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What is Psychological Approach to Weight Loss?

For those who try to lose excess weight, the struggle can be real. Whether the weight gain came about due to a pregnancy, a slower metabolism, an injury or illness, medication usage, a sedentary lifestyle, or is something that has been a challenge forever due to genetic factors—many people who attempt to lose weight do not find it to be a straightforward task. When regular exercise, better nutrition, and even visits to a dietician fail, where do people turn? That is where weight loss psychology, such as using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can come into play.

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, which can range from diabetes, sleep apnea to the more severe liver disease and cancer, (Mitchell, 2012). 

Due to these serious ramifications along with the potential difficulty at losing the weight and keeping it off, many individuals going through this tough time consider seeking out professional help. During the initial visits, there usually is a deep dive into what is truly preventing the weight loss from happening. 

Perceived Barriers to Weight Loss

An important factor in the ability to lose weight is the perceived barriers to weight loss. Regardless if a barrier is truly apparent, the perception of one is almost as significant. Such perceived barriers 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), and internal barriers (no interest/pain or lethargy), (Sharifi, 2013). 

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 to weight loss and 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 and 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 surrounding changing their thought processes and thinking patterns, which in turn will eventually help to change behavioral patterns (over-eating, sedentary lifestyle, reactions to stress, etc.). 

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

● 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 psychological aspect of losing weight. 

Weight-Loss Psychology Tips

Conduct research and become more knowledgeable about weight loss, energy, calories, and exercise, as well as the factors that contribute to obesity. 

Create SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. 

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. 

Find ways to enjoy any sort of movement—ones that get the heart rate and endorphins up; working out should not feel like a chore. 

Trick your mind and your body with these 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 the amount of food that is being eaten 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. 

Increase motivation by 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. 

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. 

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. 

Weight loss does not have a one-sided approach; it should be comprehensive and holistic while taking the mind, body, and spirit into account. Each individual cannot lose weight in the same exact way as another; 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, as well as health history, medications, mental health, level of support, accessibility, economic status, motivation level, geographical location, etc. 

When an individual struggles in losing weight by himself or herself, seeking 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

March 2020

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