I can’t tell you how many times I used to find myself knee-deep in free-for-all eating the weekend after successfully sticking to my diet. I’d beat myself up thinking, “Why do I self-sabotage my diet every single week — every single time?”
I didn’t know it at the time, but part of the reason for my weight loss self-sabotage was actually biology. The body is wired to rebel against dietary restriction by increasing hunger for junk foods.1-3 For many of us, though, the reasons why we self-sabotage our weight loss goals are rooted in our beliefs.
Even if we really want to lose weight, we might self-sabotage our weight loss goals if success creates too much cognitive dissonance — the internal friction that happens when we hold two or more conflicting beliefs. For example, if you don’t believe you’re worthy of success, you won’t allow yourself to have it, and you’ll self-sabotage weight loss the moment you get too close to success.
Many of us carry our limiting beliefs subconsciously, though, which means that we don’t understand why we self-sabotage around food. We just do it, and then feel awful about ourselves.
Improved self-compassion alone is a compelling reason to dig into the subconscious beliefs that we carry about food, weight, and everything in between. The more we understand the reasons why we do the things we do around food, the more we can find compassion for ourselves and slowly stop self-sabotaging behaviors.
Self-Sabotage & Weight Loss: Looking at the Full Picture
In my practice as an eating psychology coach, I like to view self-sabotaging behaviors holistically — mind, body, and spirit. Sometimes it’s a biological reaction to too much dietary restraint, and sometimes it’s a psychological reaction to our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
At a biological level, our bodies are programmed to resist dietary restrictions, a prevalent weight loss strategy. Substantial clinical evidence suggests that such dieting intensifies feelings of hunger beyond normal levels.1-3 Extensive research has also demonstrated that those who adopt restrictive diets are often at risk of not only regaining the weight they lost but also potentially gaining even more than before.4-6
In other words, when you diet, your hunger goes into hyperdrive, prompting you to abandon your diet and subsequently regain or even exceed your previous weight. To me, this is the epitome of biology-driven self-sabotage around food.
But what if you aren’t restricting your diet and still self-sabotage your weight loss goals? What if you feel like you’re doing everything “right,” like listening to your body to inform what you eat (intuitive eating), and yet you still feel out of control sometimes? This is where eating psychology comes into play.
Hidden, Limiting Beliefs Can Fuel Self-Sabotage Around Food and Weight
For many of us, the most triggering blocks to weight loss are psychological. Instead of rebelling against a restrictive diet, we rebel against our own success. But why? Why would we deprive ourselves of the success that we quite literally dream of? The answer is different for everyone because our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (i.e., our psychology) is extremely unique.
However, there are some limiting beliefs that are quite common. For example, Gay Hendricks, author of The Big Leap, talks about a limiting belief that many of us have faced: a fear of success. Whether we’re aware of it or not, many of us self-sabotage our own success because we don’t feel worthy of it. Gay calls it “Upper Limiting.”
Another way of describing self-sabotage is cognitive dissonance, or psychological discomfort from holding conflicting beliefs simultaneously. Even if you really want to be successful and lose weight, you might also believe something else about weight loss (i.e. “skinny people are stuck up”) that makes it less desirable.
For example, if you lose 20 pounds and start to wear smaller clothes, you might also start to attract new kinds of attention from friends and strangers alike. If you don’t feel worthy of the success, and especially if the new attention shines a spotlight on it, it will cause cognitive dissonance. In an attempt to get yourself back to familiar ground, you will self-sabotage your diet and weight loss goals, even though you also really want that to happen!
My Clearest Moment of Weight Loss Self-Sabotage
I hope you’re starting to see why it’s important to understand what you believe, at a subconscious level, about everything associated with weight loss. Not just your diet or weight loss goals, but everything.
This can include what you believe about success, relationships, and even the spiritual root of weight gain: a need for protection. To illustrate what this looks like, I’d like to share one of my favorite stories of my own self-sabotaging behaviors.
When I was 10, I got a scooter and rode it up and down the neighborhood for hours every day. This was a big change from being indoors all the time. To no one’s surprise (except maybe me) I lost 14 pounds within a few weeks.
