The Psychology of Weight Loss

When it comes to weight loss, we generally think of the physiology behind it—calories in versus calories out, body mass index, steps per day. The numbers and science. But what if there’s an X factor that we rarely think about?

The mindset with which you approach a weight loss regimen may matter. In a small study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers placed participants into two groups. Both groups followed a balanced isocaloric eating plan. In other words, both groups were eating the same number of calories, but only one group knew it; the other group was told they were on a low-calorie regimen. The participants who thought they were eating low-cal meals ended up losing more weight than those who knew they were eating the same number of calories.

What’s going on here? Since it was a very small study on placebo effect, it’s hard to draw a firm conclusion. But the research hints that a person’s beliefs about their eating habits may impact their health outcomes.

Mindset matters when it comes to shedding pounds, and there are a few sound psychological strategies experts have discovered actually work. Here, Charlotte Markey, PhD, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming Body Image Book for Girls, explains how to approach weight loss the right way. 

Think about what you are going to eat, not what you can’t eat. If you constantly tell yourself, “I can’t eat chocolate,” or, “I need to avoid bread,” you wind up obsessing about what you can’t eat. This is torturous, says Markey. “If you are thinking of avoiding certain behaviors, that is usually harder to manage than approaching or achieving goals,” she says. “It is all about how we frame what we do.”

Instead of thinking that you can’t eat ice cream, it’s “advisable to think about eating more fruit” or the types of foods you want to eat more of. Plan your shopping list with all sorts of healthy goodies, and focus on those.

Reframe your approach to eating as a form of self-care. If you think, “I look bad; I need to lose weight,” you’re approaching your dietary regimen as a form of self-punishment. Eating should mean taking care of yourself, says Markey. “Really, you should approach any behavior change as a form of self-care,” she says. “Think, ‘I will do this because it’s good for me,’ instead of being upset with yourself and then forcing yourself to do it.” 

Think about how you want to take care of yourself, Markey says. Is it a home-cooked meal three nights a week? Is it increasing your fiber, opting for whole foods, grabbing more superfoods like avocado and quinoa? Focus on health and the results. Doesn’t eating a delicious, perfectly-planned sushi brown rice bowl just feel good?

Choose plans that involve joy; don’t take anything off the table. A lot of people crash diet; they opt for juice cleanses and carb-restricted menus. It’s hard to imagine never enjoying food at all, says Markey, and it’s easy to fall off a wagon you were never supposed to get on. “Think about what is realistic and sustainable for you and your lifestyle,” she says. “It’s not your fault if you cannot avoid carbs forever, and it’s not even advisable from a health perspective.” If you don’t enjoy eating your meals—something you do multiple times a day—you’re likely to fail. 

At Fitbit, we don’t believe in diets. Not only because they don’t stick, but also because they often deprive the body of what it needs in the long-term for a short-term quick fix. “What you need to do instead is to eat in a balanced, healthy way,” says Markey, “But don’t avoid anything.” The moment you say, “I can’t have that,” you’ll want it 10 times more. If you love sweets, opt for a small square of dark chocolate after dinner. If you want that pizza, do one slice with a salad on the side. 

Balance is a state of mind. “Really work on the mental piece of it,” says Markey. “Fearing certain foods or demonizing certain foods is not a good way to live a healthy, well-adjusted life.” Allow yourself to eat the foods you love. Savor them slowly, without guilt, and you’ll be amazed at how a small portion is often all you need to satisfy a craving.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Living well is not about monitoring the scale every single day. Markey sees a lot of people who are very focused on losing weight when they absolutely don’t need to. “There is more and more research to suggest that weight is not as big of a contributor to chronic conditions as we thought it was,” she says. “Sometimes, people are having a lot of angst about weight, which is brought on because they are embedded in ‘diet culture.’” 

If you’re having a tough time with body image, extreme diets, or weight loss struggles, reach out for help. “A lot of people would benefit from work with a therapist who specializes in these issues, body image, and eating,” says Markey. “It is an investment in self that will be sustainable for the rest of your life, especially among women where the pressure is extreme.” Sometimes, it’s worth challenging our own beliefs to see if the need to lose weight is internally motivated, or externally driven. Narrow cultural ideals of beauty should never have a say in your health or weight. 

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