How to Get Motivated to Solve Your Eating Problems

“I’m willing to do ANYTHING to lose weight,” announces Julie, a new client of mine.

She pauses. I wait expectantly.

“Except eat right and exercise,” she adds.

We laugh with the shared recognition that the effort to lose weight is much easier said than done. (Names and identifying data have been changed for confidentiality).

Julie’s candid admission touches on an intriguing aspect of weight loss – the role of motivation. What is motivation? How do you get it? How do you sustain it?

Problems in motivation may also affect other parts of our lives such as procrastinating at work, inertia in exercising, overspending our credit cards. Let's explore how to get motivated in resolving an eating disorder so you can declare peace with bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating.

My dictionary defines motivation as “some inner drive, impulse, intention that causes a person to do something or act in a certain way; incentive; goal.” I would add that motivation refers to the psychology of change.

Even the Bible refers to motivation problems: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15, Revised Standard Version). This description reveals the very core of motivation problems – we are divided against our self. The head wants one thing, the appetites want something else. Julie wants to lose weight but another part of her doesn’t want to make the effort. It’s as if she is in a civil war with her very own self. Eating problems (like other addictions) can be defined as searching for short-term gratification at the expense of long-term harm.

People are always ambivalent about change, even change for the better. Change is disconcerting and disorienting, and it is normal to see-saw back and forth. If someone has just admitted she has a bingeing problem, advising her to go to therapy, a self-help group, and a consultation for medication is to approach the problem with a sledge hammer and is a sure guarantee that person will run for the hills. Everyone needs to match their own degree of readiness to change with an appropriate action.

So I advised Julie that rather than taking away any of her food or cajoling her to join a gym, we should consult with her as to what she might like to try. Julie thought she would like to add a salad to her daily lunch. This was a great suggestion because, rather than coercing herself to take food away, Julie was adding something healthy.

Julie could not solve her whole eating problem at once, but she did have the willingness to make one small change. If we can reduce a problem to its “bite size” components, change is much less daunting.

This salad story may seem like an insignificant step. But the truth is change is composed of small links on a chain, one leading to another. No change is too small. This is especially so because when a person can successfully accomplish even a small change, this can lead to feelings of hopefulness which will generate future change.

Here are some suggestions to stimulate your own motivation:

  • Recognize that any change produces ambivalence and be prepared for ups and downs. This is normal.
  • Get curious about the benefits of continuing your eating problem (does it provide comfort? companionship?).
  • Acknowledge the price you pay for continuing hurtful eating behavior, both in terms of physical consequences and lowered self esteem.
  • If you decided to change, what do you think would work for you? What would your first step be?
  • What will you do to support yourself with the process of change if things get tough? Think what may have worked for you in the past.

As one of my clients said, “It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve fallen off the wagon. What matters is how many times I get back up!”

Change is a process of stops and starts. What will drive your motivation forward is an abiding compassion for yourself!

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