Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
17 Apr

10 Psychological Hurdles Keeping You From Losing Weight (and How to Overcome Them)

Overcoming Hurdles

A few weeks back, I discussed nine (more) reasons you might not be losing the weight you want, and I got a lot of responses. Those were mostly “physical” reasons grounded in physiological terms we usually use to describe weight loss or gain. In other words, they were the ones you expect, things like eating too little and tanking the metabolism, suffering from “hidden stress,” disordered eating, or training too hard with inadequate nutrition. Today, I’m doing something a bit different. Instead of couching everything in the body, I’m focusing more on the ways in which our minds (which, of course, are part of the body, but we typically separate the two in common parlance) trip us up and prevent us from losing weight.

Let’s jump into it.

You’ve Developed Poor Habits

Habits become ingrained in our days and in our brains to the point where it just doesn’t feel right without them. Now, if your habits take the form of regular exercise, eating plants and animals, and getting good sleep, you’re in good shape. If your habits look a little different, you might not be:

The coffee and crueller (stat!) on the way to work. The handful of candy beans every time you pass the candy-loving receptionist’s desk. The nightly six pack. The propensity to plop down on the couch and stay there for hours after work. We’ve all got some bad habits, and depending on their composition, they can disrupt our ability to lose weight.

It’s easy to recognize our bad habits, but it’s tough to break the cycle using sheer willpower. Instead, try to understand the underlying contexts that give rise to the habits. That way, you can target the contexts – the situations, the emotions, the cues – that trigger the habit.

It could be as simple as taking a different route to the bathroom to avoid the receptionist’s candy-laden desk, or it could be as hard as examining why you feel the need to drink six beers at night.

You can also replace the bad habit with a good one. If you’re craving that morning pastry, eating a piece of sweet fruit instead might be easier than just going without altogether.

I recommend The Power of Habit for those looking to learn more about habits, how to break bad ones and create new ones.

You’re Afraid of Being a Social Pariah

We are social animals. In fact, acknowledgement and indulgence of that fact is crucial for maintaining and supporting personal health. It’s the rare person who can live without social contact with other humans and remain happy and healthy. That innate drive to be accepted by and avoid offending those around us, however, can also keep us from making the right dietary choices when those around us are constantly bringing cookies into the office, going out to eat at the Chinese buffet, ordering wings and fries at happy hour, and so on.

There’s no easy way to relish social pariahism, although I think a healthy dose of it leads to superior health (more for being independent/your own man/woman than for any dietary advantages it confers). You can’t just decide to be happy about being the weird person who turns down the birthday cake. You can, however, decide to be the weird person who turns it down. Sometimes there’s no easy way around the hurdle, no strategic path. Sometimes you just have to bull your way through it and bear the consequences. Like running hurdles on the track, scaling this particular psychological hurdle gets easier the more you do it. Turn down the cake a few times and you’ll realize that it’s not so bad after all and people really don’t care.

Just don’t make a big deal out of it when you say no. Don’t get indignant or lecture-y.

You Still Fear Fat

Years of indoctrination from mass media, your family, doctors, “experts,” and pretty much everyone can have you convinced that fat is a scary, inherently dangerous macronutrient – even if you can intellectually accept its place in the human diet. No matter how many studies you read exonerating dietary fat as the cause of heart disease and obesity and diabetes and how many success stories you hear from people who ate fat to lose fat, there may always be a voice deep down inside saying “you know that stuff will kill you, right?” Even though you know it’s not anything to worry about and a high-fat diet actually can be incredibly healthy, the animal instinct is strong and stubborn. And yet if you don’t shake that fear of fat even as you reduce your carbohydrates, you’ll end up on a low-carb, low-fat, overall low energy diet that won’t get you anywhere but stuck and stalled.

It’s tough to shake indoctrination, but it can be done. Read GCBC, at least the first half that deals with the diet-heart hypothesis to have your fear ripped asunder to be replaced with a strong yearning for butter. Read the success stories on this very site from people who ate lots of fat and lost weight, improved their blood markers, and lowered their risk of developing heart disease. Taken together, clinical research and personal anecdote combine to form a powerful de-conditioning agent.

You Eat for Comfort

Comfort eating has an initial utility, I’ll admit. If you’re stressed out and can’t handle the situation, eating something that comforts you and lowers stress can be helpful, regardless of the nutritional composition of the food in question. However, if that becomes a habit, if you find yourself eating fried chicken and waffles four nights a week in order to make yourself feel better, your weight loss will almost assuredly halt – or reverse itself altogether, leading to an entirely different kind of “feeling bad.”

