The Psychology of Weight Loss

For those who try to lose excess weight, the struggle can be real. Weight gain can come about for a variety of reasons including:

  • pregnancy
  • a slower metabolism
  • an injury or illness
  • medication usage
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • genetic factors

Many people who attempt to change their relationship with food and exercise do not find it to be a straightforward task. When regular exercise, better eating habits, and even visits to a dietician fail, where do people turn? This is when weight loss psychology, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can be helpful.

The Risks of Being Overweight

Obesity has become such an issue that it has been coined the obesity epidemic. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the CDC:

In 2017–2018, the age-adjusted prevalence of obesity in adults was 42.4%, and there were no significant differences between men and women among all adults or by age group.

Monitoring the prevalence of obesity and severe obesity is relevant to public health programs that focus on reducing or preventing obesity and its consequences. In the United States, the prevalence of obesity among adults has moved further away from the Healthy People 2020 goal of 30.5%.

Being overweight does not typically happen without a higher risk of health consequences.  These consequences (Mitchell, 2012) can include:

  • diabetes
  • sleep apnea
  • liver disease
  • cancer

Due to these serious ramifications along with the potential difficulty at losing the weight and keeping it off, many individuals who want to focus on shedding pounds consider seeking professional help to understand the psychology behind weight lossWeight loss psychology professionals help their patients take a deep dive to uncover what is truly preventing the weight loss from happening. Understanding weight loss psychology can also help with weight management.  

Perceived Barriers to Weight Loss

When it comes to the psychology of weight loss, perceived barriers are an important factor. Regardless of whether a barrier is truly apparent, the perception of one is almost as significant. Such perceived barriers (Sharifi, 2013) include:

  • situational barriers (social gatherings/traveling)
  • stress and depression
  • social pressure
  • adverse effects of a weight-loss diet
  • food cravings
  • loss of diet
  • barriers to physical activity
  • external barriers (no energy/no one to exercise with)
  • internal barriers (no interest/pain or lethargy)

Another study states, “Clinicians perceived that their patients face numerous individual, interpersonal, and community-level barriers to weight loss. Perceived individual-level barriers included interrelated aspects of poverty and limited motivation to lose weight. Perceived interpersonal barriers included social and cultural norms, such as positive associations with larger body sizes, negative associations with smaller body sizes, lack of awareness of obesity as a problem, and beliefs regarding hereditary or generational body types. Perceived community-level barriers included limited healthy food options and aspects of the local food culture in the Southern US,” (Woodruff, 2016). 

There are numerous barriers when it comes to weight loss.  Each individual has the right to perceive the challenges that they face how they need to. When people seek professional weight loss assistance, there are a few options—one of them being the help of a licensed therapist or psychologist who specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). 

Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Weight Loss 

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that is used with a wide range of mental health disorders.  It is also used to help someone who is struggling to lose weight. The weight-loss journey can be difficult and challenging and has its own set of psychological barriers; this is where CBT can help. 

According to the American Psychological Association, CBT, in general, is based on these core principles:

  • Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  • Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  • People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

The term cognitive in CBT is key.  An individual regularly seeing a professional who specializes in CBT to be able to lose and manage his or her weight, is going to do a tremendous amount of work.  They’ll need to change their thought processes and thinking patterns.  They’ll also need to change their relationship with food.  These changes will eventually help to change harmful behavioral patterns including:

  • over-eating
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • reactions to stress

The APA also gives examples of general strategies used to change thinking and behavioral patterns including: 

  • Learning to recognize one’s distortions in thinking that are creating problems, and then to reevaluate them in light of reality.
  • Gaining a better understanding of the behavior and motivation of others.
  • Using problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations.
  • Learning to develop a greater sense of confidence in one’s abilities.
  • Facing one’s fears instead of avoiding them.
  • Using role-playing to prepare for potentially problematic interactions with others.
  • Learning to calm one’s mind and relax one’s body.

Just as there are general strategies and overall concepts of CBT, there are more specific strategies and tips related to the psychology of losing weight.  

Weight Loss Psychology Tips

Conduct research

Knowledge is power when it comes to weight loss.  When you are aware of what you’re putting in your body, you can make informed decisions.  Understanding the importance of a balanced diet, movement, and healthy habits can help you make the right choice when it comes to meals and snacks.

Create realistic SMART goals

SMART goals are those that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound.  Setting realistic goals can help you stay on track with your weight loss plan.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, healthy weight loss is one to two pounds per week.  

Begin to think more positively and believe that change can happen

The ability to lose weight is not only about a lifestyle change, but it is also about a mindset change. Self-efficacy is very important.   It’s important to find pleasure in the weight loss process or you’ll begin to resent it.  Instead of focusing on missing your favorite food, challenge yourself to find a way to make it healthier.  Challenge yourself to discover new foods and flavors instead of resenting the ones that no longer align with your weight loss plan.  

Find ways to enjoy any sort of movement

It’s important to find exercises that get the heart rate and endorphins up.  Working out should not feel like a chore.  Instead of focusing on how uncomfortable a new exercise program might be, find something positive to focus on.  Wear a cute new outfit or some stylish shoes.  Take the time to listen to your favorite music or the latest book by a beloved author.  Those positive thoughts will keep you coming back and will reduce the likelihood of a mental block.

Trick your mind and your body with effective weight-loss strategies

  • Use dark-colored plates and bowls, such as dark blue, when eating meals. This creates a drastic contrast between the plate’s color and the color of the meal, making the meal more obvious and larger in appearance. 
  • Smaller-portioned and portion-controlled dinnerware can also help in reducing food intake while the dinnerware still has the appearance that there is a large amount of food available. 
  • Trick the stomach into feeling full, such as by eating fibrous-rich vegetables and drinking a lot of water.  Healthy snacks help us feel full between meals and reduce the likelihood of binge eating.

Understand the psychology of weight loss motivation

While losing weight is both a mental and physical process.  Staying positive and motivated throughout the process will increase the likelihood of reaching your goals.  To stay focused and positive, try reading positive affirmations throughout the day, especially when struggling. Challenge negative thoughts by keeping notecards handy or digital notes in a phone that can be read when they arise. The positive sayings should directly challenge common negative thoughts. 

Work on self-care

It is important to find ways other than diet and exercise to work on self-care and have an overall satisfying emotional well-being. Increase the happy chemicals—serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine—in healthy ways whenever possible. 

Find your support system

Develop a support team; the weight-loss journey does not need to be a solo journey. The more support, the more positive the experience and hopefully more success. 

Psychology and Weight Loss

Weight loss does not have a one-sided approach; it should be comprehensive and holistic while taking into account the mind, body, and spirit. Each individual’s weight loss journey is unique.  What works for one person will more than likely not work for their friend or even family member. Our bodies are all composed differently, and there are genetic variations to take into account regarding the ability to lose weight.  Other factors can also impact weight loss including:

  • health history
  • medications
  • mental health
  • level of support
  • accessibility
  • economic status
  • motivation level
  • geographical location

When an individual struggles with losing weight on their own. professional help is always an option if it is within their means. Cognitive Behavior Therapy for weight loss has shown great success in many individuals who have not been able to get the weight off and keep it off by going a typical route. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

Updated November 2022

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