Losing weight is about more than just diet and exercise.
If losing weight were easy, there wouldn’t be so many diets and approaches to choose from. Every diet and weight-loss strategy has its pros and cons, but for any to really work, you’ve got to get your mind right.
“Shifting your mindset about how to lose weight is the biggest factor in losing weight,” says Kathryn Smerling, a therapist based in New York City. “We can’t shift our weight from the outside without realizing the correct inner resolve and intention.”
And most people try to lose weight while in the worst state of mind possible: wanting to “fix” themselves. They jump into diets and exercise plans when dismayed or disgusted with themselves, all the while pinching their “trouble” spots, calling themselves “fat” and feeling altogether less-than. They get obsessed with results, focus on quick fixes and lose sight of sustainability and even health.
“This type of thinking can be destructive,” says Dr. Kevin Campbell, a cardiologist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Rather than focusing on the good that can come of weight loss — such as better health, a longer life, more enjoyment in everyday activities and the prevention of diabetes and heart disease — these folks focus on negative thoughts. Ultimately, a negative mindset leads to failure.”
Science says you need to shift your mindset for diet success.
Yes, shifting your attitude around weight loss isn’t just about feel-goodery; it’s about results. In fact, research from Syracuse University shows that the more dissatisfied women are with their bodies, the more likely they are to avoid exercise. And simply thinking that you’re overweight predicts future weight gain, according to 2015 research published in the International Journal of Obesity.
Psychologists stress that how you see yourself and your core identity predicts your actions: See yourself as overweight, averse to exercise or unworthy, and you’ll act accordingly. However, biology may also play a role.
Several studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol, which your adrenal glands secrete every time you get down on yourself or worry about how you measure up on the scale, increases distribution of fat around the abdomen.
Fortunately, the mind is a flexible thing. Follow these 15 expert-approved tips to change your mindset and make your weight-loss approach healthier, happier and more effective.
Explore your why.
When attempting to make meaningful and lasting changes to habits, including those that you’ll need to shift to become successful with dieting, you need to examine your motivation, says Natasha Vani, a licensed naturopath, exercise physiologist and director of physical activity at Newtopia, a Toronto-based health company focused on chronic disease prevention through sustainable habit change.
Vani recommends “being real with yourself” and accepting that “success will require making habit changes to your lifestyle. Are you ready to make these changes and do what’s necessary to achieve healthy and sustainable weight loss?”
Dr. Jason Doescher, chief medical officer at MOBE, a guided health solutions company based in Minneapolis, says that “behavioral change starts with knowing what you want and committing to that path.”
To do this, “healthy choices require preparation, practice and anticipation of barriers. Succumbing to different forms of sabotage can lead dieters to fall into a dangerous cycle — a main reason why diets fail.”
Focus on education.
Lawrence Lovell, a licensed mental health counselor based in New York City and founder of Breakthrough Solutions, says it’s “very helpful to understand how different foods impact your body and how different exercises impact your body as well. Adapting a mindset to learn about your physical wellness is a very helpful practice.”
And Doescher notes “establishing sustainable health habits is a whole-person process that’s also influenced by sleep and external factors like social life and stress.”
Practice mindful decision-making.
Doescher notes that “understanding the behavioral role meals play in our lives helps identify choices we make and practice. These choices determine short- and long-term success with diets.”
For example, mindful eating, or intuitive eating, is a way of approaching eating that attempts to better understand your eating patterns and emotions. Monitoring and logging emotions around food choices will help you create a conscious connection between your thoughts and decisions, and why you reach for the unhealthy options in the first place.
Change your goals.
Losing weight might be a result, but it shouldn’t be the goal. Rather, your goals should small, sustainable things over which you have full control, says Paul Hokemeyer, a New York City-based clinical and consulting psychotherapist and a founding principal of Drayson Mews International.
For example, did you eat five servings of fruits and veggies today? There’s one goal met.
What about eight hours of sleep? Did you get them in? If so, you can check another goal off of your list.