The problem is the stress, not the food. If you just keep switching up the food without addressing the root cause, you’ll never truly break through. You need to figure out what’s stressing you out and then take steps to reduce or mitigate it. If that means taking specific steps, like avoiding a particularly caustic personality in your life or switching jobs at the first available opportunity, so be it. It might also require taking a more general approach to stress reduction, like daily meditation, a morning walk, or some time in nature. Better yet, take both specific and general steps.

You’re Stuck on What Worked at First Even Though It’s Not Working Anymore

The initial weight loss is a rush. It comes so quickly and so effortlessly (for many people) that people often assume that doing whatever caused that first big burst of change will work in perpetuity. They become wedded to the initial method, even as it stops working. People tend to do that – to identify strongly with a belief or a group, especially if it’s generally worked very well for them. This identification often persists even when it stops working, or stops working quite so smoothly. It’s “normal” human behavior, but it can still be counterproductive or even destructive.

Maybe early on you didn’t have to think about caloric content, but now you should consider it.

Maybe early on you didn’t have to exercise much beyond walking, but now you could really benefit from more.

Maybe early on you didn’t have to worry about anything but diet, but now you should explore the other important aspects of Primal life.

You Think “Why Even Bother?”

Stalling is hard, especially if it persists for months on end. But stalling is completely normal. Weight loss (as mentioned above) is easiest when you have the most to lose. Dropping 100 pounds off of 300 in a year isn’t too tough and happens all the time, while dropping the last twenty when you’re sitting at 200 is considerably tougher and often takes a lot longer. This can be incredibly discouraging, especially if you’re “used” to losing weight faster.

The solution? Don’t give up. Don’t throw in the towel. Focus on all the other benefits you’ve accrued. Enjoy the improved and steadier energy throughout the day. Cherish the newfound appreciation and capacity for outdoor activities. Rub your skeptical friends’ faces in your blood test results (not the actual blood, but rather the numbers). If you do these things and keep on keepin’ on, the weight loss will come. But it will never come if you give up.

You’re Embarrassed to Go to the Gym

Ah, the gym: hall of mirrors, impossibly ripped testosterbros, models, and high standards, all of whom are prepared to gaze disapprovingly in your specific direction. Or so some people assume. In reality, the gym is full of people trying to lose some weight, build some muscle, and gnash their teeth in pleasurewrath at the latest episode of Hannity on Fox as they walk the treadmill. And most of them are just as self-conscious as you.

Embarrassment is another hurdle that can’t be surmounted by tricks. You just gotta go for it. Before you know it, you’ll either be too fit and strong to worry, or you’ll have stopped caring. That said, there are a few strategies to ease your embarrassment:

Consider a trainer. A trainer will help you perform the lifts with confidence and grace so that you don’t think you look funny (even though you don’t and no one cares anyway).

Get a plan. Don’t just go in and start doing strange things with the dumbbells. Follow a legitimate program like Starting Strength (barbells), Convict Conditioning (bodyweight), Overcoming Gravity (gymnastics), or Raising the Bar (bar calisthenics). Primal Blueprint Fitness is another (free) option.

Go during off hours. You can get your workouts in relative solitude.

Work out elsewhere. Who needs the gym? Not everyone. Go for hikes, lift your own bodyweight, build a home gym, buy a few kettlebells and a sandbag and make a slosh tube or two, play sports. You don’t need the gym to work out and lose weight.

Besides, those big guys with tank tops that show ample man nipple? They’re more concerned with staring at themselves than anyone else – as should you.

You Think in Black and White/All or Nothing

A while ago, I warned you guys against making the perfect the enemy of the good: bailing out because you can’t get grass-fed/organic/pastured/wild/perfect everything. That advice still stands, especially the more wrapped up you get in all this Primal stuff, and yet I hear about it a lot.

You’ve read all about the benefits of grass-fed beef, so you won’t touch anything that ate a grain and end up unable to afford this diet.

You can’t find a farmers market near you and have no room to grow your own veggies, so rather than buy conventional produce from the supermarket, you avoid plants altogether.

You eat a bite or two of nigiri (with the rice) along with some shrimp tempura and freak out on yourself, going on a three day water fast to cleanse the impurities and end up derailing the entire ship, tanking your metabolism, and triggering a weeklong binge.

