THE BLOG
08/07/2011 12:04 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2011

The Link Between Obesity And Perfectionism

U.S. obesity rates are on the rise as 36 states saw a 25 percent increase over the last year, reports a 2010 survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These startling obesity numbers show no signs of slowing down, making it crucial to understand why it's happening to you or to someone you love.

My personal struggle with obesity began in 1991. I started a new job, moved to a new city and got married at the same time. Can you imagine the stress? I began to "medicate" myself with food and the expected weight gain soon followed. I tried all sorts of diets, but I failed miserably. Believe it or not, I actually gained weight on Slim Fast!

What was causing my diet plan to fail over and over again? Surprisingly enough, it was my perfectionism. What made me fail was my inability to accept my own faults. I was trying too hard to have everything in my life "perfect." Just like most people who set out on a diet, I had very high standards for weight loss and when I didn't meet those goals, I lapsed into anxiety and depression and turned to food for comfort. It was time to try a different approach. Instead of relying on my perfectionism to help me lose weight, I needed to abandon it.

As as a medical doctor and surgeon, I've found the majority of my patients suffering from obesity are actually perfectionists too. We're not the lazy, procrastinating, passive-aggressive people that many think we are. We set very high, sometimes unreachable, standards for ourselves. I recently did a study of 101 patients and found more than 73 percent of them showed above average levels of perfectionism! Most of the perfectionism was the self-imposed type -- meaning they expect to be perfect.

Nobody likes to fail, but perfectionists despise it. Overweight perfectionists think in "all or nothing" terms; either we do something very well or we don't do it at all. There is no middle ground. When we find we cannot achieve our goals, we stop trying because we fear failure. What's often interpreted as a "lazy" or a "quitter" mentality, is in fact, a protective mechanism to save us from facing failure.

Diet detours and frustrations happen to just about everyone -- the hard part is not letting these setbacks destroy your progress. With perfectionism in mind, here are three tips to help you break the struggle with weight loss:

1. Set shorter, more attainable goals for yourself. The goals should be realistic so if you fall short, you're more likely to recover and try again. If the goals are too difficult you will think, "I'll never be able to do this." You'll indulge your extreme thinking tendency and the show is over! Weight loss professionals and exercise trainers need to understand this concept too so they don't facilitate your failure. Set out to lose one to two pounds per week rather than 10 pounds. Don't attempt to run a 5K if you can't even walk a block. If you're honest with yourself by setting realistic goals, you WILL get there.

2. Don't weigh yourself every day. I recommend weighing yourself only on Fridays. Why? Because if you weigh yourself on Monday and you had a "bad" weekend, you might think, "What's the point, I blew it anyway." Thus, you'll quit the rest of the week. If you weigh yourself on Friday, you will know how you did throughout the week and prepare yourself accordingly for the weekend.

3. Work on thinking "in the middle." Here's an exercise to help you get away from extreme thinking. Think about your current goals and draw three columns on a piece of paper. On the right side, write the absolute best possible outcomes for your goals. On the left side, write down the worst possible scenarios. In the middle, write down possible outcomes that you would be willing to accept. Finally, rank the middle column in order from first to last and shoot for the middle three choices. This helps you to accept less than perfect outcomes. Refer to this list every day, and it will change your life for the better!

My own 10-year bout with binge eating and inflexible perfectionism led me to understand the need to moderate my thinking. When I understood the root cause of my obesity, I was able to treat the triggers and eliminate my cravings for comfort foods. Since then, I've kept the weight off for seven years and counting! By understanding this perfectionist tendency in obesity, we can do a much better job at helping people conquer their struggle with weight. Remember, the secret to success is knowing why you failed and doing something about it.