The psychology of weight loss
“I want to lose weight” is probably the single most used response when people are asked what they want to achieve at the gym. On the face of it, it shouldn’t be a difficult task for the lay person (though there are obviously some medical exceptions); reducing your overall quantity of food by focusing on eating unprocessed foods, cutting down on snacking, reducing your alcohol intake, managing your stress, and of course partaking in regular exercise should do the trick. But for something that sounds so easy, why is it so hard and in some cases near on impossible for people to achieve? Many years of experience have taught us that people can struggle with the various psychological factors involved in losing weight. These include breaking negative habits and forming new positive habits, understanding motivation and behaviour change cycles, struggling with emotional eating, and not having the mental strength or belief required to change.
Motivation comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation for achieving a goal comes from an inner desire or love for something, whereas extrinsic motivation comes in the form of a reward for achieving a goal. When people are intrinsically motivated, they are more likely to stick to a task or hit their target. With regards to losing weight, for some it’s very difficult to find that internal desire as they dislike changing the way they eat, or don’t enjoy exercise. This is not to say that having a reward doesn’t work, but the more material the goal, the less likely it is to keep you engaged for long term change.
So, how do you overcome this lack of real motivation? We recommend to look a bit deeper into the reasons why you want to lose weight in the first place. Using a simple task called, “The 5 Whys” can be a very powerful tool to tag some real meaning into why you are making these lifestyle changes to start with.
Here’s how a “5 Whys” conversation could go:
Why do you want to lose weight? Because I want to fit back into my old clothes.
Why do you want to fit into your old clothes? Because I think I used to look better and more attractive than I do now.
Why is looking better important to you? Because when I think I look better I also feel better.
Why is feeling better important to you? Because when I feel good, I’m more assertive and confident in everything I do.
Why do you want to feel more assertive and confident? Because when I’m more confident I feel happier and feel I can take control of my life and achieve what I want.
So, you can see how in only a few steps this goal has jumped from wanting to lose a bit of weight to wear some old clothes, to wanting to lose weight to take control of their life – or going from an extrinsic aesthetic goal to an intrinsic life goal.
Plan to win
Determining the ‘right’ time to start a weight management plan can be essential for success. By this I don’t mean that you should only start when your social calendar allows it! Identifying when you are (or will be) mentally capable of committing fully to your goals will give you far greater chances of achieving the success you crave.
In their book, ‘Changing for good’, Prochaska et al. talk about how we all go through behavioural change cycles. The five key stages they identified are directly relevant for weight loss:
Stage 1 – Pre-contemplation: At this stage people are in denial over their need for change; they may embark on diet plans under duress of others and will rarely achieve success.
Stage 2 – Contemplation: This is the stage when a person acknowledges that they have a problem and like to talk about it, read about it and think about it. In fact, they like to do anything except act on it.
Stage 3 – Preparation: Preparing for action! This can involve seeking out a personal trainer, getting a gym membership, looking at suitable food plans, preparing meals, or anything that helps to mentally prepare. A key part of this stage is going public with your intentions to help push you into action.
Stage 4 – Action: This stage is busy and time consuming. New foods and exercise plans will dominate your thoughts and actions whilst you embed a new routine into your life and battle against urges to fall back into bad habits. At this stage you need to surround yourself with friends and family who are supportive of your goals, to silence the negative influences.
Stage 5 – Maintenance: Remember, change never ends with action. Once you begin to make gains and see some results, there is a chance that support from your peer group may dwindle. You need to stay strong and focused at this point, as an extensive period of maintenance is required to fully embed the new habits into your life for the long term. This period may take years – it certainly isn’t an overnight success story.
Do you recognise where you are in the cycle of your own weight loss journey?
There is no getting around it, breaking bad habits is hard. If it wasn’t then people like us wouldn’t spend so much time coaching clients or writing articles about how to help, so please do not beat yourself up about it if you have fallen off the wagon at any stage. In fact, one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal is the ability to brush yourself off after a fall and jump right back on and carry on like nothing has happened.
Eating behaviour is particularly tricky to alter as it is so deeply engrained into your life. Since day one on this planet you will have been seeking out energy resources to survive, so from the very first time you cried to communicate your hunger, to reaching for the box of chocolates when you are feeling down, food is tied up with a multitude of actions, emotions, and situations – so it’s unrealistic to think you can just give something up easily and solely rely on willpower. In fact, Professor Ben Fletcher, author of ‘Flex: Do Something Different’, suggests that using willpower to break habits just soaks up energy resources and, just like a muscle, it will become tired if overworked. He believes that a more effective approach is to try creating new habits and new brain connections. Start small and try adding something new into your routine each week and over time this will amount to big changes that stick.
Pete Cohen, in his book, “Habit Busting”, discusses how changing your beliefs about yourself can help you achieve more success when it comes to breaking habits. He states that it’s important that you have self-efficacy beliefs that support your goal. ‘Self-efficacy’ is a term first coined by psychologist Albert Bandura, and describes the belief that you can achieve a particular task and have the capabilities and resources to do so. Bandura’s research found that a person’s beliefs about themselves are a greater predictor of future success than anything they have achieved in the past. Based on these theories, it makes sense to improve your general self-efficacy to help you achieve your weight loss goals.
To improve your self-efficacy with regards to weight-loss, taking the initiative to educate yourself about nutrition so you feel confident in your food choices is a good start. However, Cohen also suggests a really effective and simple task of noting down any examples where you have achieved success, or done something you were proud of or have excelled at. The point of this is to highlight successes to yourself, no matter how big or small, thereby proving to you that you are fully capable of achieving what you want in this life and reminding you how nice it feels to be successful. Even completely unrelated success stories will help improve your belief system.
As you can see, it can take a bit more than just being told to eat less and move more to make positive, healthy, and long-term changes to your bodyweight. At pH7 we like our clients to approach weight-loss with the same ‘Life in Balance’ philosophy that we expect them to approach their exercise with. This includes focusing on making small incremental changes, finding what works for you, and rejecting perfectionism and the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.
If you are struggling with your weight and are not sure how to start, just think ABC GO:
ACTION is more important than a plan!
Positive BEHAVIOURS are more important than outcomes!
CONSISTENCY beats heroic effort!
GETTING BETTER beats perfection!
ONE SMALL THING AT A TIME accumulates to huge progress!
1. Prochaska, J.O, Norcross, J.C & Diclemente, C.C. (1998). Changing for Good. (2nd ed.) United States: Harper Collins.
2. Fletcher, B., & Pine, K. (2012). Flex: Do something different. University of Hertfordshire Press.
3. Cohen, P & Cummins, S. (2002). Habit Busting. Great Britain: Thorsons.
4. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The exercise of control. United States: Worth Publishers