The vast majority of the millions of unique visitors Mark’s Daily Apple gets every month aren’t buying exclusively grass-fed beef and pastured chicken, shunning every green vegetable if it isn’t organic and hand delivered by the farmer, and making zero mistakes or concessions. And yet somehow they keep coming back. Somehow we keep getting success stories. Somehow people are getting massive benefits from adopting a less than perfect Primal lifestyle. Realize this, and the black and white thinking should dissipate.

You’re Depressed

Depression is often linked to weight gain, and the two appear to be mutually reinforcing. Whether you overeat because you’re depressed and want to cope with the depression or are depressed because you’re overeating, the connection between the two is undeniable.

It could be a very mechanistic thing, too. Although depression is typically imagined and conceived of as purely a psychological matter (“of the mind”), it’s also of the body. In a post from last year, Dr. Emily Deans explained how depression can lead to increased cortisol, circulating levels of inflammatory cytokines (throughout the body and the brain), impaired glucose tolerance, and accumulation of visceral fat. Resistin, a hormone that increases insulin resistance and diabetes, also increases during depression. Depression has long been linked to type 2 diabetes, too.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix for depression. Antidepressants may help in some situations, but even the relationships between antidepressants themselves and weight gain/loss are unclear (and vary depending on which medication you’re using and how long you’re using it). A generally healthy Primal lifestyle full of good food, smart activity, social contact, nature exposure, and all the other trappings I discuss can’t hurt, of course. Don’t let it fester or “tough it out,” whatever you do. Get help from someone who knows what they’re doing, whether they’ve got an MD after their name or not. You may not know exactly how to scale this particular hurdle yet, but at least you can identify and begin to assay it.

You’re Constantly Comparing Yourself to Others

As animals subject to competitive pressures, we have the tendency to constantly compare ourselves to other members of the species. We’re sizing each other up, trying to see what’s working and what isn’t for the other guy, either to gauge our ability to beat them in a had to head match up or to learn from their successes and failures. An animal that wonders about its own existence also has the ability to wonder about how they stack up against other animals. It’s a feature and a shortcoming all at once.

As for how this can become a psychological hurdle impeding weight loss, there can be a couple reasons. I’ve seen people rushing from dietary change to dietary change based on other people’s experiences without pausing to consider whether those modifications make sense for their situation. There’s nothing wrong with drawing on another person’s experience or advice to apply it to your own, but you have to stay abreast of the results. You have to give it a chance to work – or to not work.

There’s also the fact that when you look at someone else who’s seemingly got it all together, you’re only looking at their outward projections. If you could gain access to their inner workings, you’d likely find yourself tramping around in puddles of self doubt, self consciousness, and self criticism, just like we all deal with from day to day.

That’s what I’ve got, folks: 10 solid, but not insurmountable, hurdles. Let me know what you think in the comment section, and be sure to include any psychological hurdles I might have missed. Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. This post really spoke to me. I’ve read the others about what I might not be doing but my hurdles (and deep down I have know it for months) are definitely mental. I find I use the idea of entitlement to “justify” why one more piece of chocolate (even if it is 86% high quality!) is deserved. The part particularly about that rush of weight loss was also really well said! It’s such a high seeing the weight effortlessly fall off DAILY while no longer counting calories and eating all you want of delicious real food. The plateau can really kinda deflate the excitement in one quick punch. I’ve been primal 8 months now and I have only just now started to need to incorporate primal fitness to continue getting results.

    Monique wrote on April 18th, 2013
  2. I think that one element which is often misunderstood, or not seen, in this are aspects of our views of ourselves which hinder progress. Hinder progress not only in losing weight/gaining muscle/health, but in everything we do. We can develop endless knowledge and inspiration for things, but if there is something stopping us, it is all for nothing.

    My example is the subconscious story that I’d been telling myself: that I’m a ‘failure’, which affected and sabotaged every effort I made to achieve anything. Identifying the intrinsic characteristics which hold us back will make the most significant changes in our success in all fields, in all fields.

    Barnaby wrote on April 18th, 2013
  3. Leading off hurdle # 1 with a Wayne’s World reference…just awesome!

    (The coffee and crueller (stat!) on the way to work.)

    Now, let’s all get out of the GarthMobile and go move like cavemen.

    Oh, and an offbeat suggestion that might help get us out of our heads and having more fun in life—read up, and do, improv comedy. Start with a good book on the subject, like “The Improv Handbook” and seek out a single class or a series of classes. You might be amazed at how much this stuff parallels psychology in its ways to overcome being stuck.

