels shame or guilty because of the abuse, and abuses food again to cover up the shame and guilt (Nay, 1996).

Physiologically, the psychologically addicted individual continues in the cycle, downing mega-doses of carbohydrates and sugar which gives the brain a chemical high. The psychologically addicted person does this so often that the body gains a tolerance to the chemicals in those foods. This then causes the addict to eat more and more to feel normal in his or her mood. It is at this point the psychologically addicted person becomes a physiological one (Nay, 1996; Sheppard, 1993).

The physiologically addicted person cannot stop the addictive cycle. S/He is chemically bound to continue it or go through chemical withdrawal and depression. Depression may continue indefinitely depending on whether the body’s regular chemical sites, which have shut down, will restart after the abuse has stopped (Sheppard, 1993; Nakken, 1988).

The physiologically addicted individual cannot eat sugar (processed sugar or sugar substitutes) or excessive amounts of carbohydrates (processed flour or wheat or s/he will go right back into the addictive cycle. S/He will act like a drug addicted person who needs a fix. S/He is chemically hooked (Sheppard, 1993).

It is hoped that after the addict quits overpowering the brain with chemicals from excessive processed sugar and carbohydrates that the body will revitalize the chemical sites in the brain that produce chemicals that give a natural high to fight depression (Shkurkin, 1994). People must evaluate where they are in the development of the addicted self, and work back from there to gain normalcy physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, and bridle one's passion and/or addiction for food to gain good health (Nay, 1996).

Recovery for the food addicted person begins by asking his or her Higher Power for help. Most get counseling both individual and group. Some join Rational Recovery groups or Overeater's Anonymous (OA). By joining a group of recovering addicts, the addict learns how to recover from someone who has been there (Sheppard, 1993).

Physiologically addicted people's binge and trigger foods such as those containing processed sugar and excessive amounts of wheat or processed flour are eliminated from the diet (abstinence program). Excessive exercising, bingeing, purging, fasting, and any other unhealthy practices are stopped. The addict needs to commit to a ninety day abstinence program to clean the body from the chemicals that are causing their addiction. Overeaters Anonymous (OA) helps their members overcome their addicted behavior with a controlled food program and a "12-steps" sponsor. OA members understand and help addicted people get through the physical withdrawal of the chemical dependence. There are some individuals who need medical supervision for their withdrawal because their symptoms are so sever (Overeaters Anonymous, 1960).

The PAW model by Terence T. Gorski (Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms) outlines the withdrawal symptoms some psychological and most physiological which addicts go through to gain chemical independence. There are six main symptoms. These are, "inability to think clearly, memory problems, emotional over-reaction or numbness, sleep disturbances, physical coordination problems, and stress sensitivity" (Sheppard, 1993).

Journaling what is to be eaten and having it approved by an OA food program sponsor is a good way for most addicted people to get clean from the addictive chemicals of sugar and starch. It also helps addicted people to eat healthfully (Overeaters Anonymous, 1960).

Journaling is also used to help addicted people get in contact with their feelings about food, overcome withdrawal cravings, and understand how to deal with them. It is used to work through the feeling addicted people have about the negative treatment they received from others and how they were able to handled those feelings (Sheppard, 1993, Overeaters Anonymous, 1960).

OA food sponsors tell their newly recovering members to stick to the food plan. They are not to diet, just follow the plan and the weight comes off. They need to stop obsessing over weight-loss. They help the recovering addicts to focus on the pleasurable food available in their new life style, not what has been given up (Sheppard, 1993).

Recovering people begin to develop a new attitudes and relationships. They ask for help from their Higher Power to achieve these and understand the things that are best thing for them. They learn to do away with self-pity (Sheppard, 1993).

Studies have shown that recovery has a much greater chance of success when done with the help of an experienced recovering person. The chances of failure are almost assured when going it alone (Sheppard, 1993).

Those who do not change their attitude towards food are like dry drunks in that they still have the desire and thoughts of the addicted person. These individuals are most likely to fall into addiction again. A new attitude is often achieved through counseling. Both individual and group sessions teach the recovering people how to deal with the problems they have covered up with food. Stress management, exercise, yoga, journaling, deep breathing, and other tools are used to help recovery happen. Counseling helps one identify one's emotions and how to express them (Nay, 1996).

OA groups have their members "name (identify), the feelings, then claim or take responsibility for what part is theirs, and dump feelings out in the open and talk them out. Counseling teaches recovering people the nature of food addiction. This is so they understand what they have gone through. It is important to understand the nature of the disease so they can recognize the addictive aspects trying to lure them back into addiction. The recovering person learns that food addiction is a disease and cannot ever be eradicated only controlled (Sheppard, 1993).

Counseling helps the recovering person identify the affect the addiction has had upon his or her significant others. It helps the individual work through rough spots such as making amends with those they have been hurt by the addiction. Counseling also helps the families of the addicted person. It can help the family of origin or the current family unit. They come to recognize the addicted person has unhealthy behavior toward food. Often these behaviors adopted by family members who in turn need help for their own food abuse, food addiction, or codependency. Counseling can help the family enjoy improved relationships within the family, with others, and have a good sense of self esteem. It can help them develop new interests and hobbies or possibly go back to school with the time that was used to obsess and deal with food. Counseling can improve the families health physically, physiologically, socially, spiritually and emotionally (Sheppard, 1993).

Good sources of psycho-educational material on food addiction for those who are physiologically addicted are available in Kay Sheppard's book, “Food Addiction,” OA food advisor, or professional counseling (Sheppard, 1993, Overeaters Anonymous, 1960).

There are behaviors which signal that individual's are relapsing back into food addiction. Examples of these warning signs are obsessing over food, weight, dieting, obsessing over one's body image, or returning to bingeing and/or purging. Other signs are trusting in one's addicted-ill mind, instead of others, getting overly hungry, lonely, tired, or physically ill, going off the food plan, changing it, or not attending group. Other signs of relapse behavior are engaging in rapid eating, compulsive eating, overeating, not checking one's food plan with their OA food advisor, and/or not working the 12-step program.

Warning signs for some individuals are not facing up to problems or letting pressure, stress or tension to build from those problems, eating one's binge foods, carbohydrates, wheat, and or processed sugar. Other causes for relapse is lying to oneself or others, not asking for help when needed, neglecting to read food labels, not measuring the amounts of food, and/or not staying with safe foods.

Finally, recovering individuals should pay attention to the warning signs of starving themselves, getting over angry, and/or not dealing with one's feelings, negative self-talk, reminding themselves of the positive points of addiction, and/or reminding themselves of the negative points of abstention, disregarding the thoughts and help from one's Higher Power and/or entertaining irrational thoughts (Sheppard, 1993).



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Liebert, R. M., & Spiegler, (1990). Personality: Strategies and issues (6th ed.). CA: Wadsworth Inc.

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Minuchin, S., Roseman, B. L., & Baker, L. (1978). Psychosomatic families anorexia nervosa in context. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

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