Mind over matter
Khoo Teck Puat Hospital
For most people, losing the kilos is often just one part of the weight-loss challenge. Sustaining the weight loss is the other half of the battle.
Too often, weight watchers win a battle but end up losing the war when they pile back on the excess kilos. Only one in four people who lose 10 per cent of their body weight are able to keep it off for at least two years, according to a 2005 International Journal of Obesity study.
Losing weight is straightforward, but maintaining your new figure for good is a lot more complex as it involves learning a new set of life skills, said Khoo Teck Puat Hospital's (KTPH) senior clinical psychologist Mabel Yum, who conducts psychological intervention sessions for weight management.
Is your negative personality to blame?
As strange as it seems, how successfully you maintain weight loss also depends on your emotional outlook and personality.
"Research also suggests that the less adventurous people who are not so impulsive and seek less novelty tend to be able to follow and stick to their lifestyle changes for successful weight loss," said Henry Lew Yuen Foong, psychologist at Singapore General Hospital.
People who use food as an emotional crutch (as a result of stress, for comfort or distraction), suffer from depression and have poor body image are also more likely to have problems maintaining a healthy weight, according to researchers from Brigham Young University in Utah who looked at 18 studies across five separate online databases
Those who had a black or white perception of the world were also more likely to fail.
If you fall into any one of those categories, Ms Yum suggested seeking psychological intervention for weight management.
Depending on what issues you have, you may need one to five sessions to rectify unhelpful thoughts that prevent you from achieving long-term weight loss.
"Even if you are born with an innately negative personality, that can be changed," said Ms Yum.
"Compared to a more 'positive' person, you may find it harder to change your behaviour but with the proper guidance, your resilience 'muscles' can be built up so that it'll be easier for you to say 'no thanks' when someone waves a bag of chips in your face."
Here are some psychological strategies to prevent those imaginary hunger pangs from ruining your weight loss goals.
1. Eat mindfully
Know when you eat and stop by using a hunger scale of one to seven, one being very hungry and seven being very full. If you feel like you are at four, you should have your meal in one to two hours' time.
Never ever let your hunger pangs go below the 2.5 mark - you'll be so hungry that you'll over-rate your stomach capacity and end up eating more than you need. Once you get it right, it'll help you plan your meal timings, said Ms Yum. Regular meals will help prevent overeating.
2. The power of inconvenience
Don't keep unhealthy snacks within easy reach at home or in the office. You are less likely to eat it if it is troublesome for you to get your hands on it in the first place.
"Instead, have a little healthy food corner on your desk, so that you can have healthier snacks when you feel peckish," said Ms Yum.
3. Strategise for high risk situations
You're going for a buffet dinner tonight. Instead of skipping lunch, have a low-calorie meal that can still keep you full so you won't feel so famished by dinnertime that you eat everything you see on the buffet table, advised Ms Yum.
"At the buffet table, focus on healthier choices (meat, seafood, veggies) and go easy on the high-calorie and fat food like pastries," she said.
4. Tell your family and friends
Your snack-loving family tempts you with prawn crackers while watching TV. At work, a colleague keeps offering unhealthy treats. We know it's hard to say no to people who persistently offer food.
However, being straightforward about your new eating plans ("I'm changing my eating habits.") can help ease tensions and prevent any misunderstandings. Learning to say no also trains up your resilience and willpower, said Ms Yum.
5. Sustain your efforts
Motivation can wane over time. Once you've achieved a goal (for example, I stopped snacking while watching TV for two weeks), reward yourself - with a non-food gift, of course!
Confessions of a snack-a-holic
Ong N B loves to snack, especially at night just before bedtime. Although her weight is within the healthy range of the Body Mass Index, the 31-year-old said she has put on 2kg in a year, no thanks to her unhealthy snacking habits. We get the avid snacker to test-try one psychological intervention session with KTPH's senior clinical psychologist Mabel Yum.
Late-night snacking has caused me to gain weight but I find it hard to stop the habit because it has become a nightly routine for my partner and me. It does not help that my cupboard is filled with unhealthy snacks.
I've tried to kick the habit by not stocking my cupboard with food. But when my partner does not find snacks in it and looks disappointed, I feel like I am depriving him of enjoyment.
Whenever my partner offers me a portion of his unhealthy snacks, the temptation often gets the better of me.
The psychologist recommended I use distraction tools, some of which I was already practicing in my half-hearted attempt to resist unhealthy snacks. They include brushing my teeth immediately after dinner (so I can tell my partner I am too lazy to brush my teeth again when he offers a snack) or buying snacks that I do not like.
She also gave me additional tips on how to decline food offers and be politely assertive using the right choice of words.
We even role-played - the psychologist was the "tempter" and I had to learn to say no to her - so that I would know how to tackle such situations. She also taught me how to avoid getting trapped in negative thoughts and stay positive.
It was all about having the right mindset. She was very encouraging and the session help reinforced my goals and motivation to lose weight. - Ong N B.