Overweight and obesity are an obvious public health problem in the Western world. Those of us who have been overweight know that it’s a significant personal problem as well.

We want to lose weight, but find it incredibly daunting. We’re confused, desperate, and demoralised. Our attempts to lose weight prove either unsuccessful or unsustainable in the long term.

Why is losing weight so hard?

Weight loss as applied philosophy

I’ve recently written and published a book about weight loss – specifically my own journey to lose weight after having been overweight since my early teens.

What makes this book special is that it goes right to the heart of our problem with food.

Like so many people, I was confused by all the mixed messages and conflicting information about weight loss. I’d tried doing more exercise, eating smaller portions, cutting out carbs, replacing meals with raw vegetables, cutting out snacks, and changing the balance of my meals throughout the day in hopes of boosting my metabolism.

I was aware of all the talk about high-intensity interval training, regular fasting like the popular 5:2 diet, meditation and mindfulness, and of course mainstream nutritional advice.

I was confused about the best approach or method for losing weight, and I was also confused about my failures. Like many people I’d had the experience of putting on weight when I had tried to lose it, and losing weight when I wasn’t even thinking about it.

How can you even try to lose weight without understanding the cause and effect of being overweight in the first place? How can we prevent dieting failure when we don’t even know the conditions of success?

In the end I was so sick of the confusion and uncertainty, I decided to do something about it. I used my skills and knowledge as a philosopher to do what a philosopher does best: I worked it out for myself.

An Enlightened approach

One of my guiding principles as a philosopher is intellectualism: the idea that the human will is dependent on understanding or comprehension to guide it.

The Socratic principle that “to know the good is to do the good” means that the primary cause of our struggles and suffering in life is intellectual. In other words, the surest antidote to a problem like excessive body weight is to better understand the problem itself.

The corollary is that confusion and ignorance surrounding a problem like weight loss is central to the problem.

That’s why “willpower” is such a distraction in the weight-loss debate. From an intellectualist point of view the main problem is not the strength of our will, but the clarity of the intellect that informs it. It’s not that we aren’t trying hard enough to lose weight, it’s that we don’t really understand how or why or what we are actually trying to accomplish.

We think we want to lose weight. We think we understand why it is harmful to us. But if we really understood, then we wouldn’t have to struggle and suffer in confusion. If we really understood we would just go ahead and do it.

That’s why I call my approach an enlightened one. Instead of fumbling around in the dark, relying on diet fads and fashions and incomplete information, I decided once and for all to understand the problem, knowing that if I understood it I could at last resolve it as efficiently as possible.

Finding certainty

The things I discovered about weight loss are too numerous to mention in this article. You’ll have to buy the book to follow the whole journey from start to finish.

But there were a few key ideas that gave me the all-important certainty and clarity I needed to change my behaviour and finally lose weight.

The first of these ideas is that being overweight should be viewed not as a cause but as an effect. It is a symptom, a side-effect, or by-product of our actions. It is not something we can control directly, only indirectly. Focusing on your weight all the time is like chasing your own shadow.

So if gaining weight is the effect, what is the cause?

The cause lies in our relationship with food. For those of us without underlying medical issues, it is excessive eating relative to our requirements that causes us to gain weight.

In this sense, we shouldn’t view gaining weight and remaining overweight as an unhealthy or undesirable thing. Our bodies are supposed to gain weight when we eat too much. The mechanism that causes weight gain is not faulty. Gaining weight in response to consistent over-eating is a healthy response.

We would be in real trouble if this mechanism failed. Imagine if your body lost the ability to store excess energy. It would denote something terribly wrong on a biological level.

We are so fixated on the negative aspects of being overweight, we forget that it is part of the body’s normal, natural response, and so we lose sight of the real problem.

The dysfunction doesn’t lie in our bodies putting on weight, the dysfunction lies in the excessive eating, the intake of excess food that our bodies then struggle to accommodate.

Redefining the problem

The problem of being overweight or obese, the problem of weight gain and weight loss should not be the focus of our efforts and our concern, because it is only a symptom or reflection of the real problem: our dysfunctional relationship with food.

We’ve all heard that the problem is eating too much. But do we truly understand that our relationship with food is dysfunctional? I don’t think we do.

That’s why we’re lured by the promise of diets that ultimately promise to let us cheat the system. We’re drawn in by diets that tell us we can still satisfy our appetites, so long as we avoid certain foods, or adhere to specific exercise regimes, or follow a certain formula of fasting or “cheat days” or miracle superfoods, magical yoga routines, and mindfulness.

We’re even afraid that if we eat too little we might get sick, or become anorexic, or malnourished or our metabolism will decrease and we’ll actually gain weight by eating less!

There’s some truth to these concerns, but how much? Will you shrivel up and die if you skip a meal? How high is the risk of becoming anorexic, if you stop being obese? As for your metabolism – in the long and tragic history of human starvation, has anyone gained weight by not eating?

These are not flippant points, and I’m not advocating anyone starve themselves. Anyone considering a change in diet should consult their doctor, especially if they have an underlying medical condition.

But the point is that the uncertainty, fear, and doubt surrounding weight loss paralyse us. Many of us have very strange and unexamined ideas about the risks of eating less – ideas that directly interfere in our attempts to lose weight.

What we need to do – and what my book does – is redefine the problem away from weight loss and back onto our dysfunctional relationship with food, and the deeper motivations that drive us to consistently eat more than we need.

That’s only the first step.

It took me nearly a year to refine my approach. I had to work out and then answer questions like: how much food should I be eating? What drives me to go beyond that limit? And how can I can redirect or neutralise that desire to eat for the sake of pleasure and escape?

This approach is not for everyone, but for some people it will spark a spirit of inquiry into their own actions and motives, while for others it will be exactly what they need to repair a dysfunctional relationship with food.

It worked for me. I went from being on the cusp of obesity to safely within the normal range for my Body Mass Index. I lost 20kg (44lb) while focusing on motives and eating habits instead of trying or struggling to lose weight. I’ve maintained my current weight for over a year not by thinking or worrying about weight, but by paying attention to my relationship with food day by day.

My relationship with food has dramatically changed. I no longer use eating as a distraction or escape from unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and experiences, nor as a substitute for other forms of pleasure in life.

It wasn’t easy. I had to face many difficult and painful emotional states. But unlike my past attempts at weight loss, I knew exactly what was happening, what was motivating me, when I had succeeded, and when I had failed.

In the end it was understanding that changed me, that brought my eating habits, and hence my body weight, back into balance.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. His new book The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet is now available on Amazon Kindle, and in paperback. Don’t own a Kindle? Amazon has free Kindle apps you can download for iPhone and iPad, Android, Mac, or PC. Zac also blogs at zacalstin.com

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Zac Alstin

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...