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Military Health System

A Healthy Mind and Body: The Psychological Aspects Weight Loss

Image of Marines with 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, participate in a regimental run to celebrate St. Barbara’s Day at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 13. Marines with 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, participate in a regimental run to celebrate St. Barbara’s Day at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 13 (Marine Pfc. Adeola Adetimehin, 1st Marine Division).

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Nutrition is a key component to maintaining a healthy body weight. 

But experts say it’s a mistake to fixate solely on your diet. 

There are a host of mental and psychological factors that impact weight, and getting those aspects of your lifestyle and fitness program on track can make all the difference in your long-term success.

Dr. Natasha Schvey, assistant professor of medical and clinical psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, says the best approach to improving your health is one that takes into account both mind and body. 

How can your mental health impact your weight management efforts? 

“I actually think it’s more important to focus on addressing some of the other possible targets of weight management rather than weight loss specifically – things like physical activity, addressing disordered eating attitudes and behaviors, such as crash dieting, reducing body dissatisfaction, and trying to improve ‘intuitive eating,’ which is essentially re-learning to eat according to your internal hunger and fullness cues,” said Schvey. 

Addressing these items is an essential part of weight management, she explained. Although they may not change one’s weight specifically, they can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and generally improve well-being and physical health, even in the absence of significant weight loss, she added. 

“Long-term weight loss is incredibly difficult, if not virtually impossible, for many,” said Schvey. “We really want to be clear that being unable to lose significant amounts of weight and sustain it does not reflect a lack of mental strength or resilience.” 

There is often the misconception that weight loss is a reflection of willpower or discipline – basically, that you can’t lose weight because you don’t want to or you’re not trying hard enough. 

“It’s really important to realize that significant weight loss is very, very difficult to maintain psychologically and physiologically,” she said. “Even the best treatments aren’t particularly effective in the long run. That being said, even small amounts of weight loss can be accompanied by tangible and important health gains and benefits.” 

Schvey explained how one of the best ways clinicians can support weight management is by helping clients to improve their body image and acceptance, and by helping them to address any underlying problems with eating behaviors. 

“The number on the scale doesn’t really tell us a whole lot. It doesn’t tell us about the quality of our diets. It doesn’t tell us about our fitness. And it doesn’t tell us about our overall health.” 

It’s important to take a holistic approach to weight management programs, she said. 

How can people take a mentally healthy approach to their weight? 

“Reframe the approach.” 

Individuals often adopt weight management plans or programs with an “all or nothing” attitude. 

“Rather than thinking, ‘I’m on a diet,’ or, ‘I’m off a diet,’ or, ‘I’m going to start a diet on this particular day’ – instead try to adopt approaches that are more sustainable in the long-term,” Schvey explained. “Also remember that weight is something that is largely controlled by factors that may not be within our control like genetics.” 

Environmental factors also play a huge part in our health. Individuals should take into account things like sleep and sedentary behaviors like watching TV or spending time on their phone or computer. 

“Also remember that any one, two or even three meals or snacks among roughly 35 eating opportunities per week are not going to derail you or cause you to gain significant weight,” she said. 

Many helpful strategies are irrespective of weight – like increasing physical activity, getting more social support, setting realistic, sustainable goals and making fitness a series of additions rather than subtractions from your daily life. 

“What can I add on to what I’m already doing? Can I drink more water? Can I cook more meals at home? Can I download a yoga app?” 

Subtractions, she explained, would include cutting out certain food groups or reducing time with your family in order to work out. Integration is key. 

How can losing weight make you feel better? 

“There are obvious physical components to this, but weight can be a very fickle friend or foe,” said Schvey. 

“If our goals are tied to the number on the scale then losing a couple pounds might make us feel ecstatic, but what does that say about us when the weight creeps up a little bit?” 

Some of the benefits of healthier behavior include enhanced cognitive functioning, improved mood, better self-esteem, stress and anxiety reduction. It can also lower the risk of depression. 

“On the other hand, with weight gain – especially for someone who is trying really hard to lose weight – it can feel very discouraging and they may interpret it as a reflection of themselves, their discipline, or their shortcomings as a person,” said Schvey. 

“We know that weight loss is determined by a lot of other factors.” 

How should people judge their success? 

“On the clinical side, we have people who come in and they’ll say, ‘This is the number I want to be,’ and it’s even more complicated in the military because there are these ‘magic numbers’ and proportions that people need to obtain,” Schvey said. 

She said a good way to assess a fitness goal is to evaluate whether it is, “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound, or SMART.” 

Why is this important to the warfighter? 

“Obesity is the largest medical disqualifier for people interested in military service,” said Schvey. “Additionally, body weight does affect one’s military career and those who repeatedly fail their (weigh-ins or physical fitness tests) risk separation from the military or don’t qualify for opportunities for additional training or promotions.” 

As a result of these semi-annual assessments, Schvey said they see a lot of what they refer to as “situational” eating disorders. 

“These can be very problematic and very harmful for one’s health and can result in weight rebound – regaining and even exceeding the weight that you started out at, not to mention the impact to one’s mental health.” 

According to Schvey, the military services have recently started to reevaluate some of their assessments and the possibility of associating their standards with an individual’s job duties, rather than their service branch as a whole. 

“We want to ensure military readiness and fitness for duty but, at the same time, we want to make sure we’re not promoting dangerous behaviors or attitudes about what it means to be in shape.” 

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Last Updated: January 31, 2023
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