Weight loss is all in the brain... or at least some of it is. Dr Ailis Brosnan, who specialises in diet psychology, gives Áilín Quinlan 15 strategies to train your brain to shed pounds
1 'See' yourself thin and enjoy the feelings of success
First, create a clear mental picture of how you will look at your desired target weight. Next, write down how you want to see yourself by the end of your chosen weight-loss period. Finally, allow yourself to consciously feel the joy of your weight-loss success.
"Feel proud, confident and happy about this picture of yourself," advises Dr Brosnan, who has a Master's degree in Health Promotion and Wellness Management, and a Doctorate in Health Sciences (Psychology). "Emotions and feelings are very strong drivers for where you want to get to."
Do this continually, she recommends: "This helps to create a strong vision of you at your ideal weight and keeps you focused on that vision.
"Your thoughts and feelings are centred on where you want to go, rather than where you are now."
2 Create a Vision Board
A vision board is a collection of words and images that inspire you. "It might be a picture of you when you're young and looking great, or photographs of fruit and vegetables. It's simply a visual representation of your vision and goals," explained Brosnan.
Creating a vision board will help you stay focused on success because it acts as a daily reminder of the new reality you want to create for yourself, she explains: "Every time you look at it, you should be inspired to continue to move toward your vision of your ideal weight, your new story, your new reality."
3 Know Your Why
What's motivated you to commit to losing weight? It may be a health scare, a family wedding, or the fact that you want to be a better role model for your kids.
"Successful participants in Operation Transformation have very strong reasons as to why they want to lose weight," says Brosnan.
So consider your deep-down weight-loss motivation, she advises: "Write this down, because on the tough days, you can pull out your 'why' and that gets you going again."
4 Create healthy habits
The secret to a healthier lifestyle is to create new habits, explains Brosnan, who earned her PhD with the development of a special physical activity programme for overweight women, which had positive outcomes for participants in terms of fitness and weight loss.
However, creating a habit involves effort - and over a relatively prolonged period. It takes conscious daily repetition of a new behaviour, such as some form of exercise. In fact, it can take up to 21 days before your new behaviour becomes habitual.
Keep the changes small - for example, exercising for at least 10 minutes a day, but do it every day. Once a habit is formed, it's much easier to keep it up as you're no longer as reliant on sheer willpower.
5 Think Thin, Talk Thin
Having the right mindset - and using the right kind of language - are probably some of the most important things you can do when trying to lose weight. What you think and the language you use is very powerful, Dr Brosnan warns.
"As best you can, keep your thoughts and words in alignment to your goal," she advises.
"Don't keep saying: 'I'll never lose weight - sure I just have to look at cake and I put on weight', if your goal is to lose weight. Instead, she suggests, repeat positive statements or affirmations such as: "Every day I am getting slimmer and slimmer."
This can help reframe your thoughts.
6 Learn from your mistakes
Research shows that when people self-monitor in relation to their progress towards a goal, they're more likely to achieve it, says Brosnan. So it's about setting the goal, monitoring your progress in relation to the goal and taking appropriate action to keep you on track - either rewarding yourself if you achieve your targets, or tweaking your behaviour if you fall temporarily by the wayside.
"Rather than beating yourself up if you didn't have a great day or week, take a step back and look at what went wrong and learn from your mistakes. Figure out how you'd deal with a similar situation if it were to happen again," she suggests.
7 It's not all or nothing
Losing weight is not a case of either being 'on the wagon' or 'off it', emphasises Brosnan. In fact, she believes, that's exactly the kind of mentality we need to let go. Instead, understand that weight loss is about adopting the philosophy that the more healthy choices you make the better. "It's about creating a healthy lifestyle. Look at it as a series of choices you make throughout the day. The idea is to make as many healthy choices as you can. Start to see your efforts one decision at a time - if you don't make a healthy choice for lunch, that's okay, learn from it, move on and make a healthier choice for dinner."
