The most important key to weight loss has nothing to do with your stomach. (Photo: modup.net, Flickr)

With the new year fast approaching, weight loss is going to be at the top of most resolution lists. Unfortunately, although most people (at least initially) take their resolutions seriously, very few of us actually keep them beyond the month of January. Maybe part of the reason we’re failing is because of an ongoing issue in this country: We’re ignoring the impact our mental health has on reaching our goals.

The results of a recent national survey found that 90 percent of respondents ignore the most important part of weight loss: your mind. Yes, when you get down to the most basic science of weight loss, it’s pretty simple stuff. Consume fewer calories each day than you burn and the weight will come off. In a vacuum or laboratory, it’s easy to keep track of exactly how many calories are coming in versus how many you’re burning, but your life is much more complicated. Meal times change, food options vary, and your willingness or ability to track your calorie intake can change each day.

But what about the mental aspect? From an early age, we all learn to associate food with positive emotions. Whether it be holiday treats or the smell of grandma’s cookies, food is usually our go-to when we want to feel better. No wonder that we overeat, then-of course we need a boost after a long day at the office or watching the kids. Nobody wants to keep feeling stressed or anxious when there’s a box of cookies only a few steps away. However, if you’re really serious about losing weight, it’s time to start new habits and find new ways to cope when you’re down.

Only eat what you need.
First of all, let’s not kid ourselves-food is a natural reward. No matter what new habits we make, ordering a piece of pie or having a candy bar is usually going to be the easiest way to reward yourself. If you really want to find other ways to reward yourself, you must remain vigilant when it comes to what you’re eating. You always run the risk of slipping back into old eating habits if you’re not careful. It’s easy to do, since it’s not quite the same as quitting smoking. You can’t quit food cold turkey. You just have to ask yourself before digging in if you’re eating something because you’re hungry or for some other reason. If you’re eating for a reason other than sustenance, it’s best to put the food away.

Don’t use food to cope with your problems.
The positive feelings we associate with food are linked with the release of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine can help alleviate some levels of stress, anxiety or depression. It can also give you the energy and motivation you need to get through the day. However, dopamine has also been strongly linked to addictive drugs such as cocaine or amphetamines. The high these drugs offer often can’t be matched by our daily lives. While exercise, eating or even sex won’t offer these same levels of dopamine release in our bodies, they still serve the same basic function-making our lives a little better. The problem comes when we’re after too much of a good thing.

Treat the root cause.
Here’s what we know for sure. Ninety percent of Americans don’t consider the mental aspect of weight loss. Millions of Americans don’t receive proper care for their mental health disorders, and people with mental health problems are more likely to be overweight. Depression and weight gain may not necessarily be caused by one another, but they can certainly exacerbate existing conditions.

So if you do want to lose weight but are concerned about your levels of stress, anxiety or depression, the first step is to treat the disease, not the symptoms. If you ignore stress, anxiety or depression and start dieting, your body will be deprived of the dopamine it desperately craves and your mental health problems could become worse. The worse they get, the harder it will be to stay true to your dieting plans. Yes, you might make it a week or two (perhaps even longer than that), but the process will be much more difficult than it has to be. Since only 5 percent of us actually keep the weight we lose off long term, 95 percent of us may be suffering in vain.

Reward yourself the right way.
Like I said, food is the easiest reward we can give ourselves. A lot of other options may require you to go out and buy something, but you’re not looking to lose weight at the expense of your bank account. So, yes, you’ll have to be a bit more creative with how you reward yourself. Try out a new hobby. Go to that new restaurant you’ve been meaning to try. And yes, buy yourself something once in a while; just don’t do it all the time. Set a goal and reward yourself when you reach it. For instance, set a spending limit and a list of goals. Reward yourself for every 5 pounds you lose or at the end of every week you successfully meet your weight loss goals. As long as you don’t go overboard, there’s nothing wrong with a small gift here or there.  

Make sure to pause before you eat.
If you need to lose weight, you need to be a cold, calculated eater. Take the emotion out of your meals. Food is simply the fuel you need to survive. No more ice cream after breakups or excessive alcohol after a long day. Eat the food you enjoy eating, but don’t overeat, don’t eat when you’re not hungry, and don’t rely on it to make you feel better. 

Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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