Tackling Behavior and Emotion for Successful Weight Loss
Kim Lamb Gregory
It's not that Chaz Gaddie didn't understand the food pyramid. He was a chef. He could recite nutrition facts chapter and verse. And at 6 feet 4 inches tall and 386 pounds, he knew his weight was killing him.
"I was prediabetic, had serious sleep apnea and was eating anti-inflammatories every night to help with the inflammation in my body and burning in my hips," Gaddie said.
He knew lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables along with exercise would help him reduce.
But he just couldn't.
It wasn't until Gaddie, 53, tackled the "why" of his overeating that he began to lose weight. Gaddie, who splits his time between Oxnard and Indonesia, said he was able to lose almost 136 pounds once he faced and learned to manage the emotions sabotaging his goal of losing weight.
"The food and exercise are probably the easiest parts of what it takes to lose weight," Gaddie said. "Success lies in understanding the mental and even more so, the emotional aspects of one's eating issues."
A recent poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center underscores Gaddie's experience. The survey -- which is in the Feb. 2013 issue of Consumer Reports Magazine and ConsumerReports.org -- polled 9,000 readers who tried 13 weight loss plans: four commercial plans -- Jenny Craig, Medifast, Nutrisystem, and Weight Watchers -- and nine do-it-yourself plans such as the Atkins Diet, Slim-Fast and the South Beach Diet.
Consumer Reports concluded that significant weight loss was possible on all the plans, with male respondents losing an average of 18 pounds and women dropping an average of 15 pounds.
So if the food and exercise plans work, why do so many people have trouble keeping the weight off?
A companion survey of 1,328 licensed psychologists said the answer may lie between our ears.
Consumer Reports did the survey after many of the 9,000 respondents who were no longer on their diet plans said they were able to take off weight, but were having trouble keeping it off. Most respondents believed that was because their weight loss plans did not adequately address the emotional part of overeating.
So, Consumer Reports asked the experts, and 43 percent said "emotional eating" was a hindrance to weight loss, compared to 28 percent who cited "making proper food choices."
Norman B. Anderson, the American Psychological Association's chief executive officer, said it's widely known that America's obesity epidemic is caused by a combination of biological, environmental, behavioral and emotional reasons, but the results show that addressing behavior and emotions behind overeating was key.
"Your weight is your way of screaming out loud to everyone: 'Can't you see the pain I'm in? Can't you see how much I'm hurting?'" said Ventura registered dietitian and marriage family therapist Lois Zsarnay.
Even those who have opted for gastric bypass surgery can regain the weight if psychological issues aren't addressed, according to Dr. Erik Dutson, associate professor of surgery and chief of the UCLA Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery Program. Dutson said one in six of gastric bypass patients regain their weight, so he makes sure each candidate goes through psychological evaluation before they get the surgery to target the elements of sabotage, he said.
"The surgery itself as far as a mechanism to lose weight is just a tool," he said. "For patients with unaddressed psychiatric or psychological issues, they will continue to follow the same habits they did beforehand."
Zsarnay hung out her shingle as a registered dietitian in Ventura 30 years ago.
"After about five years I realized it's not a lack of knowledge about nutrition that's causing problems with their (clients') eating," she said.
So, she went back to school to earn her degree in marriage and family therapy so she could also address the reasons why her clients were not following the food and exercise plans they knew they should be following.
"I can teach people about nutrition, they can recite it back to me. Nobody has ever walked through my door and not told me what they should be doing," she said. "And I say, 'Let's talk about why you're not doing it.' "
People overeat for many reasons, especially in this culture, say the experts and the people struggling with weight.
"Everybody is like, 'willpower, willpower, willpower,'" said Gwen Harrod, 37, a high school teacher in Oxnard. Harrod felt like a failure for being unable to stick with a food plan until she went to see Richter, excavate her buried feelings, and learn some coping strategies.
Weight Watchers leader Wendy Moran, 51, of Goleta, lost 38 pounds but still has to manage emotional eating.
"When my dad died of a heart attack four or five years ago, I was trying to process everything and I went to a giant candy bar and wine," she said.
For some, like Gaddie, the issues are deeply-rooted in childhood.
Gaddie's dad left when he was not quite 2, leaving his mom to raise him until she remarried. Gaddie said he suffered from self-worth issues his entire life, which he tried to treat with food, especially sugar.
The overeating led to guilt, humiliation and more eating, creating a vicious cycle.
He made a career of his "drug of choice," he said, by opening four restaurants in Northern California.
It wasn't until a patron who was also a doctor asked him to lunch a few years ago and handed him a brochure on gastric bypass surgery, stressing that he needed to act fast and save his own life.
Gaddie was shocked. He didn't opt for surgery but saw a nutritionist and started to write down his feelings. "I would eat when I was sad or angry or resentful or anxious or scared or depressed or lonely or frustrated or sad," he said. "Over the years my journals had a lot of entries about emotional eating."
In 2005, he joined Weight Watchers with a buddy, and in 2005, Gaddie won Weight Watchers' "Great Summer Slimdown Essay Competition" by losing 127.5 pounds in six months.
There are ways to manage feelings that threaten to sabotage weight loss, the psychologists in the poll said, including cognitive therapy, mindfulness training and problem-solving techniques.
Cognitive therapy helps people to isolate the thoughts or feelings that might sabotage weight loss, challenge those thoughts, and reframe them. If a person slips and eats too much, for example, cognitive therapy helps derail the "I have no willpower, why bother? I'll just eat the whole box," spiral.
In most cases, problem-solving involves small changes to get past obstacles to healthy habits. People too tired to exercise when they get home from work, for example, may learn to walk at lunch.
Gaddie had to problem-solve in a big way. Many can manage their weight in the food industry, but Gaddie realized he couldn't. He sold his restaurants and changed his life completely in 2005, relocating to Indonesia.
"When I decided to sell my restaurants, I believe in an esoteric way, I told the universe I was serious," he said.
He continues to keep a journal about his feelings, exercises and eats healthy food. He spends some time in Thailand where he uses Eastern medicine to treat his body and manage emotions that bubble to the surface.
Harrod finds her peace closer to home. When she is buffeted by emotions that make her want to overeat, she sits in the potted garden on her porch with her dog Bruno. This is where she practices "mindfulness," which is basically training herself to be in the moment and find the pleasures in life that never were at the bottom of a box of doughnuts.
"When you're getting what you need, the weight comes off," she said.
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