Psychology of weight loss: The important role your mind plays
Diet and physical activity are pivotal for weight loss, but your mind is just as important.
It’s well-known that diet and physical activity are 2 of the cornerstones of weight loss, but did you know your mind also plays a pivotal role?
This is because your mindset going into your weight loss journey as well as your ability to implement long-lasting behavioural changes, affect your likelihood of losing weight — and keeping it off.
Here’s what you need to know about the psychology of weight loss.
Why do most diets fail?
For some, dieting is (understandably) riddled with difficulty. For others, the losing weight part of a diet can be rather straightforward — especially when sticking to a tightly controlled regimen.
Lots of dieters successfully lose weight (and some do so very quickly), but the real challenge often comes with maintaining it.
In fact, several studies have shown that those who lose weight tend to put it back on. A review of 29 long-term studies on weight loss found that over 50% of the lost weight was regained after 2 years and more than 80% was regained after 5 years .
So, why does this happen?
It often comes down to the fact that most diets are unsustainable from a lifestyle perspective. Rather than creating manageable life-long habits, many weight loss programs work by implementing drastic and impossible measures.
These diets may limit or even ban a particular macronutrient, such as carbohydrates (including sugar) or fat. They may also come with unrealistic rules, such as only eating a few hundred calories per day or skipping meals. This is known as ‘crash dieting’.
Some people may struggle to implement such a rigid routine, while others may find it easy to do it in the short term. But once the weight is lost, it becomes unviable. Many dieters go back to their original eating habits and the weight returns.
There’s also a physical component to weight gain after dieting. When you lose weight, you lose a mix of muscle and fat. Both of these burn energy. As well, your metabolism tends to speed up.
When you don’t have as much muscle and fat, your body doesn’t need to consume as much energy. That means in order to keep the weight off, you have to continue consuming less energy, which isn’t always doable long-term.
Common psychological barriers around weight loss
From a psychological point of view, there are several reasons why people struggle to lose weight or maintain weight loss. Here are some of the most common.
Negative body image
Body dissatisfaction is pretty prevalent, with research finding that 4 in 5 Australian women are somehow unhappy with their bodies .
Negative body image can encourage someone to diet, which we know isn’t a healthy way to lose weight. It can also make them disengage from physical activity due to feeling self-conscious, which is another essential behavioural change for long-term weight loss.
Stress plays a big part in weight maintenance. When you’re stressed, your cortisol levels rise, which can slow down your metabolism, promote overeating, increase your blood sugar and decrease muscle mass .
It can also affect your sleep. When you’ve slept poorly, certain hormones become imbalanced and it can make you want to eat more. You’re also less likely to exercise and more likely to choose unhealthy foods .
The concept that certain foods are off limits, and that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, is a very black-and-white approach to weight loss. As we know, rigid diets that are all or nothing are unsustainable, and many dieters who follow them tend to regain weight relatively quickly.
Why you might be struggling to lose weight
Eating behaviours are often tied to certain psychological experiences, like stress. There are a couple of reasons you might be finding it hard to lose weight, including:
Emotional eating isn’t uncommon, with a 2015 Australian Psychological Society survey finding that 75% of Australians used food to deal with stress .
Research has also found that when we’re in an emotional state, we often seek out foods that are high in energy, sugar and saturated fat, even if we’re not hungry . All of these can affect our body’s ability to feel full, meaning it’s very easy to overeat.
Interestingly, dieting increases sensitivity to stress, which then makes us want to seek out comfort foods even more . This could very well create a vicious cycle of dieting and emotional eating.
Mindless eating is when you’re not aware of what or how much you’ve eaten. This can happen if you’re distracted (such as watching TV over dinner), when you’re eating out of boredom or procrastination, or when you’re just not paying much attention to what’s on your plate .
When you’re not really eating out of hunger or aren’t being mindful of food consumption, it can be really easy to overeat or turn to things you usually wouldn’t.
Why is the psychology of weight loss so significant?