Andreas Michaelides, chief of psychology with Noom, the popular behavior change and weight-loss app and program, says that big goals are great to have, but tackling them can be overwhelming. “Instead, try breaking down your big goal into smaller, achievable tasks.”
A good rule of thumb is to make SMART goals:
“If your goal is to wake up every single morning to go running, but you haven’t run in a long time, start off by just waking up in the morning at an earlier time or walking instead of running. Over time, you can increase your time spent exercising. Think of each task as a building block — starting with small steps can still lead to big changes,” he says.
Gravitate to positivity.
“Surround yourself with positive people,” Smerling says. Doing so provides you an encouraging, emotionally healthy environment in which to invest in yourself.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support,” adds Emily Hutchins, a Chicago-based performance enhancement specialist, Nike Master Trainer, Nike+ Run Coach and owner of On Your Mark Coaching and Training. It helps to include a friend, partner or coach to help you stay accountable.
Get good advice from qualified sources.
“Advice from dietitians and nutritionists can make a huge difference in understanding what works best for you, personally, and some options are even available through your employer’s health care plan,” Doescher says. Weight loss can be a very personalized journey, so it’s important to recognize what works for you.
Doescher notes, “there’s no single right or wrong way to seek support when it comes to weight-loss efforts, as everyone has different needs to best serve their own interests.”
Resources for dieters can include online guides, advice from your physician, support options through wellness benefits at work or even educational books focused on weight loss and dieting initiatives.
If you’re finding it hard to be successful, or if you’re uncomfortable or feeling defeated, try turning to one of those resources for expertise and guidance. And if you need to talk about any deeper issues, “a therapist can be a confidant, help address those obstacles that hinder progress and identify positive ways to change unhealthy habits,” Doescher says.
Michaelides adds that if you have had “past experiences with disordered eating, including significant anxiety around eating or unhealthy exercise habits,” it might be a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional. Similarly, if you’re struggling with “body image, feel compelled to lose weight but don’t fully understand why or simply need a sounding board as you try to navigate making this change,” a mental health professional may be able to help. “We find that seeking support early and often increases the likelihood of success.”
Rethink rewards and punishments.
“Keep in mind that making healthy choices is a way of practicing self-care,” says Laura Cipullo, a registered dietitian, author and yoga teacher based in New York City. Food is not a reward, and exercise is not a punishment. They are both ways of caring for your body and helping you feel your best. You deserve both.
Take a breath.
Taking a few minutes at the beginning of your workout, or even at the beginning of your day, to slow down and simply focus on the act of breathing can help you set your intentions, connect with your body and even lower your body’s stress response, Hutchins says.
Lie on your back with your legs extended and place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold for two and then exhale through your mouth for six, Hutchins says. With each breath, the hand placed on your stomach should be the only one to rise or fall.
Throw out the calendar.
“Patience is also important when you’re losing weight in a healthy and sustainable manner,” Cipullo says. Plus, if you focus on meeting truly actionable goals, like taking 10,000 steps each and every day, there’s no need to get wrapped up in a timeline of goals ahead. Every 24 hours comes with new goals and potential new successes — focus on those.
Lovell adds that you should also be ready for setbacks along the way. Everyone loses weight differently. “Being able to manage expectations and setbacks in a positive way is important. This allows dieters a chance to maintain their conviction towards making healthy changes in their life,” he says.
Identify your ‘trouble thoughts.’
“Identify the thoughts that get you into trouble, and work to stop and change them,” Hokemeyer says. Maybe it’s your internal dialogue when you look in the mirror. Or food cravings when you get stressed. Whatever your particular trouble thoughts are, consciously make them stop by saying ‘stop’ out loud.
It might sound silly, but that simple action will break your train of thought and allow yourself the opportunity to introduce a new, healthier thought. “The best way to do this is to count from one to 100 as many times as you need until the destructive thoughts subside,” Hokemeyer says.
This overall awareness of what you’re thinking and how it influences your behavior is a big piece of enacting sustainable habit change, Michaelides says. “The more aware we are of what’s on our minds, the more we can then evaluate if our recurring thoughts are helpful or unhelpful.”
