Your Best Self: The Psychology of Weight Loss

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By: Emily Sullivan
If you are among the 45 million Americans who go on a diet each year, you are likely among the estimated 95 percent who eventually “fall off the bandwagon” and regain the weight. If diets only succeed 5 percent of the time, why do we keep going back to them?

When we fail to get the results we were hoping for, we feel something is deficient with us, like somehow, we’ve failed. However, it’s actually the weight loss plan that’s failing us, not the other way around. The more extreme the weight loss or fitness plan, the less likely we will be to sustain it long-term. It’s like a pendulum: the farther it swings to one side (diet and exercise rules and restrictions), the farther it will swing to the other side (finding yourself hitting rock bottom in a tub of ice cream).

There are ways to get healthier and lose weight that don’t require white-knuckling, deprivation or a lifestyle overhaul.

Information Overload. Should you eat low carb, vegetarian or grapefruit? Should you join a gym, do yoga or train for a 5K? There are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes the “best” approach to weight loss, and the conflicting messages can be overwhelming. The most up to date research suggests that there is no single best diet or exercise plan for weight loss; the “best” approach is the one you can stick with long term.

Low Motivation. You have ideas for ways you “should” be eating and exercising to for weight loss, but somehow can’t bring yourself to follow through. You may think you have a motivation problem, but you actually have an expectation problem. You are likely expecting too much of yourself, and there is a part of you that is rebelling against the self-imposed “should.” Instead, make your expectations and goals so reasonable that you can’t help but follow through. For example, if you’re having difficulty exercising three days per week, start with a smaller goal, like exercising once per week or exercising three days but making the workouts short. When motivation is lacking, adjust your expectations to meet you where you are, then slowly increase the goals from there.

Disconnected from the plan. The more you outsource your eating or exercise plan to friends or ‘experts,’ the less ownership you’ll feel over it. An externally-imposed way of eating or exercising is burdensome and much more difficult to stick with. This is because you’re focusing on things some says you ‘can’t’ do or ‘should’ do more of, rather than recognizing what is already working for you, what you enjoy doing, or that has worked for you in the past. Take ownership of your health-journey. Don’t consider yourself “on a diet,” but rather Someone Who Enjoys ______ (way of eating or exercising). Keep searching for the healthy lifestyle that suits you.

Negative self-appraisal. Often the primary motivator for someone to lose weight is self-loathing. In essence, you are trying to punish your body into submission: When I get lose weight, THEN I’ll feel better about myself. But in order to maintain a healthier lifestyle, you need to cultivate self-compassion. You may think self-compassion will come after you’ve reached your weight loss goal, but your negative self-image is exactly what’s preventing you from reaching that goal. Instead, start acting as you would when you are your most confident self, no matter where you currently are on your weight loss journey, and the confident feelings will eventually catch up. Action precedes emotion. For example, if you’re waiting to feel better about yourself before you’ll wear certain clothes, have adventures, or apply for a promotion, you may be waiting a while. Instead, apply some self-compassion, and start acting in those confident ways, then notice the confident feelings grow.

Don’t let discouragement derail you from your overall goal of getting healthier or losing weight. You can do it. Quick fix results are less likely to endure, so finding a process you enjoy and can stick with will bring long-lasting results.

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