My size XL pants became too big, and I distinctly remembering showing my loose pants to my mom like it was funny. It meant nothing to me, because I hadn’t been brainwashed by diet culture yet, and I did not have “weight loss goals.” I was just having fun.
I only realized that I lost weight because my dad pulled me to the side one day and put a gallon of milk in my hands. He told me that gallon of milk was 7 pounds, and I just lost twice that much weight from my body because of all that scootering. Go Kari!
Shortly after that conversation, my older brother made a mean joke about me, and I threatened to hit him. (Not proud of it.) Usually, a simple threat was enough to get him to leave me alone. Only this time, I didn’t have size to back me up. He wasn’t scared and, suddenly, the tables were turned. I was defenseless.
Dad intervened and told me, “Kari, you can’t threaten him anymore. You don’t have the extra weight to protect you.” Boom. There entered the belief: Being thin is not safe. I must be overweight in order to protect myself from harm.
I gained back those 14 pounds and continued to be overweight well into adulthood because of this subconscious belief — among many others. While this level of self-awareness might seem obvious, I had no idea that belief was hanging around my entire life, until I did the work.
Workbooks & Self-Inquiry Are the Answer to Self-Sabotage
When you hold conflicting beliefs about something — like “I really want to lose weight because it’ll make life better” and also “I am unsafe when I lose weight” — then you will self-sabotage weight loss.
When food is subconsciously protecting you from something, you won’t give it up. (This is why I have an entire post on the spiritual root of weight gain, which is a subconscious need for protection.)
For me, being overweight provided safety; and every time I tried to diet, my subconscious was screaming, “This isn’t safe!!!” As a result, I would binge after every attempt to diet. This is why it’s so important to discover your subconscious beliefs about food, weight, and life. Now, how can you do that?
Self-inquiry, or the practice of asking yourself questions, is the best tool I’ve found. Specifically, self-inquiry with pen and paper. You have better access to your subconscious thoughts when you write something down versus thinking it through in your head.
My workbook on stopping self-sabotage, Why We Do the Things We Do, is the perfect tool for this. It provides 75 pages of juicy prompts to uncover your own hidden, limiting beliefs — that way you can heal them.
As I previously mentioned, a need for protection is one of the biggest triggers for self-sabotage and weight gain. Some of the exercises in Why We Do the Things We Do are titled ‘The Safety Net’ and ‘Boundaries & Protection’ as you’ll explore everything you believe about how your body is actually protecting you — in a psycho-spiritual sense. (Your body is always protecting you in a physical sense.)
Examples of Self-Sabotaging Beliefs
I know how outrageous it can sound that weight gain is actually serving a positive, protective role, but for many of us it’s true. Even if we really want to lose weight — even if it’s our #1 goal and we’re ready to put every ounce of energy behind it — we can’t get there if we’re also stripping away our protection.
Along with a need for protection, there are many other triggers for self-sabotage around food. Everyone holds patterns of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are highly unique — a need for protection is just one example.
Here are some examples of what other limiting beliefs could look like:
You might self-sabotage if you believe that being overweight is protecting you from…
- Rejection – because if someone rejects you, you can just blame it on your weight, not yourself
- Unwanted advances from the opposite sex – because you don’t know how to say no, so your body says it for you
- Outshining others – because you’re a people-pleaser, and if your body became a trigger for jealousy, you can’t please everyone
The list goes on and on, and you won’t what’s lying in your way until you do the work of self-inquiry. As acclaimed author Joan Didion once said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
How to Stop Self-Sabotage Around Weight Loss
Self-inquiry is the best way, by far, to stop self-sabotaging because it uncovers the beliefs that you don’t even know you have. However, it’s not the only tool in the toolbox.
Here are some practical steps you can take to address patterns of self-sabotage around weight loss and food:
1. Embrace Mindfulness Practices
Mindfulness is about being present and fully engaging with the moment. Through mindfulness, you can gain insights into triggers and behaviors that lead to self-sabotage.
- Meditation: Meditation can help with stopping self-sabotage by moving you from a reactive state to a responsive state. Training in meditation can be the difference between flinging yourself into compulsion and having the awareness that you’re about to self-sabotage and choosing another action (like the ones listed below) instead.
