Too much going on in your life right now? This may not be a good time to try to lose weight

Photo by Mauro Mora for Unsplash

As I emphasise over and again with Appetite Retraining, permanent weight loss requires a permanent change to eating habits. And in order to change an established eating habit, you need to have energy and brain space (Working Memory) available.

In my view, one of the main reasons conventional diets fail for most people is that they require wholesale overnight change of how you eat. We are not built to do that. Human beings develop habits for things we do regularly, and the beauty of habit formation is that the behavioural sequence involved is relegated to automatic (subconscious) control. To change a habit, you have to bring that sequence into conscious awareness and use your Working Memory to create a new behavioural sequence (that is, a habit). And you need to do this repeatedly until that new habit has become established. I have a whole chapter on this (Chapter 3, “The Psychology of Eating and Appetite”) on this in my book “How to Retrain Your Appetite”.

Our Working Memory capacity is limited

What this means in practice is that changing established habits takes effort, and it requires that you focus on the change you are trying to make until you have established a new habit. Focusing on changing a habit uses your “Working Memory”. Working Memory is the mental space you use to do whatever you are doing right now. It has a very small capacity, and a narrow focus, but has numerous feeds in to it and can switch to another task rapidly if needed.

If you have something major going on in your life, which is emotionally upsetting or disturbing, that issue is likely to hijack your Working Memory from time to time, until it is resolved. It will compete for Working Memory capacity, and when the competition is between major-life-issue and trying to change an established eating habit, the bigger issue is likely to triumph. And as we’ve seen, if you haven’t got any Working Memory space free to re-sequence an established habit, your brain will just do the old habitual thing.

All too often people attempt to lose weight when they have something major going on in their lives which de-rails their ability to keep the habit they are trying to change at the front of their mind.

After a number of failed diets Claire was keen to follow my approach to losing weight by making one stepwise change to her eating habits at a time. The size of her evening meal was the first change she wanted to attempt, but my assessment revealed that she had major conflict in her extended family which frequently overwhelmed both her and her husband. We agreed that she would experiment with making the change to see how she got on. After a few weeks she was disappointed to report back that she had been able to eat a smaller evening meal each night until a serious incident involving a family member threw her off track and she had returned to her old eating pattern. We then agreed to keep in touch but to wait until the situation improved. After a few months the family situation had significantly changed and she returned to focusing on eating a smaller evening meal. Within 2 months she had lost half a stone and gained considerable self-confidence and is now working on the next half-stone.

Is this the right time for you to embark on trying to lose weight?

My suggestion to you if you’re wanting to lose weight but have other major things on your mind at the moment is to spend 10 minutes sitting quietly with a notebook, working out whether this is the right time to try. It might be better for your health and wellbeing to postpone making changes to how you eat. By all means, think about how you will go about losing weight when you do have the mental space to do it. Will you want to join a supportive group-based programme like Weight Watchers or Slimming World? Or follow an individual programme with recipes and nutritional advice? If neither of these is right for you, and instead you want help changing your specific unhelpful eating habits, with psychological advice about how to do that, Appetite Retraining will be able to help you. But remember that every approach will benefit from you having enough mental bandwidth to focus on making the changes you want to.

Related article:

Why is it so ridiculously hard to lose a stone in weight? Part 1 of 3: Because you try to change too much at once

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