Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Personality Affects Weight

Today's Wall Street Journal offers this intriguing article about the link between personality and weight control. Some of the information in the article is by no means new. After all, it has long been common knowledge that some people turn to food for comfort and that people often eat for reasons other than hunger.

The WSJ article goes further than this, tying certain personality types to a greater propensity for becoming and remaining overweight. Five broad categories are listed:

  • The Night Owl.
  • The Stress Junkie.
  • The Mindless Multitasker.
  • The Giver.
  • The Perfectionist.

The fixes suggested in the article, however, are overly simplistic. Maybe that's to be expected from a brief news article. But telling someone who is a lifelong perfectionist to "Try to set realistic goals; strive for progress, not perfection" is just silly. It's not that perfectionists don't know or haven't been told this kind of thing. It's that such an approach goes completely against their internal operating system.

I began grappling with weight issues as a teen.  24 years ago I embarked on a yearlong journey that resulted in significant weight loss. Today I weigh 70 lbs less than I weighed in January 1988. I have had to work over these years to keep the weight off. It hasn't been an easy ride.

As someone that has grappled with weight throughout my adult life, I have found some principles that seem to work for me. But these same things might not work for someone else.

Not only do humans necessarily have an inherent physical connection to food, we have a deep psychological relationship with food. Since our psyches differ, what works for one person cannot be universally applied. Each person needs an individually tailored approach.

Moreover, our psyches change over time. So what works for you today may not work for you at some future point. Your health maintenance system has to evolve with your personality.

A relative recently sent me dietary advice, suggesting things that should be avoided and things that should be more abundant in my diet. Frankly, almost all of it amounted to little more than fine tuning. Many of the suggestions were also very expensive—the kinds of things people with lots of disposable income do to make themselves feel important.

I personally believe that any successful dietary program has to focus primarily on the macro rather than the micro. Finding a way to manage total calorie intake while feeling satisfied will produce far better results than all of the organic dietary tweaking in the world. Take a whack at the 80% and worry about the 20% later (if you can afford it).

Besides, the prideful side of me didn't want to take the relative's advice. Despite having Multiple Sclerosis and hypothyroidism, I am in pretty fine health for my age. I figured that I could start thinking about the advice offered when the giver of the advice slimmed down to where their gut didn't overlap their belt buckle.

People tend to want some kind of simple (magical) solution to complex issues. When it comes to weight control, we like to think that some pill or some minor tweaking of our diet will help us achieve optimal weight. Actually, we know deep inside that this won't work, but we often pursue such courses anyway because they are preferable to making the actual sacrifices that must be made to achieve the kind of results we imagine we want.

The fact is that no single weight control system works for everyone. If such a thing existed there wouldn't be hundreds (thousands?) of weight control offerings on the market.

Another hard truth is that the only way to find a method that works for you individually is to make a serious commitment and to experiment on yourself until you hit on something that works reasonably well for you.

And here's more bad news. No matter what you find, it's going to require a lot of sacrifice.

No wonder so many people continue to remain overweight. The physical, psychological, and financial costs of getting skinny simply aren't worth it to them.

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