- Journaling: Putting pen to paper is one of the best ways to uncover the hidden beliefs that fuel self-sabotage. You can start with some simple freeform journaling to get started. Ask yourself questions like, “Why would I be afraid of success? What unintended consequences might I be hiding from?” For a structured approach, consider using my self-sabotage workbook — it’s my bestseller for a reason!
2. Build a Supportive Community
When we try to figure things out on our own, we are subject to our own biases. Since self-sabotage is rooted in those biases, it can make a solo-venture unproductive.
We need the help of another person with different biases to reveal our blind spots! Whether it’s a therapist or a coach, find someone whose ideology you resonate with. Trust and vulnerability are crucial for creating a safe space where limiting beliefs can be explored.
3. Set Realistic Goals and Expectations
I can’t write a post on stopping self-sabotage around weight loss without mentioning goals. I advocate a highly intuitive approach to eating where your body informs what and when you eat.
To this degree, I think it’s important not to set yourself up for disappointment by setting weight loss goals that are too high. This can lead to an inclination to diet, which I previously mentioned is clinically proven to fail.1-6 Instead of focusing on the number on the scale, set goals rooted in intuitive eating.
For example, you can set a small goal of breaking just one food rule as a stepping stone towards giving up dieting and eating intuitively. Keep a journal of what you’re eating (no calorie tracking required) to generate awareness around what you’re actually eating.
Many of us think we will eat out-of-control when all foods are allowed. But over the long run, chances are that you’ll eat more normally because intuitive eating is correlated with healthier eating choices over the long-run.7
4. Redefine Your Relationship with Diet Culture
Stopping self-sabotage should be viewed holistically. While you employ steps towards your mindset, like self-inquiry, it’s important to employ steps towards your body as well.
- Educate Yourself: Delve into scientific research and articles that challenge the mainstream diet culture. By understanding the actual science of weight loss (i.e. it is not about ‘calories in, calories out’!), you can debunk myths and develop a more informed approach.
- Focus on Intuition, Not Restriction: Try to view all foods neutrally. Instead of dwelling on forbidden foods, prioritize those that nourish and energize your body. When you focus on food neutrality, you naturally gravitate toward healthier choices without feeling deprived.
Untangling the Knots of Self-Sabotage Around Food
We’ve delved deep into the multi-faceted nature of self-sabotage, especially as it pertains to weight loss. While biology plays a crucial role in our responses to diet and food, it’s our psychological terrain — our deeply entrenched beliefs — that often trip us up. Such beliefs, even when hidden in our subconscious, can manifest as barriers to our success.
Through journaling and self-inquiry workbooks like the Why We Do the Things We Do, we can uncover and challenge these deep-seated beliefs. Furthermore, by redefining our perspective on diet culture and focusing on intuition rather than restriction, we create a sustainable path towards holistic health — mind, body, and spirit.
- Derous, Davina et al. “The effects of graded levels of calorie restriction: VI. Impact of short-term graded calorie restriction on transcriptomic responses of the hypothalamic hunger and circadian signaling pathways.” Aging 8,4 (2016): 642-63. doi:10.18632/aging.100895
- Cameron, Jameason D et al. “Energy depletion by diet or aerobic exercise alone: impact of energy deficit modality on appetite parameters.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 103,4 (2016): 1008-16. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.115584
- Thomas, Elizabeth A et al. “Eating-related behaviors and appetite during energy imbalance in obese-prone and obese-resistant individuals.” Appetite 65 (2013): 96-102. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.01.015
- Lowe, Michael R et al. “Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain.” Frontiers in psychology 4 577. 2 Sep. 2013, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00577
- Hall, Kevin D, and Scott Kahan. “Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity.” The Medical clinics of North America 102,1 (2018): 183-197. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012
- El Ghoch, Marwan et al. “Weight cycling in adults with severe obesity: A longitudinal study.” Nutrition & dietetics: the journal of the Dietitians Association of Australia 75,3 (2018): 256-262. doi:10.1111/1747-0080.12387
- Christoph, Mary J et al. “Intuitive Eating is Associated With Higher Fruit and Vegetable Intake Among Adults.” Journal of nutrition education and behavior 53,3 (2021): 240-245. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2020.11.015