The Psychology of Weightloss

You may have heard of weight-loss apps like Noom, WW (Weight Watchers), and MyFitnessPal before. 

They’re popular among many smartphone users, even those among us who are not actively looking to lose weight. They are wonderful measures of how much we are eating in a day, the macronutrients that we are ingesting, a way to gain weight, and even a way to track in the short-term or the long-term. This is what I love about these apps; they provide motivation, coaching, and guidance for your health journey, no matter the goal.

So why did these apps come about? Apps like these came about for convenient accountability. When your phone is always in your pocket or in your purse, it’s harder to make excuses. We no longer need to see a nutritionist, dietician, or doctor (although I highly advise against getting rid of your family physician); we have all the advice we need in the palm of our hand. 

That being said, some of these apps don’t work quite as well as others when it comes to weight loss. For example, when using an app like MyFitnessPal, which is fantastic, you may only focus on the calories and ignore the types of food that you ingest. You may be hitting your target calorie count (or below it), but maybe you’re eating foods void of any nutrients, or maybe you’re only getting 4 hours of sleep a night. You may just be going through a stressful period of time where your body is trying to hold onto weight as a coping mechanism. 

It will also depend on who’s using the app. Are you overweight and familiar with using an app for meal tracking? Then sure, the app might work for you. However, one study showed that for the average primary care patient, introducing a smartphone app was unlikely to produce significant weight change*. This comes as no surprise; many of us have trouble self-monitoring our diets and need more accountability.

So what makes an app work? What is it that people need to stay accountable, and make lasting changes to maintain a healthy living?


Behavioural Weight Loss

Many of us have been victims of fad diets. We restrict until we hit our goal weight or until our body tells us it’s had enough, and then we binge from all of the restrictions we placed on ourselves. Yet, even with that knowledge, at any single moment in the United States, about 70% of the population is trying to lose weight or “be healthy” by restricting their food intake and increasing their exercise. scale and measuring tape

So why do we keep doing the same thing over and over again? It turns out that only 20% of these people are making the necessary lifestyle changes needed to be healthy in a sustainable way. 

Sure, there may be a physical and maybe even mental change in your behavior when you lose weight successfully from calorie restriction. We already know that when you eat fewer calories, you are able to lose weight. But this isn’t maintainable long-term.

Today, I’m going to share some other ways of thinking about weight loss (feel free to insert your own goal here – everything is applicable!) so that you can achieve more realistic and long-term results. This is not new information. As I said above, many apps are already taking part in behavioral science to alleviate some of the negative connotations of diet culture. In the end, we’re all on a diet, whether we restrict calories or not. But what else can we do to make sure we don’t only focus on food?


Behavioral + Lifestyle Changes For Success

If you’ve only tried calorie counting and exercise in order to lose weight, consider the following options. Some of these might sound familiar to you, while others may feel completely foreign. I suggest introducing one new thing to your current routine and seeing how it works over the span of a week, maybe even up to a month, before adding a new lifestyle change.

Goal setting

This seems obvious. But how often do you go on a diet simply hoping to fit back into your jeans from 5 years ago? Or maybe you’re trying to fit into a dress for a wedding set 6 months from now?

In this case, you aren’t just aiming to “lose weight”. You are setting a quantitative (measurable goal. You can do this in many different ways, but I personally enjoy the SMART method:

  • Specific: Make your goal as specific as possible. You don’t want any second-guessing when it comes to whether or not you’ve achieved your goal.
  • Measurable: Either a number on the scale, fat percentage lost or gained, calories or anything that can be measured (quantitative or qualitative). This could even be on a scale of 1-10, if you were measuring your mood, for example.
  • Achievable: Is this goal realistic? Evaluate your past history with health and fitness and figure out if your goal is attainable in your set time frame.
  • Relevant: Write down how your goal is relevant to your health or lifestyle. How will achieving your goal makes you feel and why is it important to set this goal?
  • Time-Bound: If you don’t set a deadline, will you ever really achieve it? Sometimes this is just a safer bet, especially for those like me who tend to procrastinate!

This way, if you have a goal of fitting into a dress in 6 months, you can write it out as follows:

bridesmaids

  • Specific: I want to fit into my bridesmaid dress (and feel confident in it) for Liz’s wedding in December.
  • Measurable: I won’t go by weight, because I could gain muscle, but I will know it fits by putting it on. 
  • Achievable: If I lose 1-2 pounds a week, this is achievable. Realistically, I need only lose 6-8 pounds to fit into the dress. Once I achieve this, I will need to maintain it until the wedding. Given my history of weight loss, this is possible.
  • Relevant: Once I fit into the dress, I am confident I will feel and look great at the wedding. I am also confident I can maintain that weight and will make sure not to lose any more in order to feel healthy.
  • Time-Bound: I have 6 months to achieve this goal.

Setting personal targets is important in the behavioral component of weight-management programs, whether you use an app or not. Research ishows that creating this “intention” actually motivates you to change your behaviour*. It’s actually important to set both types of goals to avoid bursts of calorie restraint for specific holidays or events.