    Steve Gardner wrote on April 18th, 2013
  4. I have lost 20lbs in under 3 months…never felt better…still have the red wine..and every friday is my cheat night… 2 slices of coal fired pizza…. I am still losing weight so don’t sweat it is to short…enjoy yourself…


    Christopher wrote on April 18th, 2013
  5. Great post and comments, a little something to add/think about. I have become somewhat of a “gym rat”. I am 44 years old, and gravity has done some work on me. I try to make a point of not comparing “my insides to the other people’s outsides” In other words, how I am FEELING to how they are LOOKING. Also, I have come to accept that many of them look the way they do because of age, and unhealthy supplements of various kinds, in addition to the hard work we both do. Living primally 80% of the time has had incredible results for me, I am in the best shape of my entire life, and feel like a healthy, contributing member of the planet.

    Research Monkey wrote on April 18th, 2013
  6. Was that an Arrested Development reference? If so, you should know that it’s impossible to eat just a handful of candy beans, you have to eat the whole thing of them.

    gwen wrote on April 18th, 2013
  7. I’ve dealt everyone of these hurdles at some point in my life. Glad to say that I’m past my mental walls and have managed to lose 35 in the last 14 weeks.

    Great post! It all starts with the mindset.

    Hassan wrote on April 18th, 2013
  8. Sometimes the option to “be”, without the need for improvement, should be exclusive. Even for just one day.

    Older civilisations used to practice this sentiment with seasonal rituals. Everyone go involved. I think we’ve lost touch with celebration as a way to recognise deep inner happiness though, because society doesn’t always approve.

    We now tend to associate celebration with a lack of control, where individuals have total permission to be irresponsible and make no apologies about it. How do we recognise anything deep and meaniful from that? Yet if we don’t learn how to celebrate the little things (in company) then how are we going to learn to respect the bigger things – like ourselves?

    Celebration has many incarnations, but our society seems to feel very insecure about it in general.

    Christine wrote on April 18th, 2013
  9. On the links mark provided under too embarrassed to go to the gym I’ve used convict conditioning and currently use overcoming gravity. . Both books are excellent. Invest in a pull up bar, I recommend this the ‘everlast chin up and sit up bar’ as it come with 2 sets of brackets, which is very handy. It’s easy to turn your house into a gym. People don’t understand how to use bodyweight to build strength and muscle, all of the books will help but overcoming gravity is the most detailed.
    Another good book, for beginners, is you are your own gym.

    Greg wrote on April 19th, 2013
  10. Another reason for keeping oneself from losing weight… I know what I’m about to write may seem controversial and I may well get shot down for it, but I am not writing it to blame anybody for anything. I find it to be a truth for some, however painful.

    Western women live in a climate that is often sexually aggressive. Female sexuality and boundaries are not always respected, and a frightening percentage of us have been exposed to sexual abuse.
    Having more body fat than is considered attractive saves you a lot of male attention. Especially the kind that might be experienced as threatening or even invoe flashbacks of abuse, no matter how it was intended.

    Hanna wrote on April 20th, 2013
  11. Giving yourself permission
    I think a lot of people find ways to give themselves permission to do things they know they shouldn’t, or not do things they know they should. “I’m extra tired today so I’ll take today off” or “I walked a lot so .. CHEESECAKE!” or “I always have chips with hockey …” or what ever the case.
    I often ask a worker to do something and they say “I’ll try.” My response is usually “No, get it done. Coming back here at the end of the day and saying you tried won’t help me.” I see it as them giving themselves an out.
    Another example is when people respond with something that starts with “I’m …”. It usually goes something like this: “I’m bad when it comes to paper work ..” or “I’m not very strong in the arms …” you get the idea.
    These are examples of people putting a catch-all clause in their promise, or a ceiling on their commitment to a goal or task. Essentially they are giving themselves permission to fail.

    Andrew wrote on April 20th, 2013
  12. Anders & Laurie, I wasn’t sleeping very well either. My naturopath (who, thankfully is also Primal), said it is often due to magnesium deficiency. She gave me a good magnesium supplement, and now my sleep is much more complete and restful.

    Joanna wrote on April 21st, 2013
  13. The Primal Blueprint has helped turn around my health. At one time I had high blood pressure, bad blood results, overweight, skin problems, couldn’t concentrate to focus on anything and always had to reread things 4-5 times and remembered only a little of what I read.

