Weight loss is a struggle for many people. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that in 2017–18, 67% of Australian adults (about 2 in 3) were overweight or obese. That is equivalent to 12.5 million people. Men (75%) had higher rates of overweight and obesity than women (60%). https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/overweight-and-obesity
Registered dietitian Katie Rankell explained that there is a powerful psychological component to weight loss that comes into play, particularly in maintaining weight loss and preventing relapses to old habits. https://www.ucihealth.org/blog/2020/01/weight-loss-psychology
This article will provide different solutions for you to understand how to use psychology to lose weight.
Setting health goals
People, men, in particular, tend to be goal-oriented. Without a vision for ourselves and specific goals, there is no frame structure for our behaviours. But not all goals are created equal.
Start with a vision
Your vision should represent the end goal. Close your eyes and use your imagination to construct that vision. In the process, ask yourself the following questions: How will I feel? What will I look like? What are the kinds of behaviours I adopt? Who will be the people around me?
Understand your WHY
To make sure a health goal is relevant and important to the client, I would ask them what it would mean for them to lose weight. What and WHY precede How. It’s often not the weight loss per se people are after; they want to feel better with themselves physically and emotionally. They want to prove themselves, increase their self-esteem and have a positive body image. In moments of hardship in the weight loss journey, they can go back to their WHY and the vision they have for themselves.
Once you have a vision, you can start setting goals. To facilitate the goal-setting process, you can use the SMART goals framework. Make your goal Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. A counsellor, coach or psychologist can help you through this process, or you can use the following questions to do it yourself.
Smart– What is that you want exactly?
Measurable- How will you know when you have achieved your goal? How will you measure progress?
Attainable- Is your goal realistic? On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being highly unlikely and 10 being certain, how confident are you in your ability to achieve your goal? How can you make this goal challenging and exciting but achievable?
Relevant- Why is achieving this goal important to you? What will be the benefits of achieving this goal?
Time-based- By which date will you achieve your goal? When will you measure your progress to make sure you stay on track?
When it comes to health goals regarding weight loss, I encourage my clients to set goals that are foremost realistic, attainable and don’t present a health risk and possible rebound effect. Drastically reducing your calories, undertaking extreme physical activity can produce short term results that will harm you long term.
Our bodies are incredibly adaptable; if we starve them, they learn to survive on fewer calories by slowing the resting metabolic rate (RMR), aka the calories burned at rest. This was demonstrated by Fothergill and colleagues, who in 2016 published a study reporting the RMR and body composition of 14 participants of the famous American TV show the “Biggest Loser”, six years after the show. During the 30 weeks weight loss program, the 14 participants lost on average 58.3 kg; six years later, they regained on average 41 kg. Sadly, despite the weight gain, participants were burning 704 fewer calories at rest than when they started the program. That’s 500 calories less than the predictions based on body weight. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21538
I recommend my clients to see a dietician or at least their GP at the beginning of their weight loss journey to set realistic expectations that will not compromise their health and RMR. I also recommend them to get a comprehensive blood test since their extra kilos could be a symptom of insulin resistance, sex hormones or thyroid hormones imbalances. I believe in the power of information and prevention; I get my routine blood work done once a year.
Our actions and behaviours are very much linked to our identity. If I regard myself as a smoker, it will be hard for me to quit. If, on the other hand, I am a healthy person who is doing an unhealthy behaviour (smoking) that is not congruent with my identity, it will be easier to stop.
Examples of negative Identity statements:
“I’m fat, I’ve always been, and I’ll never be skinny.”
“I’m lazy, and I could never be the type of person that goes to the gym three times per week.”
Examples of positive Identity statements:
“I am a healthy person who values health.”
“I am the kind of person who pursues goals until attainment.”
Remember this wise quote from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right”.
(who are you blaming for your weight?)
Blaming is a way to deflect shame. You can come up with a million reasons to defend your bad habits and unhealthy behaviours. You might try to blame the government, the media, your family and your friends, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter who you blame; no one else can change your behaviours apart from you.
Design an Action Plan
Once we have specific, realistic health goals, we need an action plan to achieve them. For instance, a SMART health goal would be “I will lose 1kg per month for the next 5 months, then I will maintain the weight loss”. This goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and time-bounded. To achieve this goal, we need to identify behaviours that will either support or jeopardise goal attainment.
Assess current behaviours
When designing an action plan, we can start by analysing our current behaviours in relation to goal attainment. It is often easier to do more of what we are already doing than to start something new.