Calories In + Calories Out Myth

I had a feeling this title would catch your attention. Sure, when you eat less, you’re likely to lose weight. But it’s important for you to know a few things about the quality of calories, the inaccuracy of nutrition labels, and the inaccuracy of wearable technology.

First things first: not all foods are created equal. I won’t get into this too much, but it’s important to remember that the quality of food will influence everything in your life. Not only will it show on your body, but you may feel brain fog, lethargy, stress/anxiety, feelings of depression, and just a general lack of motivation if you eat food void of nutrients.

Secondly, I’ve written about How To Read Nutrition Labels in the past, but I didn’t touch on how inaccurate calorie counts can be when it comes to our complex bodies! Imagine this: you eat a slice of pizza and it’s supposed to be 250 calories. However, maybe your body only absorbs 200 calories from that slice. On top of that, other variables such as consistency of slice size, how the food is prepared (different ingredients), and what your body is going through at the time will make a big difference. Say you eat that slice after a 10km run; your body will welcome the grease and complex carbs. If you justfitbit spent the same amount of time studying, you may have burned some calories, but your body may store some of that fat rather than use it for fuel. 

Finally, do you ever wear a smartwatch like a FitBit or an Apple Watch on a run and then compare your distance with your running partner? I find that 9 times out of 10, our distances are different. The same goes for calories burned in a workout. Always take this number with a grain of salt. Some workouts promise you’ll burn hundreds, maybe over a thousand, calories but there are too many variables to consider and this should never be taken at face value. 

Think twice before using calorie counting as your end-all, be-all. I’m not telling you to stop counting calories. However, in order to make lasting changes in your weight, you must also consider the behavioral changes that enhance your diet.

Important Factors To Consider

There are lots of important factors to take into consideration when it comes to weight loss (or gain): genetics, medical conditions, your environment (work or home), behavioral tendencies, past history, your gut microbiome, and more.

Behavioral Therapy is the one I want to focus on. This is the foundation of your long-term weight loss success, especially for those who haven’t been able to achieve their goals in the past.

Behavioural psychology aims to understand why we behave the way we do and analyse patterns in our actions and behaviours. In order to achieve healthy weight loss, we need to understand the factors that influence weight-gain, like easy access to unhealthy foods. 

Behavioral therapy includes any or all of the following:

  • Self-monitor through apps or do weekly weigh-ins.
  • Educate yourself using media like courses, books, or YouTube videos.
  • Find non-food rewards to use as reinforcement (ex. buy a new shirt when you’ve reached goal weight, take a bubble bath, or get a massage).
  • Social support from family and friends – creates a sense of accountability, especially if you’re doing it in a group!
  • Motivational Interviewing with your healthcare provider.
  • Expect setbacks – create an emergency plan for relapses.
  • Mindfulness for stress reduction.
  • Good quality sleep.

Have you tried any of the behavioral methods above? Incorporating just one at a time and can be beneficial, but it is certainly possible to do them all if you make the time and put in the effort!


Conclusion

The great thing about behavioral changes is that they are very low-risk, so combining that with weight loss is a win-win*. Not only do you get to lose weight at a steady, maintainable pace, but you also learn more about how to treat your body in the long run.

If you aren’t planning on using your phone for accountability, you can look for other options like in-person Diabetes Prevention Programs (DPP), which cover specific topics like Four Keys to Healthy Eating Out, Three Ways to Eat Less Fat and Fewer Calories, and Preventing Relapse. According to the CDC website, “It’s a year-long commitment including 22 learning sessions (in-person or online) and frequent contact with a lifestyle coach. Insurance will cover this program for people who have a BMI over 25 and a confirmed diagnosis of prediabetes. Not diabetes, only prediabetes. The DPP curriculum is available for free on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website.”. It’s great to know that some proactive measures have been put in place for those looking to take control of their health. To find a recognized DPP program in your state, check out the CDC’s registry.

Learning how to set specific SMART goals and enforcing new habits through Behavioral Therapy can help you reach your health-related goals, whether you want to have more energy, lose weight, or train for a specific sporting event. 

Have you delved into behavioral psychology for weight-loss or other health-related goals? I’m curious to hear your stories in the comments below!


Resources:

  • https://psychologyofeating.com/psychology-weight-loss/
  • https://www.ucihealth.org/blog/2020/01/weight-loss-psychology
  • https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/behavioral-weight-loss-programs-are-effective-but-where-to-find-them-2018111215340
  • https://www.verywellfit.com/how-to-start-losing-weight-3495465
  • https://behaviorfit.com/stopcountingcalories/
  • https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43163666-the-science-behind-the-fad

Alexia Palmeri

Alexia Palmeri is a 28-year-old personal development enthusiast! She looks at life experiences as an opportunity to always learn and grow. Alexia is also a broadcast journalism graduate with a passion and knack for communications and media. She is always on the lookout for new trends on social media and keeps up to date with what's happening in the world. In her free time, Alexia enjoys socializing with family and loved ones, being in nature, cooking nourishing meals, and discovering new places to dine and adventure!

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