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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 spawns an increasing number of frankly schizoid programs putatively designed to reduce excess weight. 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.

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.