The Psychology of Weight Loss – the key to long-term success

Woman Smiling Over Weight Loss

weight loss before afterLosing weight is partly down to exercise and healthy eating, but also down to what goes on in our heads, our inner monologue. As a morbidly obese psychologist, I knew this but it took commitment to my goal of becoming fit and healthy before I applied what I knew to my own life and approach. This resulted in a drop in weight of 148 pounds, taking me down from 315 pounds to 167.

It is in my nature to find out as much as I can on a subject. I love to learn and so, to enhance what I already knew, I studied sports and exercise psychology (and gained a distinction!). This was very helpful in revisiting topics such as imagery and goal setting from a different perspective. I also read extensively, going beyond popular books to scientific research to ensure what I was doing was based on what works.

My focus was on health, not weight loss. Whilst a focus on health led to weight loss, a focus on weight loss could have led to poor food choices. Let me share some of my most important findings.

1. Loving not loathing

Being overweight is not the only way to describe ourselves. It’s just one part of who we are. We are also kind, interesting, determined, curious…and in my case I am also a mother, sister, daughter and friend.

We need to love ourselves for who we are right now instead of just thinking everything will be better in the future. We need to care for ourselves and treat ourselves well. When we don’t like ourselves, we don’t treat ourselves well because we don’t think we deserve such treatment. So, if we really want to have a bar of chocolate, we should buy good quality high cocoa chocolate and take the time to savour it properly. We should sit down, open the packaging slowly, smell it and really take in the aroma, break off just one square and enjoy the full taste. Far better to enjoy it than to cram it into our mouth, disgusted with ourselves.

2. Motivation – why do we want to lose weight?

Motivation can be internally generated or externally generated. We can do something because our partner wants us to, or a doctor advises us to, but it’s hard to keep going when a goal is based on external factors.

Different things motivate us. We are either motivated to go towards something or motivated to pull away from it and achieving a goal is hard work. Getting older I knew I was going to be more susceptible to diseases such as diabetes so moving away from illness was a motivator. The way my weight was increasing I could have been in a wheelchair within a few years, but it was also important to visualise myself succeeding (moving towards something). I was driven by the desire to look better and the thought of being able to go into shops and choose clothes I wanted rather than what I could fit in.

3. Imagining the future

Imagery can help to enhance our motivation and increase our confidence. We can imagine ourselves working out, exercising, eating healthy food etc.

Professional athletes visualise winning a gold medal and the race. They don’t just think it would be nice to win it but instead they use all their senses. They visualise, they can see themselves on the podium, they hear the roar of the crowd, they feel the tingling sensation knowing they are a winner, they can taste success…

I’ve used this technique right from the beginning. In my mind I could see myself as a slim person. I acted like a fit and healthy person. I knew a healthy person would walk briskly, eat slowly, exercise more and demonstrate restraint over goodies so that’s what I did most of the time. I spent far more time on this then on visualising the negatives – of me being so fat that I’d never be able to walk, with a fatty liver wearing huge kaftans and with sweat rashes under my boobs and belly.

If you find it hard to visualise, then what you might prefer to do is to list all the good things you will gain from losing weight, and also list the reasons for not losing weight. Which list looks more appealing?

 4. Self-talk

Whether or not we succeed with weight loss often boils down to what goes on in our heads, the inner self talk. We need to believe that we can succeed, and motivate ourselves with our thoughts. Our self-talk can be either positive or negative.

Negative self-talk is more likely to lead to negative results, and positive self-talk more likely to lead to positive results and increase our self-confidence.

Too often we fill our heads with statements like ‘I’ll never lose weight’. Our mind then looks for lots of reasons to make this true.

If we keep telling our self that we can’t lose weight, we won’t! It’s far better to say things such as ‘I can lose weight easily’, ‘I’m enjoying eating healthy’. We need to focus more on positive self-talk such as ‘Each day I’m healthier’, or ‘I can lose this weight and enjoy the process’.Stop your negative self talk

We can’t be 100% positive, so whenever a negative thought comes into our mind we need to stop the thought from taking over. I find it helpful to both visualise and say out loud the word Stop! I see it as a red stop sign and if I’m alone will say it out loud, or in my head when I’m with others.

5. Our beliefs can affect our weight

We need to have the inner belief that we can make a change and achieve our desired goal. If we expect to fail, we are creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. This can lead to our actual failure, which further lowers our self-confidence.

Our beliefs can have a significant impact on weight loss. For example, in a clinical trial, patients were given a harmless injection of saline solution but were told it will lead to hair loss. This actually happened to about 35% of the trial sample. Our mind is that powerful.

If we believe we can make the changes that will make us healthier, then we will.

6. Determination/Self efficacy

We must believe we can be successful if we want to achieve our goals. This determination keeps us going even when the scales haven’t dropped. It keeps us focused knowing that if we put the effort in, we will get there eventually and this keeps us going through the plateaus, which are normal. This determination also allows us to rebound from failures and setbacks with ease.

7. Have a role model

I didn’t want to be a size zero, and I know many slim people are ‘skinny fat’. They may be a size 10 but they aren’t fit and they eat too many processed foods. My objective was to be strong and healthy. To be able to walk up hills without getting out of breath and not to struggle getting out of a chair.A body like Shakira's

I watched Shakira’s video for She-Wolf and loved her dancers body, with strong legs. Clearly, I’m 20 years older than her, but I used her as my role model. I had a picture of her in the kitchen, at my desk, and on my phone. I continually asked myself: ‘What would Shakira do?’ That would be to say no to the cake and yes to any extra 10 minutes on the cross trainer, I imagined!

Wherever you are on your weight loss journey, take account of psychology to lead to long term weight-loss and fitness success.

Brought to you by

Denise Taylor, award winning career psychologist, personal branding strategist & author. Cutting-edge innovative career coaching. Read more at Denise also wrote a memoir – Fat to Fantastic telling her story, month by month.