Weight loss is more than just reducing the amount of calories you eat and doing more exercise. For long-term success, it requires improving the relationship you have with yourself to prevent self-sabotaging behaviours.

When it comes to weight loss goals, it’s essential to examine the motivations and reasons behind them. While wanting to improve oneself is admirable, it’s crucial to ensure that these goals stem from a place of self-love and compassion.

Developing a healthy relationship with weight loss is key to avoiding falling into the trap of unhelpful behaviours associated with emotional eating. 

In this article, we’ll explore the link between body image, emotional eating, and the brain’s response to stress.

The Relationship between Body Image And Motivation

A significant driving force for many of my clients was looking in the mirror and analysing their body, often focusing in on areas they didn’t like.

As thoughts have the power to steer our emotions, this self-critical scrutiny often triggers negative feelings such as sadness, frustration, or discontent.

Ironically, these emotions can become obstacles to achieving weight loss success, but not for the reasons you might assume!

Naturally, no one wants or chooses to feel bad, so subconsciously, when opportunities arise throughout the day to divert your thoughts elsewhere, you’ll often do that.

For example, consuming yourself with work, going out for a run, or even avoiding the mirror altogether. Even stuff like meditation which is adored by many people in the wellness industry.

And of course, emotional eating – we’ll explore that more later.

How Can Running Be Bad For Me?

You might be thinking now – “but some of these things are good for me, no?”.

And yes, they can be beneficial for you if you CHOOSE to do them from a positive position of self-worth and compassion.

HOWEVER, when you are driven to do them to regulate your emotions, that’s when they become a problem.

I’ll illustrate this with treat foods

Indulging in your favourite treats when it’s a conscious choice can have a positive or at least neutral impact on your life.

However, when you use “nice” foods to regulate your daily feelings and emotions, it could become an issue if you’re trying to lose weight.

The same principle applies to exercise, meditation, and work.

While they can be helpful coping strategies and provide short-term relief, overusing them or becoming dependent on them can have long-term consequences.

Consider running, for instance.

When approached from a place of self-compassion, personal goals, and appropriate levels of activity, running is great for you. However, using running to escape from thoughts, de-stress, or ease guilt about overeating can be problematic.

If running becomes something you feel you NEED in your life, questions arise:

  • What happens if you can’t use that coping strategy anymore? Perhaps due to an injury or a busy day?
  • What if you push yourself beyond your body’s limits and add more stress? How will you manage that stress? Will your food cravings increase?

You can very quickly see that something that’s seen as positive for most people can quickly cause MORE problems if it’s used as a coping strategy.

The same applies to work. If you struggle with low self-worth but excel at your job, you might find yourself spending excessive time working.

You may tell yourself that you genuinely enjoy your job, but if it stems from deeper negative feelings, your brain might seek ways to prove your worth or distract you from everyday thoughts and food issues.

Emotional eating itself follows a similar pattern.

Eating can give you something to focus on, temporarily occupying your mind and helping you avoid negative thoughts.

That means that for that brief moment your brain is occupied, so you can avoid negative thoughts and you can feel like you’re doing something.

Question: Have you ever noticed that when faced with a challenging task and your brain gives you cravings for food? You’ve probably just taught it (accidentally through experimentation) that you can alleviate the discomfort of the task by indulging in something pleasant.

Recognizing these connections between your emotions and reactions is crucial for understanding and addressing potential issues.

Separating Your Weight Loss and Happiness Goal

Returning to the topic of body image, it’s crucial to distinguish between the goal of losing weight and the goal of feeling content and positive about yourself.


Weight loss is a physical goal that requires time, actions and changes in behaviour.

Feeling happy, on the other hand, is a state of being.

While goals often take time to achieve, a state can come in an instant!

Consider how swiftly you can feel upset when something triggers you, like seeing parts of your body you dislike in the mirror or not seeing the expected weight loss on the scale.

The same can happen for positive thoughts. Think about a time when you received some good news, or you daydreamed about a nice holiday you were going to have!

That’s you directing your state (feelings).

These instances show how quickly your feelings can shift.

If you have the mindset of “I’ll be happy WHEN X”…whatever X might be, you’re essentially telling yourself that you’re not happy at present.

Feeling unhappy and dealing with negative emotions send signals to and “activates” the survival part of your brain, making it more alert and focused on anything that contributes to your current negative feelings.

This hyperfocus on negatives or attributing meaning to random events can lead to self-critical thoughts and noticing flaws in yourself.

Now, if someone acts towards you in a negative way, you may apply the meaning that it’s because you’re overweight, or X, Y or Z thing you don’t like about yourself.

It’s essential to recognise that this is a NORMAL function of the mind.

Our primitive brain evolved to look out for potential threats.

In the past, being rejected or left behind by our tribe posed a risk to our survival. Hence, in modern times, we often care deeply about others’ opinions of us.

While this trait is a natural function of our brain, it’s not always helpful, especially if our behaviours are driven by this survival-focused part of the brain. As explained earlier, these behaviours can undermine progress in weight loss, leading to cravings, coping strategies, and a sense of urgency to achieve the goal due to feelings of unworthiness.

As a reminder here are some of the reasons:

  • Getting cravings to release stress, boredom, negative emotions, or fill a void.
  • Developing behaviours as coping strategies like excessive exercise or overworking.
  • Developing personality traits to feel accepted like people pleasing, perfectionism or overthinking.
  • The NEED to reach your goal as soon as possible because NOT feeling worthy suggests a survival threat to your primitive brain.

It’s a vicious cycle because then these behaviours often leave you feeling stressed and overwhelmed and seeking release, often through food.

