What Do Your Thoughts Have to Do with Eating and Weight Loss?

Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to change your behavior around food.

By Jen Nash, DClinPsych

This article continues the theme of emotional eating, diabetes, and weight loss. So what do your thoughts have to do with weight loss? We have many thousands of thoughts every single day and it is likely that you rarely pay much attention to them. However research has demonstrated that our thoughts contribute much to our decisions around eating behavior. If we can become aware of them, we can influence them, and therefore dramatically change our behavior around food.

Psychologists began paying attention to the role of thinking styles back in the 1960s as a reaction to traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, which has considerable value but could often take many years to achieve long-lasting results. Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), was a psychiatrist who worked with patients with depression. He found that they experienced streams of negative thoughts that seemed to pop up spontaneously. He termed these "automatic thoughts," and discovered that their content fell into three categories: negative ideas about themselves, about the world, and about the future. Beck found that his clients would tend to accept these thoughts as true and valid, without reflecting on the authenticity of their content.  He began helping his clients identify and evaluate these thoughts and found that by doing so, they were able to think more realistically, which led them to feel better emotionally and behave more functionally. He termed this therapy Cognitive Behavior Therapy to reflect that it addresses both cognitions (thoughts) and behavior.

CBT is now widely used to treat many emotional problems, including issues with food and eating, Further, the tools and strategies it provides are useful life skills for everyone. Although many people work with a therapist, counselor, or psychologist to learn the skills of CBT, it is not essential. CBT can be used at home without a therapist, as long as you understand the principles of treatment. CBT is a skill, and like any skill it takes time and effort to learn it well. It isn't a quick fix. By learning the skills and practicing their implementation you will develop control over your eating, weight, and also your general well-being.

According to the theory of CBT, there are four aspects to any of your experiences. First, there are the physical symptoms – what happens to you physically and the sensations you are aware of in your body. Secondly, there are your moods, emotions, and feelings. Thirdly, there your thoughts – what goes on in your mind and your thinking styles, images, and memories. Finally, there are your behaviors — the actions that you take or fail to take. These four categories of your inner experience all interrelate. Your thinking affects your body sensations, which affects your behavior, which affects your moods.

So what does this mean in practice? Let's look at an example to help us. Claire wants to lose weight and has been attempting to eat more healthily for a week. She steps on the scales at the end of the week to check her progress and discovers that she has not lost any weight despite all her efforts. Claire's thoughts may be, "What's the point of trying? I have tried to eat healthy and I have not lost any weight! There is nothing I can do to change this."

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Last Modified Date: July 10, 2013

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