8 Eat mindfully
"Eating 'mindlessly' means you'll come to the end of a bag of crisps without even realising you've eaten them! You'll therefore want to eat more because you haven't been present for the experience of eating them."
Mindfulness plays a big role in weight loss, says Brosnan - whether it be mindful eating or being mindful of your inner chatter.
"It's about bringing attention to your food and being present while you are eating."
9 Call a HALT
Sometimes we can't, or may not want, to deal with negative emotions such as loneliness or stress, so we choose high-fat/high-sugar foods as a distraction from how we're feeling - or as a comfort. However, this creates a vicious cycle, Brosnan explains, because such foods disrupt our blood sugar levels. When this happens, our bodies release more stress hormones - thus causing us to eat more of these unhealthy foods.
If you suddenly feel the urge to eat unhealthy food, try the HALT method. Ask yourself what's driving you to eat: are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? Once you've recognised the real driver, it can help lessen the obsession with comfort eating.
10 Reward Yourself... appropriately
When you achieve your goals, whether they're short-term or long-term, it's important to acknowledge your achievements and reward yourself. But make sure your reward moves you toward your goal - new sports gear would be a better choice than chocolate cake. Focusing on your success helps keep you motivated toward your goals.
"Research tells us that it's important to reward yourself when you reach even smaller or short-term goals, but a lot of people tend to reward themselves with the very thing they're trying to avoid."
11 Have a solid morning ritual
Getting a good start to your day gives you the psychological boost you need to keep chugging along that chosen healthy path. The best way to achieve a good start is to create a positive morning routine - this is the time of the day that you have most control over and so, can ensure you achieve the things you plan for yourself with little or no distraction. This is a time you can fit in meditation, setting an intention for the day, giving gratitude, exercising, preparing healthy food etc.
12 Don't weigh yourself
Don't become obsessed with the numbers - it's not always helpful, says Brosnan, who only weighs her clients on week one, week four and week eight of their eight-week programme.
Weight loss is a complete lifestyle change, not a short-term quick fix, she emphasises, so you have to look at it in the long term.
"As people start to exercise and do strength training, they can gain muscle and lose fat," she warns, adding that this means a genuine healthy shift in body weight may not show up on the scales - and people can become discouraged.
13 Curb cravings
Many cravings are down to our physiology and the habits we've formed. "Eating high-fat, high-sugar and refined flours can create an addiction," Brosnan explains. So here are some useful anti-craving techniques:
* Choose to have what you are craving, but less of it (but you have to have control)
* Choose a healthier alternative (chocolate-covered rice cake rather than a chocolate digestive)
* Don't have it at all - simply avoid it
* Things that help with avoidance are to sit it out (cravings often dissipate after 10-15 minutes), drink water, distract yourself (exercise works), remove yourself from the situation, call a friend, brush your teeth or even listen to some uplifting music.
14 Practise the great art of self-discipline
Self-discipline is actually habit-forming: "When something is a habit, we no longer rely on willpower to engage in the necessary behaviour or make the right decision," explains Brosnan.
Easier said than done, but, she adds: self-control is really just like a muscle that needs exercise and strengthening. Each time you resist temptation, you're developing stronger self-control and wiring yourself for success.
15 Get Support
Research shows that having practical, emotional and psychological support from those around you means you're more likely to succeed with your programme. The support can take a variety of forms, from someone doing the dishes so you can go for a walk after dinner, to a friend who will join you for a run, to someone you can call for motivation when you are having a challenging day. Get clear on what types of support you need and ask those who can help you.
Social pressure can work for or against you, so make sure you hang out with like-minded people.
■ Dr Ailis Brosnan will be among the speakers at the Mind, Body, Spirit and Yoga Festival, March 18-20 at the RDS, Dublin. Tickets cost €12 or €30 for a three-day pass. For details or to book, seemindbodyspirit.ie
■ For more details on Dr Ailis's healthy living programmes, see yourhealthylivingcoach.com/online-weight-loss-program as well as yourhealthylivingcoach.com/ailis-brosnan
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