Can the #right diet solve your eating problem?

Harriet Frew (Eating and Behavioural Therapist) talks about how psychology plays a valuable role in providing long-term solutions to food, weight and eating problems.

We are all looking for the holy grail of weight loss. As obesity rates in the UK soar and we become increasingly affected as a nation with the health problems associated with being over-weight, we definitely need answers fast. Scientific explanations that can justify our tendency to hold onto fat whilst our skinny friends seem to chomp away continuously on cupcakes without gaining a pound are understandably welcomed. It is a complex issue though and as science brings valuable evidence to support how individuals do respond differently to varying diet and exercise plans; does it complete the whole picture? The recent Horizon programme ‘What’s the right diet for you?’ introduced interesting ideas and supporting evidence to show how people responded differently to varying personalised eating plans, but how does this fare in the long-term. We are yet to know. Pleasingly, emotional eating was also included in the programme, which is a strand that is often over-looked.

Diets per se though do not work. We know that if you follow the success of people on a range of diets over 18 months, only 3% will have kept the weight off long-term. Yes in the short-term, there are results; victories; the party dress is worn. The new body is ‘selfied’ in Facebook history, as a reminder of how it really was possible. However, they are not a sustainable solution and that is why people are always searching for the next one. This one will really be ‘the one’; the ‘life-changer’; the epiphany moment!  And of course, dieting in some ways is easier than suggesting that psychology might play a role. The thought of looking at the problem on a deeper level can bring up agonising sighs – not wanting to delve into the muddy waters of childhood or unleashing a potential beast that has quite happily been hidden away thank you very much. Or possibly it might mean admitting that day to day, we are not coping as well or being quite as happy as we might like to be. It can bring on feelings of unease and anxiety contemplating peering into the well of our psyche.

As a therapist trained in viewing eating problems from a psychological perspective and also having had a disordered relationship with food in the past myself, I believe strongly that the psychological side of an over-eating needs addressing as part of the whole treatment solution. Yes, science and wholesome nutrition play a valuable role.  But I wonder if weight problems can be solved without helping people with their habits, emotions, thinking and deep-rooted feelings of worth. As much as science informs and helps us in many ways, the psychological cannot be ignored.


1. The gains you get from over-eating

 This is often over-looked but is absolutely fundamental to address. In the main, when people over-eat they are doing it to solve problems. Okay, no-one sets out consciously to fill up on cakes and biscuits to squash down their unease or distress about life, but it happens. Over-eating temporarily provides a wonderful escape and distraction from the everyday problems and stresses of life. It can be a way of rebelling against the world when you are feeling put upon. And the results are almost instantaneous. Anxiety calmed; anger buried; sadness covered all within a few delicious mouthfuls.  Very quickly, after eating, someone might feel remorse, guilt and regret, but ‘in the moment’ it is a very different thing.

2.  Your mindset around food

If you have been a ‘yo yo dieter’ for a number of years you may well be attuned to the ‘I’ve blown it effect’. You might view your eating habits in very black and white terms. Either you are being ‘very good’ and following the plan; the rules; the regime. Or you are rebelling; falling off the wagon and sticking your two fingers up to the world as you eat everything in sight that was banned from said plan. This dieting mindset is powerful and may well have become entrenched in your thinking through years of weight gain and loss. Eating without rules; listening to your body and self-regulation around eating – these quite understandably might be quite alien concepts. You may well need help with some Cognitive Therapy to challenge this thinking and help you get back to a place where you can have a more rational relationship with food.

3. Being kind and developing the inner compassionate voice

 It is highly likely that if you are over-eating, dieting, bingeing and going round in this vicious cycle that you have an inner critical voice that is berating, punishing and labelling (fat, failure, lazy etc). This inner critic has probably been gathering momentum from when you were a little girl or boy – maybe initially not related to food at all, but due to early authority figures in your life. You might have well internalised these voices so that today your inner voice is not coming from a compassionate, encouraging, kind and supportive position. You might not even be aware of this as you are so used to your inner nagging dialogue. Imagine the impact of 60,000 thoughts + a day and many repetitive! People often mistakenly believe that a good old self-berating session is going to be the cure to getting the weight off and sorting yourself out once and for all. Actually, in truth it is de-moralising, punishing and de-motivating. It keeps you stuck. You feel helpless and powerless to change. This is where speaking to someone in therapy can really help. This helps to develop awareness so you can start to parent yourself in a different way.

4. Self-esteem and feeling worthy

How do you feel deep down in your core? Good enough? Loved? Worthy? Often you will find it very challenging to lose the weight if you feel undeserving or inadequate beneath your outer persona. When you don’t feel good from the inside, you might well self-sabotage your ‘good’ eating patterns. Actually maintaining them and living by the new way might feel very uncomfortable and you may feel undeserving of this more self-nourishing and caring way of being. Being larger may also fit with your underlying feelings of insecurity. It also may give you a valid excuse for feeling bad. If this is taken away, where does it leave you? It’s a dilemma.

5. Dealing with relapse

It is inevitable as part of changing your eating patterns that lapses will occur.  Lapses need to be accepted as part of the treatment plan and strategies to deal with lapses should be incorporated. Often when people lapse, they lose momentum with making changes, as quickly moral is lost and it is easy to slip back into past ways of coping. If the psychological side has been addressed fully, people often have become more self-aware and they have got to know their triggers for over-eating well. Therefore, when a lapse occurs, it is viewed as learning experience and you can bring curiosity and compassion to the interpretation of the lapse; so learning from it and trying out new ways of coping. If the self-awareness is absent, you might be more likely to fall back and return to old ways of coping.

So what do you think? How much has psychology played a part in your own journey in managing your weight and finding sustainable solutions? We would love to hear from you. Please do post below and share.

If you would like to get in touch with working with one of the WeightMatters team, we would love to hear from you – We provide combined nutritional and psychological solutions to help you manage your eating, food, body image and weight.

 As well as working at WeightMatters, Harriet also works in Cambridge (