Can Applied Behavior Analysis Help With Weight Loss?

While Applied Behavior Analysis has proven its worth as a therapy for the treatment of disorders ranging from those on the autism spectrum to general social anxiety, it has applications in other areas of life for many without such disorders, such as health and weight loss. Therapists and dieticians or physicians can work together, using their respective suites of knowledge and skill to effect positive change in their clients’ wellbeing and way of life.

Related resource: Top 15 Best Online Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

Heavy Subject Matter

The rise in rates of obesity among Americans is a trend worth noting. Over the past several decades, an increasing number of individuals struggle to maintain a healthy weight. So much so that the statistics now embrace children and teenagers in their demographic spread, a factor that was almost non-existent until the closing years of the 20th century. Along with this sharp uptick, one must acknowledge the growth of the diet industry.

It seems that each decade there are more and more fad programs claiming to help people lose weight quickly. Many healthcare providers have noted that these programs have little long-term success for most. Both popular and scholarly sources explore why this is, and often the answers are dismaying. These programs ignore human behavior and culture, with a marked preference for toxic exploitation of stereotypes. As one article published on, the aim of dieting was to appease social expectations, not change behavior or live a healthier lifestyle.

Applied Behavior Analysis to the Rescue

Rather than loading dieters down with external expectations of appearance and binding them to concepts of happiness or success, ABA focuses on the individual. This therapeutic approach also offers individual clients an opportunity to unpack and address their attitudes and resultant behavioral schema in relation to social roles and food. While it isn’t quite a new tactic, weight management approaches have benefitted from advances in the application of ABA in other treatment contexts.

A more responsive framework than had previously been employed was required. Rather than imposing an external or static ideal concept on clients and insisting that attaining that ideal was merely a matter of willpower was doomed mainly to be met with failure. Weight loss was not the only area in which this tactic was applied. Substance abuse programs in their infancy often utilized a similar approach. Penalization and responses to this tactic were often hailed as “success” as indicated in one study published in 1975.

However, ABA is an approach founded on reinforcing positive behaviors while also permitting clients to assess and examine the underpinnings of current behavioral complexes. By utilizing many of the homework-based procedures employed in ABA therapies for social interaction and skill development, therapists also empower their clients to shape their environment to their needs and examine how they respond to known stimuli.

A list of helpful suggestions published by University of California San Francisco (UCSF) for individuals seeking to manage their weight includes manageable shifts in behavior and thought processes for all areas of life. Ranging from shifting the availability of healthy snacks to the fore and eliminating or obscuring less healthy options to actions like staying out of the kitchen unless actively cooking, shopping on a full stomach, and controlling where eating is done, the list covers every potential aspect of life.

Behavioral Management Techniques for Weight Loss

Let’s further examine some crucial behavioral weight-loss strategies:

Goal Setting

 If you want to lose weight, It is essential to create objectives. Goals give you something to aim for and provide intrinsic reinforcement when you are successful in meeting them. In addition, knowing you have set objectives helps you stay accountable for your behavior. If you want a higher level of accountability, you can even tell someone else about your goals; they can then provide support and alert you to when you are veering off course. Further, you can create more external reinforcement by rewarding yourself for fulfilling your goals. Although the overall goal is weight loss, many smaller objectives have to be met to achieve it. Specific goals may include increasing nutrition education, meal planning, and exercise.


Keeping track of one’s weight, food intake, and exercise is a primary component of any behavioral weight-loss regimen. Not only is it positively reinforcing to see your weight decrease, but it also provides you with critical data. For example, let’s say that you have been trying to lose weight for six months but it is not working. Self-monitoring provides you with the information necessary to problem-solve. You can then examine what you are doing and tweak it to maximize success. Luckily, smart phones have made self-monitoring much easier; numerous apps are designed specifically for this purpose.

Stimulus Control

 Your environment plays a pivotal role in weight loss. Stimulus control involves controlling your surroundings to optimize your chances of success. You may decide, for instance, to remove high-calorie foods such as cookies from your home. Or, you may keep your gym bag in your car to limit your obstacles to exercise. Unfortunately, you don’t always have total command of your environment. For example, when you go to a restaurant you have no hand in portion sizes or ingredients. You may need to take special steps—such as reviewing the menu ahead of time—to make educated choices. At work, you might bring a healthy snack to combat your urge for the donuts that frequently show up in the break room. Stimulus control is all about making it more difficult to engage in bad habits that prevent weight loss.

New Rules and Routines

Speaking of habits, any behavioral intervention for weight loss is going to involve new behaviors that increase your chance for success. You may decide, for instance, that you are going to try the Keto diet or intermittent fasting. Of course, you may not want to engage in a specific plan if you don’t feel like you can stick with it. Losing weight generally involves long-term lifestyle changes, not just a quick fix. It is also important to give yourself some wiggle room when attempting to make positive changes; you don’t want to beat yourself up for failing to follow a specific routine. Being successful does not mean you have to be perfect.

Applied behavior analysis requires that both thought patterns and the actions that stem from them be examined in exhaustive detail. These thoughts and actions are then strategically modified or entirely replaced with a more desirable option meant to further the goal of the therapy. In this way, ABA is potentially one of the most effective means of attaining long-term success with weight loss.

ABA Staff

Update February 2020

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