The emotional burden of weight loss

Rosemary Flynn explains why many people who have lost weight endure an emotional burden.

Real-life scenario

Office colleagues and friends, Melanie and Debbie, set out on a weight loss journey. They both had a body mass index (BMI) of over 35.

Thirty-year-old Melanie had recently been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and 39-year-old Debbie had symptoms of insulin resistance and they had both been encouraged to lose weight for the sake of their health.

When a weight-loss group was initiated at their workplace, they decided to join the group. They exercised together, they planned a healthy diet with low carbs and low fat. The group gave them support and they celebrated every 5kg that they lost.

They both set a target weight and by the end of one year, they had both reached their target – a BMI of 26. Melanie was able to reduce her medication substantially and Debbie’s insulin resistance seemed to be a thing of the past. They both felt much healthier and looked very good. With their reduced size, they were able to wear fashionable clothing and others noticed their new image and commented how beautiful they were looking. They felt very proud of their achievements.

When their time with the weight-loss group ended, Debbie continued to feel positive and sustained her new lifestyle. She got a lot of support from her husband who loved her new look and they began to go out socially a lot more.

Though, Melanie did not feel as happy as she expected. She wasn’t sure why until she started to think about the impact the weight loss had had on her.

Melanie’s thoughts and emotions

  • Melanie was single and lived alone and Debbie was not as available to her as a friend anymore, so she lost the support she had from her and from the weight-loss group. She had done so much better when she had their support. Now she felt very alone in her quest to stay slim.
  • She felt under continuous pressure to pursue this new way of living with more exercise and watching what she ate. She felt her life had been a lot more relaxed before her weight loss.
  • Over time, the other women in the office accused her of being self-absorbed and this was not really true. Although Melanie had been well-focused on losing weight and she and Debbie had talked about it in the office, Melanie was not generally a self-centred person.
  • She felt as if she was continually under surveillance and if she put one foot wrong, she would be criticised. Each time someone commented positively on her weight, the pressure felt worse. It made her more afraid of putting on the weight again. The statistics showed that the majority of people who lost a lot of weight, put on the lost weight again within four or five years. If that happened to her, others would see her as a failure. She began to resent the attention.
  • Melanie was an introvert and a shy person. She was excellent at her job and felt confident in her ability there. In fact, she felt that her extra weight gave her a larger presence at work. Being slimmer made her feel less powerful.
  • At the same time, she had little confidence in herself in a social setting, and she preferred to live in the background. She had very few relationships with men and she could blame the lack of attention on her larger size. That way she did not have to admit to herself that it was difficult for her to relate to men.
  • For Melanie, the extra weight was an emotional buffer. With her weight loss, she felt as if she was very much in the foreground with more attention from others, particularly men, and it made her uncomfortable. There was a part of her that wished she had never lost the weight. She had felt safer when there was less attention on her. She knew she looked good now, but she felt so vulnerable.
  • Sometimes she would feel irrationally angry with others for making her feel vulnerable. Or she would feel angry with society, in general, for having such a bad attitude to people with extra weight. They didn’t know how difficult it was for some people to have a beautiful body. It takes a mental toll and requires considerable willpower and sacrifice of unrestricted meals when she went out with her friends. It takes effort to keep up with regular exercise, even if you enjoy it.

Melanie’s psychological burden

The physical challenge of losing weight was not the difficult part of the journey for Melanie. She enjoyed feeling healthier. It was the psychological burden that was much harder to deal with.

This is not uncommon. Many people who have lost weight have had similar emotional struggles. Although their background reasons might differ, the struggle is the same. Small wonder then that such a high percentage of those who have lost weight so well, have regained the weight and more. The emotional burden became too great.

Other consequences can include:

  • A variety of relationship tensions. An overweight partner may feel threatened if their partner begins to look appealing to other men. A partner who is over-controlling can begin to denigrate her for being flirtatious or even accuse her of affairs, even if neither of these is true. He may try to sabotage her efforts by buying her chocolates or serving her meals that go against her eating plan. He may miss their intimate dinners at a favourite restaurant and feel less important in her life. If it is the man who has lost the weight, the same can apply to the woman’s reactions.
  • A strict diet can become an obsession and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia or binge-eating can follow.

What can be done to make this emotional burden manageable?

  1. Be self-aware. Know your resistances and stumbling blocks. Get help from a counsellor if you cannot figure it out yourself. Write your struggles in a journal and explore the reasons why they exist. That way you understand yourself better and can deal with the issues as they arise. Work on the areas where you experience self-doubt or when you feel inadequate.
  2. Commit to and focus on self-care. When you have to give up some things, substitute them with healthier options. Don’t leave yourself in limbo.
  3. Get rid of the toxic people in your life who sabotage your efforts to be a healthier and more whole person.
  4. Support makes a huge difference. Keep in touch with friends and family who can help you keep eating well and exercising. Join groups that enjoy the same activities as you do.
  5. Being a healthy weight is still something to strive for. Even though you look different, you are still you and that is okay. Embrace your strong points and work on your difficulties, so that you can enjoy your new image and grow more confident in yourself. Accept your temperament, and given time you will be able to accept your healthier image.

Remember there are many things that you couldn’t do before which you can do with a slimmer body. There will be different opportunities available to you which you couldn’t negotiate before.


Rosemary Flynn
Rosemary Flynn is a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Diabetes in Johannesburg. She has worked with children, families and adults with diabetes for 24 years, enabling them to overcome their anxieties about their condition and to deal with the difficult events in their lives.