Looking at your current behaviours related to your health goal, what do you need to Continue, Stop, Increase and Decrease? Write them down.
Introduce new behaviours
Introducing new habits can be challenging, especially if we expect to go from 1 to 100. If you want to start running but you haven’t run in years, start with the commitment to run around the block and then, each time, slightly increment your effort. I recommend that you start with small actions that you have a 90% chance of executing. Doing what you said you were going to do will increase your self-efficacy and self-esteem.
Spot your triggers
We often fall back into bad habits and unhealthy behaviours when there is a trigger. Triggers include anger, sadness, nostalgia, tiredness and boredom. Reflect on the times in which you behaved in a way that is not aligned with your vision. Once your main triggers have been identified, design new replacement behaviours.
For example, if I am tired, I will go for a walk around the block and get some fresh air instead of eating a sugary snack. Or, if I feel lonely, I will make an effort to reach out to one of my friends instead of ordering a pizza and watching Netflix alone.
Reward your effort
Rewarding ourselves and celebrating our successes is incredibly important for goal-oriented behaviour. It’s a way to tell our brain that we are on the right track. Unfortunately, we often associate unhealthy behaviours with rewards.
“Because I went for a run, I deserve that piece of cake tonight”. We need to find rewards that will support our vision or at least not sidetrack us.
Rewards start with the acknowledgment from us to us. That’s incredibly powerful because it will strengthen our new cognitive, neurological pathways. Taking the time to tell yourself, “That was good. You did it, good job!” will reinforce the behaviour and increase the likelihood of you repeating the behaviour in the future.
Apart from our self-talk is good to have in mind pleasurable ways to reward ourselves. Healthy rewards can include:
- Going for a massage
- Going for a coffee with a friend
- Watching a movie with our partner
It is important to reward ourselves after not before our efforts. This will make rewards more powerful.
If we eat in front of the television, on the run or at our desks while working, it will be harder to feel our satiety signals because our mind is focused elsewhere. Take the time to look at your food, chew it properly, test it and savour it. Finally, be grateful for the nutrition the food you eat will bring to your body.
Keeping a food journal can help you become more aware of your eating habits. One study (link to the link in ref 4) of nearly 1,700 participants showed that keeping a food record can double weight loss. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080708080738.htm
Teaching affiliate at Harvard Medical School, Katherine D. McManus, suggests that a food diary should include further information to better understand your eating habits. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-keep-a-food-diary-2019013115855
Here are some of the information you can include in your food records: Time, what and how much you are eating, who you are eating with, and how you are feeling as you are eating.
Immediate gratification vs delayed gratification
There are different ways to give gratification to ourselves. The ones that are short-termed tend to be the ones that hurt us in the long run. Unhealthy but tasty snacks and meals are one of the most common ways people reward themselves; this is because food is readily accessible. Make a list of current unhealthy food or behaviours you use to provide yourself with gratification and then propose other equally pleasurable healthy alternatives. You can even swap unhealthy snacks for something healthier. E.g. eating a piece of chocolate cake swop for eating a few pieces of low sugar dark chocolate.
Practice self-forgiveness and self-love
If we have shame and disgust towards ourselves because of past behaviours, it will affect both our mental health and future actions. We all made mistakes, and we all did actions that we are not proud of. No human being is perfect. Take a few minutes for yourself, place both hands on your heart and forgive yourself for all you did, which carry shame. Let it go, and remember you only have the present moment; your past is in the past.
If you love yourself, you want the best for yourself. Think of your body as something you love, and need to care for. Love your heart for keeping you alive, your legs for bringing you places and your arms for their ability to hug.
This article provided different solutions on how to use psychology to lose weight. Start by creating a vision for yourself and reflect on why you would like to lose weight. Set SMART goals that are foremost realistic and achievable and link them to your identity. Take responsibility and design a plan of action to achieve your health goals, sticking to your plan, learn to assess current behaviours, identify your triggers, avoid immediate gratification and find new ways to reward yourself. Mindful eating and food journaling can help you with your goals, but please remember that self-forgiveness and self-love are also extremely important.
Remember, if you are struggling with weight loss, you are not alone, and help is available. If you would like dietary advice, your GP should be able to refer you to a registered dietitian. If you would like help with emotional awareness and regulation, the introduction and maintenance of new behaviours, and recognising triggers, I can help you. I am a certified counsellor and coach based in Sydney, working both online and face-to-face. Together, we can help you set appealing goals for yourself and learn the best strategies to behave according to your values and wants. Learn more about my services here.