Numerous other behaviours stem from the above pattern as well.

For example, if you’re driven by a survival NEED to reach your goal quickly and then step on the scale only to see no weight loss, it can affect your emotions and actions negatively. Many individuals feel bad about themselves, lose motivation, and then self-sabotage their progress by either:

  • Justifying eating things they wouldn’t have eaten otherwise.
  • Or pushing themselves harder leading to more stress which leads to more need for release.

Going on a diet often becomes an unanswered question of “What do I hate most this week?”…”Myself & the way I look…or this horrible diet that I have to endure”.

Thus, for successful weight loss, you must address your self-worth and how you feel about yourself separately from your weight loss journey.

When you approach them independently, you’re more likely to achieve success.

When you embark on your weight loss journey with self-compassion, you remove the survival instinct pressure to reach your goal as soon as possible and the reaction to fluctuations in results. This then helps avoid self-sabotaging behaviours.

For some people, their personality type enables them to push through stress and overwhelm to reach their goal even though the motivation still comes from a place of low self-worth. 

Although these people often reach their weight loss goal, a new problem arises. Their survival brain then pivots and will be constantly on the lookout for potential threats to the validation they obtain from only losing weight, rather than addressing their intrinsic self-worth.

So for example:

  • What if I put the weight back on?
  • Why have people stopped complimenting me as they did when I first lost the weight?
  • I can’t eat that because I might get fat again.
  • Maybe I’m not thin enough!
  • I can still pinch my skin here so I need to lose a bit more weight now.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to see where your motivations are coming from:

  • Why do I want to look good for myself? – Does any of it come from being accepted/ judged?
  • What does looking good mean – what specifically?
  • Are you looking for/focusing on imperfections?
  • If you don’t feel you look good, does that mean you’re not happy?

Long-Lasting Motivation

So I’ve talked about how motivation resulting from low self-worth often leads to weight loss failure. 

What should drive you?

Instead, your motivation must come from the vision of the life you desire! Learning how to love yourself now allows you to focus on your goal emotion-free. Rooted in a positive self-growth mindset, you will be able to navigate your weight loss journey, taking on each inevitable obstacle as it comes. You must firmly believe in doing whatever it takes to reach your goals, while also falling in love with the process and cherishing every moment of the journey!

The Impact Of Your Survival Brain On Weight Loss

I’ve talked a lot in this article about the primitive survival part of your brain, otherwise known as the unconscious mind.

I’ve left explaining it in more detail to the end of the as it’s a bit more complex.

Negative Emotions

If you’re not happy with how you look and this subsequently brings up negative emotions, then this can activate the amygdala in the limbic system which is part of your primitive survival brain. Its primary job is to look out for threats and keep you alive! 

Therefore, this particular section of the brain has evolved to be hyper-aware of potential dangers, including threats to our social standing or acceptance within a group.

Two crucial characteristics of your survival brain are:

  1. Strength and power – it exerts considerable force in compelling your actions.
  2. It’s very quick and often bypasses logical thinking.

An example of how it works is jumping out of the way of a moving car upon stepping into the street without looking. Think about how much choice or power you had over this with your logical mind? It would be very hard to overpower right?

AND this is the part of the brain that is controlling a lot of the behaviours that sabotage your weight loss journey – from the negative feelings you get when the scale shows a number you weren’t expecting, to the cravings you get for food when you’re stressed.

That’s why sometimes it can feel like something has taken over your body when the survival brain is doing its thing and giving us urges and cravings!

In modern society, body image concerns can become significant stressors that activate the amygdala and limbic system.

When the amygdala is activated, it can trigger the body’s stress response, leading to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This, in turn, can lead to increased anxiety, emotional distress, and potentially even physical symptoms like a faster heart rate and shallow breathing.

Moreover, negative body image can contribute to a cycle of negative thinking, reinforcing these emotions and creating a feedback loop that perpetuates the stress response in the brain. 

And how have most people accidentally learnt how to release stress? Through food, and if not, some other unhelpful behaviour like drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, gambling etc…

Neuroplasticity and the Strengthening of Your Behaviours

The brain possesses a remarkable ability to rewire itself, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. “Neuro” relates to your nervous system, and “plasticity” relates to the ability to adapt, change and mould itself. 

Anything you do more of (including thought patterns) your brain processes faster and more effectively – They become favoured!

When negative body image becomes a recurring thought pattern, the brain starts to reinforce these neural pathways. The more you dwell on negative thoughts about your appearance, the stronger and more automatic these connections become. This can create a vicious cycle where negative self-perception becomes deeply ingrained.

High cortisol levels are associated with increased anxiety, depression, and emotional dysregulation, all of which can further exacerbate negative body image concerns.

This can also result in applying meaning to life events or other people’s actions based on the negative beliefs you have about yourself. An example of this is: “They didn’t invite me to the party – if I was better looking I’d be more accepted”. This fact probably isn’t true, but your brain applies this meaning because it’s filtering for reasons based on your negative thoughts and subsequent beliefs.

Also, being hyper-aware of negative things about yourself STOPS you from focusing on what you actually want in life and living your values! This means you miss out on life experiences, a key driver of happiness and fulfilment.


In conclusion, embracing self-love and compassion is vital in the pursuit of weight loss goals. 

Understanding the influence of our survival brain and redirecting negative thought patterns can break destructive cycles. 

Separating weight loss from happiness and focusing on self-acceptance supports a healthier approach to achieving success. 

By falling in love with the journey and prioritising self-growth, lasting transformation becomes achievable.

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Answer these 8 questions to allow me to evaluate your level of emotional eating.