The Psychology of Weight Gain

Have you ever had negative thoughts around food?
Frustratingly tried to diet but can’t stick to it?
Find yourself in an emotional state, and end up overeating?
Or maybe, at times, you feel a strained relationship with eating, where you can’t enjoy yourself without feeling guilty.

We are constantly placed under a lot of societal pressure to look a certain way, and although we all know that as we age, our metabolism rate slows, sometimes we just can’t quite understand why we are gaining weight.

This month I sat down with Paul Constable, a psychologist for 20 years, to discuss how thought processes around food, our emotional attachment to food, and our development history shapes our attitude towards food.

Paul explained how external eating is not the single factor that can cause overeating or even obesity but is a factor for eating unnecessarily. He references examples such as: buying food at shopping centres only because it is there, going to the movie’s food (popcorn, ice cream), celebrating achievements with food, losing track of time, morning tea, grazing after dinner. The examples are seemingly endless, but you get his drift.

“More complex aspects of overeating are the emotional aspects of this. Examples of this are: anxiety, flatness of mood, boredom, helplessness, sense of being overwhelmed, sadness, even being excited,” explains Paul.

So, why do we behave like this?

Regardless of how severe you comprehend your negative thoughts surrounding food, psychological treatments like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can help understand your emotional or external triggers.

“CBT challenges irrational thinking and negative self-talk, which, in turn, changes how you feel emotionally about certain events. This can then influence our behaviour. Essentially, the way we think about an event influences the way we feel about the event, which in turn influences our behaviour,” says Paul.

“Another psychological aspect of overeating is related to our self-esteem. Self-esteem can best be defined as how much you appreciate and like yourself. Poor or low self-esteem can lead to extra weight gain if you are already carrying a few extra kilos.”

Paul describes that by challenging negative thoughts or beliefs, identifying positive aspects of yourself and building constructive relationships to avoid negative ones will help you overcome this.

Your developmental history, childhood and upbringing have also played an important part in your relationship with food, perhaps without you even realising.

“Childhood eating behaviours such as your mother’s preferred taste before birth or a child’s preferred taste shortly after birth appears to have an impact. As does food used to comfort children, food used as a reward for children, food to control children, childhood sexual assault and other developmental traumas. Family relationships, perfectionism with parents, preoccupation from parents with their own weight and diets, parenting styles, social and cultural components all contribute.

“As we grow older, events such as marital issues, relationship break down, adult sexual assault, and other adult traumas can play a major role in weight gain and obesity,” explains Paul.

By taking little steps to understand and change your unhealthy eating patterns, you can form a more positive relationship with how you see food, only eating when your body needs the sustenance, and identifying the external, emotional, self-esteem, or childhood influenced triggers you are experiencing.

Paul leaves us with this gem, “Last but not at all least, a critical component for weight loss, and for that matter all aspects of mental health is exercise. Joining a gym, weight training, walking, running all improve mood, self-esteem, self-worth, lessen anxiety and stress and build a stronger, more positive relationship with food.”

Article By Gjenae Rosekelly, Interviewing Psychologist Paul Constable