Determined to lose weight? Reminding yourself of the challenges that lie ahead is key, according to a new study.
According to a new study, "you can't do it!" is the mantra that you should tell yourself when you start a weight loss program. That's not a joke, but a very serious — albeit accidental — conclusion reached by psychologists from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA.
Their findings have now been published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration — it's not that you should actively tell yourself that you can't do it, rather that the "you-can-totally-do-it-no-matter-what" type of cheerleading attitude doesn't seem to work.
Instead, you might want to opt for a reverse psychology approach, where you remind yourself how monstrously hard it is to do what you're trying to do.
The researchers stumbled upon this surprising finding as they were investigating something quite different. They wanted to see if, in the long run, changes in the so-called home food environment (HFE) would be better for weight loss than behavior therapy, which often involves the above-mentioned positive attitude.
Of course, behavior therapy doesn't stop at having a positive mindset; it comprises a range of other components, such as goal setting, food intake and weight monitoring, physical activity, and group support.
All of this is aimed at improving the self-control of those who are trying to lose weight. But, as we know from experience, this self-restraint is difficult to both achieve and maintain over time.
This is why the researchers — led by Michael Lowe, Ph.D., a professor at Drexel University's College of Arts and Sciences — wanted to test a different approach.
Testing three approaches to weight loss
The researchers divided 262 people who were obese and overweight into three different groups: one group underwent "classic" behavioral therapy, one group made changes in their HFE, and another group had their meals replaced with lower-energy ones.
The team tracked the participants' weight over the course of a 3-year period, assessing them every 6 months.
The HFE plan included a lot of nutritional changes combined with changes in choice architecture. The participants were given homework assignments to help them make these changes.
In addition to these, the participants were also told what the rationale was for these changes. This is where they were constantly reminded of how challenging weight loss is, the important role of genetics, and how many other factors are outside of their control.
Additionally, the participants had to acknowledge their weakness for certain foods.
"We said, 'It's impressive and encouraging that you are taking this step to improve your weight and health, but we need to help you understand the daunting challenges you're facing,'" Prof. Lowe says.
"The reason we did this was not to discourage them," he adds, "but to give them a more realistic sense of how crucial it is for them to make lasting changes in their parts of the food environment that they could control."
"[By] contrast," write the authors, the behavioral therapy program offered "similar nutritional advice but spen[t] much more group session time teaching problem-solving to improve behavioral and emotional self-control skills."
The meal replacement group only benefited from nutritional changes. Throughout the whole period, the researchers used mediation analysis to also evaluate the participants' cognitive restraint, or their ability to refrain from giving in to unhealthful food cravings.
The reverse psychology that works
People in the HFE group lost more weight than people who underwent behavior therapy, but that's not very important because the difference was not substantial and all three of the groups quickly regained weight.
Also, the main point of the study was to get the participants to make long-lasting changes to their food environment — and in this regard, the researchers did not succeed.
But the good — and accidental — news is that cognitive restraint was much higher in the HFE group. These improvements were also the most long-lasting in this group.
The researchers hypothesize on what might explain this effect, saying:
"[B]y questioning the usefulness of building self-control skills, the HFE treatment may have bolstered the very capacity it was meant to downplay — stronger self-control with regard to food."
So, the bottom line is that if you want to start losing weight, try reminding yourself how immensely hard it is.
However, you should also try not to remember that thinking that it's hard might make it easier because, well...that defeats the whole purpose. Good luck!