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Self-Compassion Beats Self-Criticism for Weight Loss

self compassion and weight loss

I’ve always been a slim person. I inherited what my cousins call the “Karges metabolism” from my mother’s side of the family. That means I can eat a lot and not gain weight. Truthfully, the foods I eat are healthy and I’m quite physically active but I’ve also never really had to “watch what I eat”. Ordering snacks? Count me in. Second breakfast? No problem. My system seems to absorb any nutritional errors I make with relative ease. For a variety of reasons, many people struggle to maintain a healthy weight. These reasons are often out of their control. Yet we live in a society that turns being overweight into a moral issue. Can’t lose weight? It must be because you are lazy or have no willpower. This approach is not only hurtful but is not supported by the evidence. And for my patients with weight challenges, an unhealthy cycle can develop: being judged unfairly can foster a negative self-image and self-criticism which can then lead them to overeat…repeat. Fostering a more self-compassionate mindset can break this cycle and lead to a more balanced relationship with food.

Stop Blaming Yourself

For most of human existence food was a scarce resource, so our physiology has developed accordingly. For example, we have an innate desire for foods that are high in fat and sugar. And the brain is not designed to regulate our eating; we have evolved to take advantage of food when it is present. Plus, our bodies have developed over time to able to store excess energy as fat for leaner times. But in modern day, middle class North America, those leaner times never come. We are surrounded by temptations from the corporate food industry to buy and eat more. And most processed foods are designed with ingredients like sugar, fat, or salt at their “bliss point” — the amount at which palatability of the nutrient is optimized — making them difficult to resist. You are clearly not responsible for either ancient evolution or modern society. When you stop blaming yourself for problems with weight and dieting, you can more easily lose the feelings of shame.

Understand Your Relationship to Food

Our relationship to food is a complex one – we eat for many reasons, not just because we’re hungry. We sometimes eat for pleasure and taste. We eat for social obligations like business luncheons at a pub, family birthday parties, or when a friend makes you cupcakes. We often eat because we’re emotional. Sometimes as children we are given food when we are upset. So instead of talking about and learning to think about our feelings, we learn to simply try to turn them off by distracting ourselves with food. Some foods also help us feel less anxious or angry because of their soothing physiological effects. Carbohydrate consumption, for example, increases serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter. And we can become conditioned to crave comfort foods as a treat or reward after a hard day. So to tackle overeating, sometimes we need to look for alternate soothing activities. Here is a list to get you started. Practice them until you know which ones work best for you:

  • PHYSICAL – crafting, exercise, playing a game, going for a walk, gardening, housework
  • MENTAL – reading, puzzles, sudoku
  • EMOTIONAL – visiting a friend, watching a movie or TV, listening to music, or volunteering

Develop Self-Compassion

We sometimes use self-criticism as motivation to be more successful or to make ourselves do difficult things. And when we make mistakes, we are often harder on ourselves than we would be on others. But research supports self-compassion as a better motivator than self-criticism. Juliana Breines studied self-compassion in a series of experiments at the University of California, Berkeley. The study participants did a short exercise that promoted self-compassion and understanding. The exercise improved motivation in a variety of ways –from being more likely to work harder next time to being more motivated to improve an identified weakness. In 3 of the studies, the exercise was a 3-minute writing assignment – three minutes was seemingly all it took to move from self-criticism to a more self-compassionate mindset. The path to self-compassion starts with understanding our physiology, the difficulties of modern living, and the complexities of emotions and eating. It also requires some examination and letting go of shame-based self-criticism. The next step becomes taking responsibility for finding ways to eat and exercise that are appropriate and helpful. Tough to do, but even harder with a self-critical mindset.

If you are interested in a compassionate approach to achieving a balanced nutrition and exercise plan from a naturopath with a fast metabolism, contact us at CARESPACE. For further reading, please check out one of the following resources:

Michael Torreiter

Michael Torreiter

Dr. Michael Torreiter is a Naturopathic Doctor at CARESPACE. He obtained his Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine designation at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto in 2005, worked at Healing Path for 13 years, and moved to CARESPACE in 2019. About half of Dr. Michael’s practice is focused on Precision Nutrition — a comprehensive weight management and lifestyle program that helps people lose weight, gain weight or just improve their diet. In addition, he treats a variety of conditions including digestive concerns, stress and anxiety, hormonal imbalance and men’s health. As well as being certified in Precision Nutrition, Dr. Michael has completed a Mind/Body Medicine Certification from Harvard Medical School and a certificate in Applied Mindfulness Meditation at the University of Toronto. He offers nutrition talks at the Running Room on a regular basis.