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Why Weight Loss has Little to Do with the Diet you Choose

Learn why losing weight is all about mindset change and what you need to do to change it.

The Real Reason your Diet Isn’t Working

What do I mean when I say that weight loss has little to do with the diet you choose? I mean that there are numerous diets that can help you lose weight, and if you stick to any one of them long enough, you will likely reach your goal. What’s important is that you find one that feels mentally appealing to you. Some diets are rigid and restrictive like the keto diet and may promote weight loss more quickly, while others more moderate, like intuitive eating, that take longer but also lends itself to long-term change. Regardless of which one you choose, most DO help you lose weight. That’s why I see weight loss as a psychological issue, and not something that can be readily achieved without a change in mindset

"That’s why I see weight loss as a psychological issue, and not something that can be readily achieved without a change in mindset. "

Many of my patients intend to eat well, but then find themselves eating a food or amount that clearly deviates from the diet for which they planned to adhere. They do this not because they lack information about the calories or the sugar involved, but because something emotional happened, and in that moment, they make a decision to stray from their diet. Knowing that these foods are high in fat, calories, or sugar clearly doesn’t hold them back from taking that impulsive action, despite the implication from the diet industry that weight loss requires more and more information about food and is best attained through the latest diet fad


The Psychological Reasons It’s Hard to Stick to Your Diet


If most diets do actually work, and most of us on some level realize that losing weight is a matter of consuming less while burning more, then why do so many of us struggle to reach out weight loss goals?

1. We are overwhelmed by confusing information

When we are bombarded by the overabundance and often conflicting information about food, it’s easy to find ourselves continually making plans to “start our diet tomorrow,’ as facing it today seems overwhelming. As Dr. Michelle Maidenberg states, “Although there are a plethora of resources out there about general health and weight wellness, the messages are most often inconsistent and confusing. Many individuals find themselves in a spiral of frustration, self-blame, and shame. This perpetuates the belief that it’s too difficult to figure out and that they will never be able to truly achieve success and meet their goals.”    

"The problem stems from internet articles and magazines in grocery stores that scream new ideas for weight loss that promise results that are not only quick, but also dramatic."

The problem stems from internet articles and magazines in grocery stores that scream new ideas for weight loss that promise results that are not only quick, but also dramatic. These articles are created with the intention of being extreme. They do this because the writer knows that writing an article called “lose weight slowly through incremental change” will not get the likes, shares, or purchases of an article entitled “lose 20lbs in two weeks through this new, restrictive diet.” The problem with this way of promoting is not only that it sets us up for failure, but also that it gives us the subtle and unconscious message that losing weight in a slow, moderate manner isn’t promising nor an accomplishment. This makes us less likely to stay on a healthy diet that would likely lead to long-term success, as we don’t really feel proud of ourselves when we lose weight in a way that is slow and sustainable.

2. We don’t really make a commitment

Sometimes we fail to reach our goals because we weren’t really committed in the first place. Making a commitment means that you have a clear plan in place that involves taking strategic steps to reaching your goal. When we tell ourselves things like “I am going to eat less and lose weight” with no clear action plan, goals, or steps involved, we are setting ourselves up for failure.  

"Willpower, according to Merriam-Webster, is our “ability to control one's own actions, emotions, or urges.” It implies an internal feeling or quality about ourselves, and if we deem ourselves as not ‘having enough’, then we feel flawed. "

It’s important to note that setting a clear plan and taking action is different from the notion of “willpower.” Willpower, according to Merriam-Webster, is our “ability to control one's own actions, emotions, or urges.” It implies an internal feeling or quality about ourselves, and if we deem ourselves as not ‘having enough’, then we feel flawed. This is the line of thinking, however, is most endorsed by society when it comes to weight loss. As noted by Dr. Maidenberg, “Having willpower and one's motivation to change are targeted societally as being the factors that contribute to weight issues.” She notes, however, that “If it were so simplistic, individuals would readily and seamlessly make progress.” 

"I find that my patients who struggle with weight very seldom lack willpower. "

If we attribute our failed attempts at weight loss to a lack of willpower, this can be a dangerous cycle. It leads us to continue making vague commitments with no clear action plan, and then judging ourselves as being weak and flawed for not following through. I find that my patients who struggle with weight very seldom lack willpower. They are generally successful in most other areas of life, with weight being the one exception. I notice that they also treat these other aspects differently than they do their plans with eating. They can readily make plans and put actions in place to reach social and professional goals, presumably because they do not trigger an emotional response in the same way. With weight, on the other hand, it can be easy to not commit fully, as this mitigates the blow to the ego that comes from trying our best and failing. Thus, it is easier to avoid a real attempt at weight loss, as it also softens what we see as inevitable disappointment. By not fully making an attempt, however, you are also making it far less likely that you will achieve your goal and furthering your belief that you can’t do it.

3. We Feel Compelled to Self-Sabotage

Perhaps you did make an exact plan, set clear goals, and put actionable steps in place to reach that goal. Still, you still find yourself straying from your diet, binging, or giving up altogether. What is going on?

"The idea is that when we desperately and intensively want something on a conscious level, but for some reason can’t summon the strength needed to get it, there must be something on an unconscious level that is holding us back."

When I observe this pattern of self-sabotage in my patients, I use it as a cue to take a step back to address that person’s unconscious blocks to weight loss. The idea is that when we desperately and intensively want something on a conscious level, but for some reason can’t summon the strength needed to get it, there must be something on an unconscious level that is holding us back. Maybe it’s the fear that it will be upsetting if we can’t keep it up, or that there will be too much expectation of us if we are ‘thin.’

As an example, I once worked with a woman who was severely overweight. We identified a number of patterns that affected her self-worth, and once resolved, she was able to lose a substantial amount of weight (nearly 100 lbs) in a moderate and sustainable fashion over the course of a year. When I saw her two years later, she had gained back nearly all of the weight she had lost. What happened?

In our work together, she was able to relay that once she got down to her goal weight, it scared her. She had met a man with whom she was quite happy, but she lived with a constant, irrational fear that he would leave her if resumed her prior weight. As their relationship progressed, she found herself compelled to eat more and more, as the stress of getting attached and losing him was so intense that it unconsciously felt safer to push him away. Once we identified this pattern and she realized that she was actually loved for being herself and not for her weight, it became easier to get back on track and down to her healthy weight.

What unconscious fears can you identify that might be holding you back?

How to Stay Committed to Healthy Eating

The best way to get out of the cycle of weight loss through restrictive dieting, followed by weight gain through overeating, is through self-compassion. As Dr. Maidenberg notes, “It makes it challenging to improve when individuals are self-deprecating and disempowered. Building self-confidence, self-compassion, and understanding and obtaining resources for the physiological, psychological, and social factors that impact their weight issues, creates the lifelong sustained changes that are needed.” 

"We then imagine that the problem is that we don’t hold to our promise in the future, while the reality is that this faulty, guilt-minded logic creates this problem and also ensures it will make it happen again."

When we don’t have self-compassion, we often get lost in the trap of eating something we deem as ‘bad’, telling ourselves we will ‘start the diet tomorrow’, and end up binging that day since we assume we can never have it again. We then imagine that the problem is that we don’t hold to our promise in the future, while the reality is that this faulty, guilt-minded logic creates this problem and also ensures it will make it happen again. When we set clear plans, and address those underlying reasons for self-sabotage, we are not as tempted to overindulge. Instead, we are able to look at both moderate restraint and moderate indulgence as self-care, which allows us to gradually and purposefully lose weight in a way that makes it sustainable forever.


Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.

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