Unhelpful thoughts are very common, but they can keep you stuck and inhibit you from sustaining long-term changes.
“As you begin to notice when you have unhelpful thoughts, you can evaluate which thoughts you want to pay attention to,” Michaelides says. “Think about these thoughts like dials on a radio: The goal is to turn the unhelpful thoughts down, while turning up the volume on thoughts that get you closer to your goals. Remember, this process does not happen overnight; it is hard and will take practice.”
Banish all-or-nothing thinking.
Many dieters “sabotage their weight-loss efforts by adopting an all-or-nothing mentality,” Vani says. “Many attempt very strict dietary and activity goals that are unrealistic and, as a result, fall off track within weeks or even days. Once off track, the thought pattern becomes ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘This is too challenging.'”
Instead of falling into that trap, Vani recommends focusing “more on whole health. This includes mental and physical health.”
Don’t step on the scale.
While the scale isn’t intrinsically bad, a lot of us have learned to associate it with self-destructive thoughts and actions. If that’s you, don’t even bother stepping on the scale until you get to a place in which the number on the scale doesn’t define your worth, Hokemeyer says.
A healthy weight is more than a number on a scale. Lovell recommends finding other ways to measure your progress that don’t involve the scale. “Healthy weight loss can help you feel good. Being able to improve your mood, functional movement, energy levels or alleviate discomfort or pain are all awesome potential benefits of a healthy weight loss journey.”
Incremental improvements in these areas can be a great way of tracking your progress without ever stepping on the scale.
Many people hold an irrational hope that a change in the number on the scale will fix other problems in their lives. But Michaelides says this leads to a “lose-lose scenario.”
To combat this, “you should focus more on the journey and process, not necessarily the result (the number on the scale). Instead of putting pressure on outcomes, be sure to applaud your efforts along the way, as they are the result of your commitment to completing the steps towards your big-picture goal,” he notes.
Talk to yourself like you would a friend.
“When it comes to ideals of beauty and body image, we are incredibly hard on ourselves. The standards we adopt for ourselves are punishing,” Hokemeyer says. And we would never hold our friends or loved ones to many of those standards.
Plus, “change is hard,” Doescher says. “The time and attention required to make true change happen is often in short supply amid hectic daily routines.” Be kind to yourself when things don’t go according to plan, and “know that you’re capable of achieving your goals, no matter how many obstacles you encounter.”
You deserve the same respect and compassion as anyone else; treat yourself like it.
Lose the ‘foods are good or bad’ mentality.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve learned to feel either proud or guilty about every food choice we make. But it’s just food, and you shouldn’t have to feel guilty about wanting the occasional cookie. “Give yourself permission to have a glass of wine or a piece of chocolate cake,” Cipullo says. “Remember, all foods fit.”
Food is food; it doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure if you eat a cupcake sometimes.
Focus on the attainable.
“If you’ve never stepped into a gym before, your goal shouldn’t be doing 30 minutes on the elliptical on day one. A better goal may be to go for a 20-minute walk,” Cipullo says.
“If you want to cook more but have little experience with healthy recipes or are strapped for time, don’t expect yourself to craft new healthy recipes every night after work. Maybe consider using a meal delivery service such as HelloFresh or Blue Apron, in which preportioned ingredients and recipes are sent to your door, helping you to get acquainted with new ingredients, try out new recipes and build fundamental cooking skills.”
Start where you are and gradually build from there.
15 ways to shift your mindset for better weight loss:
1. Explore your why.
2. Focus on education.
3. Practice mindful decision-making.
4. Change your goals.
5. Gravitate to positivity.
6. Get good advice from qualified sources.
7. Rethink rewards and punishments.
8. Take a breath.
9. Throw out the calendar.
10. Identify your trouble thoughts.
11. Banish all-or-nothing thinking.
12. Don’t step on the scale.
13. Talk to yourself like you would a friend.
14. Lose the ‘foods are good or bad’ mentality.
15. Focus on the attainable.
More from U.S. News
Update 05/21/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.