Sustainable weight loss isn’t about quick fixes or cutting out particular foods or macronutrients. Instead, it’s about creating behavioural shifts and healthy habits and modifying your relationship with food and exercise. Psychology is what underpins these long-term changes.
Significant research has shown that behavioural psychology techniques can be very helpful for those looking to lose weight .
In fact, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has demonstrated the potential to enhance the results of conventional weight loss treatments among those with obesity . When combined with lifestyle changes like diet and exercise, applying certain CBT techniques can lead to more weight loss than diet and exercise alone .
In short, addressing the psychology of weight loss helps create meaningful shifts, which can support you in not only losing weight but keeping it off.
How to approach weight loss
If you want to lose weight in a sustainable way rather than crash dieting, there are a few ways you can tackle it.
Create SMART goals
A popular and effective behavioural technique for losing weight is goal setting. Some research has shown that regular goal setting increases the likelihood of actually making changes, which could translate to a higher chance of losing weight .
Creating SMART goals is a great way to do this. ‘SMART’ stands for ‘Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound’. When applied to weight loss, this could mean:
- Specific. Setting a specific target weight or reduction in body fat percentage
- Measurable. Ensuring your goal can be measured throughout your weight loss journey, such as noting down the change in your weight each week
- Attainable. Establishing a feasible target weight. You obviously want to challenge yourself, but you don’t want to make your target weight so extreme that it’s unattainable. Be realistic about your goals
- Relevant. Understanding why you want to lose weight and the impact it will have on you
- Time-bound. Making sure there’s a time limit attached to your target weight, such as reducing your weight by 10% in the next 12 months
Make behavioural changes
Healthy weight loss involves making long-lasting modifications to your mindset and behaviours. Some of these behavioural changes include:
- Getting to the root of behaviours and reasons behind unhealthy eating habits, as well as addressing them
- Developing coping skills that don’t revolve around food
- Improving body image and cutting negative self-talk
- Goal setting, such as losing a particular amount of weight, or even simply moving more each day
- Increasing motivation to exercise and stick to healthy eating habits
- Self-monitoring and recording what you’ve eaten, how much you’ve moved and how much weight you’ve lost
- Having support from your community to keep you accountable and on track
Plan your meals
Meal planning can be a great way to prepare dishes that are in line with your weight loss goals. In fact, research has shown that structured meal plans and grocery lists can actually improve weight loss as they enable you to stick to healthier foods and regular mealtimes, as opposed to eating mindlessly .
When you’re eating your meals, you could also try to adopt a more mindful approach. In comparison to mindless eating where you’re not fully aware of what and how much you’re consuming, mindful eating means paying careful attention to what you put in your mouth and responding to your body’s fullness cues.
Mindful eating can be beneficial when you’re trying to lose weight. There isn’t enough solid evidence to suggest that mindful eating will make you lose more weight, but some research has shown that it can improve food choices and reduce serving sizes of less healthy foods .
Move your body
Exercise is crucial. Alone, it’s unlikely to help you lose weight, but when combined with a reduction in energy consumption through diet, it can create an energy deficit that leads to weight loss .
It’s also essential for maintaining weight loss and can reduce things like high blood pressure, joint pain, depression and anxiety, and the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and several types of cancer .
One study found that adults who exercised more than 200 minutes per week lost more weight than those who exercised less . But for general health, experts recommend doing upwards of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week .
Link up with a supportive community
A common behavioural technique for weight loss is finding a social support network. This could be family and friends who join you on your weight loss journey or even a community of people who encourage your goals and celebrate your successes.
Research has shown that social support can both promote weight loss and support weight management, demonstrating that it’s important across the entire process .
Juniper’s Weight Reset Program offers a holistic approach that encompasses many of the behavioural techniques known to aid weight loss.
These include a supportive community to cheer you on, health coaches who deal with stress and sleep, and health tracking. Complemented by doctor-prescribed weight loss medication, the program can help you lose 10-15% of your body weight in 1 year.
When you're ready, Juniper is here to help.
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