The psychology of successful weight loss

Hey y’all, long time no talk. I’M SORRY! The house is finally unpacked and I’m done traveling for two weeks so I’m hoping to have some more stuff headed your way to make up for my absence. Today, we’re getting deep. I’m talkin’ “examine why I am the way I am” deep. So get ready.


I’m a Registered Dietitian. That means I’m more than a “nutritionist” (whatever that means) – I’m trained in behavior modification and many techniques for helping people make changes in their lifestyles through counseling. I don’t have a product to offer you, I’m not going to hand you a meal plan and expect your life to be changed forever. I’m going to educate you and help you to determine solutions that will work long-term, provide suggestions and emotional support, and hold you accountable to goals that we determine together.

Every now and then, I am reminded of how important the psychological side of nutrition is: I can talk about carbohydrates, vitamins, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and Fermentable Oligo-Di-Monosaccharides all day but if your head isn’t in the right place, no changes will be made. Today I’ve got two principles that I want to talk about so that hopefully you can identify them in yourself and be primed for success:

The all-or-nothing vs. the flexible thinker

Are you a person who needs strict rules and guidelines in order to be successful? If you are following a healthy eating plan and have a “cheat meal”, does it devolve into a day full of eating junk just because? If so, you may be an all-or-nothing thinker. In this case, it’s best to set defined rules for yourself, i.e. “After dinner, I will brush my teeth and be done eating for the day”, or “I will not eat red meat, anything with added sugars, or anything fried”. By clearly defining your parameters, the possibility of finding loopholes in the gray areas (which are inevitable in nutrition) is eliminated. For these people, the “cheat meal” can often become an obsession, something they’re thinking about constantly. When the possibility of this meal is eliminated, it lifts the burden of always thinking about it and diet becomes more manageable.

Alternatively, if you’re someone who finds strict rules to be completely suffocating and you can be totally happy sticking to your one square of dark chocolate per day, then do it. You need to recognize these things about yourself. In the case of this person who requires flexibility, a rigid plan probably won’t set them off on a binge but will definitely result in some misery and frustration.  In this case, allot yourself your treats but keep them small and reasonable.

Use this table to figure out which category you fall into and how to use it to your advantage:

All or nothing Flexible
When I have a “treat”, I… Go totally overboard. One small dessert is not enough, a taste can lead to an all-out binge. One “bad” meal and I give up on eating healthy for the day, what’s the point if I already ruined it? Thinking about what I’ll eat for my “treat” causes anxiety. Enjoy it. I savor that one meal or snack, and am satisfied. I look forward to my next “treat” without anxiety.
When I have strict dietary rules, I… Do very well. I thrive when I know what I can and what I can’t have – the grey area is removed. Feel stressed. All that control seems unnecessary and time consuming.
Try to craft a weight loss plan that… Has clearly defined rules as to what you can eat, what you shouldn’t eat, and when to eat these things. Possibly ask your RD about a calorie-specific diabetic diet plan (not just for diabetic people!) and foods to focus on or avoid. Allows for wiggle room with your schedule and your food preferences. As long as you hit the correct calories, you will lose weight. While you need to make sure to get in enough nutrient-rich foods that you remain healthy, having a small treat every now and then won’t throw you off and can fit into your plan.

MOTIVATION: intrinsic vs. extrinsic

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s your desire to prove to yourself that you can lose weight, your headstrong will to fit into that pair of jeans from college, your determination to lose weight so you can kick your brother’s ass at the half marathon he’s been constantly talking about. Often with weight loss, it starts as an intrinsic desire to get healthier. Maybe you had a health scare that made you realize the importance of getting to a healthy weight, maybe you have an aging parent and realized how tough it’s been for them and how much easier it would be if they had taken better care of their health. Do you prefer to set goals and not tell anyone about them until you’ve achieved it? You’re an intrinsic person.

Extrinsic motivation comes from other people. Often, it’s public acknowledgement of the things you’ve done. Compliments on your new svelte figure, amazement from friends that you’ve achieved a milestone goal, receiving an award in front of your peers. Often after the first few pounds of weight loss, motivation switches from intrinsic to extrinsic. One of my most successful patients comes in religiously every month and tells me that things are going well, and her biggest motivation is hearing people’s encouragement for her weight loss efforts and inspiring other women at work to start getting healthy themselves. Conversely, I have another patient who lost a huge chunk of weight last year and has since plateaued. This patient tells me that the motivation he felt when he was getting the compliments has waned as people get used to him being at this size, and that he feels alone in his efforts. People encourage fat people to get skinny, but never think to encourage the skinny guy to stay that way.

It’s important to understand whether you’re a person who is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, and to make sure that you surround yourself with sources of inspiration based on those preferences. If extrinsic, surround yourself with people who will encourage you. If intrinsic, surround yourself with things that remind you of the reasons you have for taking on this endeavor.

More than anything, it’s important to know yourself. These are just two psychological factors that can affect your success with weight loss, but there are many more.


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