    After starting the Primal Blue Print my blood results were the following from November 2012 Triglyceride 26 mg/dl, HDL-C 63 mg/dl, LDL-L 138 mg/dl, total cholerestrol 225, blood pressure 110/70. So very healthy. My fasting insulin level is a little high at 102 and I have heard that low carb dieting makes you insulin sensitive and I have recently added healthy carbs back into my diet. My weight went from 240 and 42% bodyfat at 5 ft 6in to 200 lbs and 33% bodyfat.

    Mark Sisson also recommended the Perfect Health Diet which focuses on the science aspect of nutrition and gives extra details to which Mark doesn’t cover on nutrition. Now I have added the healthy carbs back in and noticed that my skin problems cleared up, Now adding in the extra carbs and intermittent fasting has started my weight loss again and I am down to 190lbs and 29% bodyfat and loosing a constant 2 lbs a week after an initial water weight gain from adding back in the carbs which took two weeks for my body to adjust.

    One Positive benefit I forgot to mention is that I can concentrate better now and have done fairly well in my graduate classes in engineering. It seems like providing proper nutrition to my body has allowed my mind to work better. Amazingly enough it was easy for me to write over 35 pages of technical papers this semester which I couldn’t have completed before the Primal Blueprint diet.

    Some of the psychological hurdles that I have overcome with the Primal Blueprint have been the poor eating habits, I don’t fear fat anymore, used to eat for comfort, overcome the all or nothing attitude, and some of the depression.

    Also I do need to be more consistent with the exercise and getting 8 hours of sleep a night. The little day by day wins help creating positive motivation.

    The most challenging thing is I don’t get touched. Mark had mentioned that there is health benefits to having sex, cuddling, touching. I think this might be part of my depression issue is that I haven’t had a girlfriend in over 15 years because I took care of everyone else’s need first, and developed a good career. Now at 38 years old and still have 25 lbs of weight to lose there seems to be no one available for me in Alaska.

    Women always tell me that I am a great friend and can’t understand how I am not married. Maybe I need to get to 10% bodyfat and become an alpha male instead of being a nice guy. I wonder if exercising more and dropping more bodyfat would increase my confidence to a point where women will start noticing and wanting to date me instead of being just a friend. I don’t know of any other guy that go that long without a long term relationship but my strength has finally given up and I don’t have anymore execuses left.

    I keep trying to improve myself little bit by little. A new exercise plus social habit I started is Salsa dancing to meet women, and gain more confidence. Like Mark said in one of his articles celebrate your little day by day gains and eventually they make huge changes.

    One final word. The Primal BluePrint is so much more than a diet it is a lifestyle. Such as the exercise, playing, and relationships. No diet out there that I know of consider anything other than food.

    Wel that is my rant for the month. Appreciate any suggestions from people.

    Thank you,

    Steve wrote on April 22nd, 2013
  14. Here’s a good reason you haven’t addressed: You’re broke! I don’t mean “cut back on Starbucks” broke, I mean you’re struggling to feed your kids on rice and beans and WIC food. (And most people scrambling through unemployment need the free supplement food, even though it’s low-fat milk and dry cereal and bread and beans. Give up the WIC food and tell me how well you can feed a family of 5 on $50 a week.)

    Poor people aren’t obese because they don’t have the information. Poor people are obese because the cheapest source of calories at the grocery store are agriculture-and-government-subsidized carbs. The reality of switching to a primal diet is completely outside the ability of the destitute.

    GirlFriday wrote on April 23rd, 2013
  15. Great post and discussion! I want to put a plug in for Jason Sieb’s book, “The Paleo Coach”. Jason addresses an issue that is unique- he calls it the Asthetic Goal Connundrum. Basically, it hits on motivation for sticking to the ‘plan’, and if it is for asthetic reasons, we may be missing the mark- however if our goals are around health, it is a different standard we are reaching for- he helped me get my head right and just that perspective change has helped me a ton…

    Michael wrote on April 23rd, 2013
  16. I drive truck and do my work at nights, sixty to seventy hours a week. I’d love to hear some things tuned to my night-time world. I really feel like I’m pushing against the world because of my shift work. My blood work is all good, the sedentary is killing me and I’m working on that; I’d like to know what specifically I’m up against because of the flipped world I live in.

    blueyedmule wrote on April 29th, 2013
  17. Great post! I bookmarked your site so I can look around when I have more time. I’m looking forward to it :)

    Stacey wrote on June 4th, 2013

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