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The psychology of weight loss: 6 ways to “trick” yourself into losing weight

Here we explore the psychology of weight loss, uncovering mental barriers that hinder progress. Practical tips include setting achievable goals, changing how we talk about food, keeping a food diary, understanding our food choices, and seeking support. A comprehensive understanding of the psychology behind weight loss is key to success.

Nicol Ingram
Nicol Ingram
Health coach
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The psychology of weight loss: 6 ways to “trick” yourself into losing weight

The world of weight loss can be perplexing and frustrating for many of us. 

It's puzzling why some people can maintain a healthy weight while others struggle to do so. Numerous diets promise rapid results with a one-size-fits-all approach that is not tailored to individual needs. 

Unfortunately, our society has developed a culture that profits from weight loss "miracles" that offer short-term results but cause long-term problems. In reality, what we are missing is the crucial aspect of identifying the root cause of our dietary patterns, which involves investigating our psychology. 

In this article, we’ll explore the psychology of weight loss, the many mental barriers we experience when trying to lose weight, and tips on how to overcome them. 

4 psychological barriers standing in the way of weight loss

Throughout our lives, we are exposed to various experiences that influence our behaviour, thoughts, and emotions. Often, our childhood experiences have a significant impact on our current behaviour.

However, this doesn't mean that we have to remain stuck in old patterns. The first step towards change is acknowledging where our behaviour comes from and why we exhibit it. 

Old habits / learnt behaviour

Suppose we were raised in a family, where we were given large portions of food and were encouraged to finish everything on our plate. The original intention might have been to ensure that everyone was fully fed and to avoid food wastage. However, this behaviour could have unintended consequences, such as leading us to overeat, ignoring feelings of fullness, and feeling compelled to finish everything on our plate, regardless of how full we are.

The “all or nothing” mindset

Diet culture and its influence on our psychology is a huge barrier when it comes to weight loss.

While the intention of diet culture is typically weight loss, it can, unfortunately, lead to a host of toxic habits and negative perceptions. For instance, the over-restriction that is involved in diets can lead to the feeling of being out of control over certain foods, which can develop into the “all or nothing” mindset. The “all or nothing” voice in our head will deceptively tell us “You’ve already had a piece of cake, so you might as well have the entire cake,” or “You’ve skipped breakfast and lunch, so go ahead and binge at dinner and all evening long.”

Motivation

Lack of motivation is one of the primary reasons people struggle to maintain weight loss. 

However, what motivates us is highly personal. So what works for one person, may not work for another. It's important to remember that feeling guilty for not enjoying certain activities doesn’t lead to anything good. When we force ourselves to do something because we think it's necessary for weight loss, our motivation is likely to suffer. The biggest motivator is seeing results and progress, which is why focusing solely on the number on the scale is not always effective and can lead to a loss of motivation.

A negative body image

Having a negative body image can lead someone to pursue diets that are unsustainable or even bad for our health.This can result in a constant state of stress which, in turn, can:

- Increase cortisol levels

- Slow down metabolism

- Promote overeating

- Increase blood sugar

- Decrease muscle mass

Stress can also affect our sleep and when we have slept poorly, our hormones can become imbalanced, causing us to want to eat more high-energy, low-nutrition foods.. The low energy this causes also means we are less likely to exercise.

6 tips to overcome your mind’s barrier to losing weight

As you can see the psychology of weight loss is very complex and many influences can interlink. It is also very different for each individual.So where on Earth do we start?

Break down your big goals into smaller ones

As mentioned earlier, staying motivated requires us to see results and progress. One effective way to achieve this is by breaking down our big goals into smaller, achievable ones. If we set ourselves a single, large goal, we may quickly lose interest as the end result seems too far away. Studies indicate that succeeding in small goals that lead to the final objective helps us remain focused and on track. So instead of simply thinking "I want to lose weight," let's consider how we can divide this goal into several smaller ones:For instance, how much weight would be realistic and maintainable, and what steps do we need to take to accomplish this? Then, what initial goals can we work on, such as eating a balanced breakfast every day? Once we have accomplished this, we can move on to the next goal, such as increasing fibre intake in our diet or increasing our movement by going on a walk at lunchtime.

Change how you talk about certain foods

Eliminating labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for certain foods can help in creating a better perception of them. A food that is labelled as ‘good’ may not be good for everyone, and the same goes for ‘bad’. 

The good news is that the language around food is changing, especially in terms of education from a young age. 

Nowadays, young people are taught about nutrition using phrases like ‘everyday food’ (good food) and ‘sometimes food’ (which can refer to foods that lack nutritional value). These terms better represent our choices and can help to alleviate the guilt some people may experience later on, as well as help shift the “All or nothing mindset”.

Keep a diary (about your relationship to food)

If emotional eating is a significant obstacle, then keeping a journal and asking questions about this behaviour can really help to gain control over it. This can help us to understand the triggers and patterns so that we can plan ahead and take action accordingly. Some questions to consider asking yourself include:

- Where can I trace this pattern back to?

- When did it start?

- When did I first learn to associate this feeling with food?

- Is there a specific reason why I tend to crave a particular type of food when I'm feeling this way?

Understand the “why” behind your food choices

The saying "knowledge is power" rings especially true when it comes to the psychology of weight loss and health. 

While many of us know that we should be eating certain foods, we often don't understand why. This is particularly true when it comes to our individual needs and circumstances. 

For instance, why is it important to consume fibre? What role does it play in our journey towards better health and weight loss? In fact, fibre is a nutrient that is incredibly beneficial for our well-being. It nourishes our gut bacteria, which is vital for our digestion and for regulating our appetite hormones. 

Additionally, research has shown that fibre may also be linked to immune, skin, hair, and mental health improvements. By understanding the benefits of fibre and experiencing positive changes in our skin and digestive habits, we can be motivated to prioritise plant-based foods in our diet.

Be your own detective

In a similar way, understanding our body and its signals is crucial for developing healthy eating habits and meeting our nutritional needs.

For instance, if we have a health issue that makes us feel more tired than usual or an imbalance in hormones that results in cravings for high-energy foods, it is essential to know why this is happening. Once we understand the root cause, we can take steps to manage these symptoms and achieve our nutritional goals more effectively.

It's important to note that any nutritional and medical advice you receive should come from a certified healthcare professional. They can guide you on the safest and most effective ways to make changes based on your individual needs, backed by scientific evidence. 

At Embla, we have a comprehensive medical team with a wide range of expertise to provide support and guidance to those seeking medical and nutritional information.

Buddy up with a friend

Going through a journey of change can be difficult and sometimes lonely. 

When we face obstacles, it can be challenging to overcome them on our own. That's why having a partner to help us stay motivated can be beneficial. 

Buddying up with someone can help us maintain our motivation in many ways:

  • A partner holds us accountable and keeps us on track.
  • We pick up habits from people we spend a lot of time with, so being around motivated people has a positive effect on us.
  • Celebrating even small successes with friends or family reinforces our positive actions.
  • Making lifestyle changes with someone else can be more enjoyable and feel more rewarding.
  • Shared activities, like cooking meals or exercising with loved ones, make these habits more enjoyable and easier to stick with. 

Summary

The path to sustainable weight loss is not found in quick fixes or by eliminating certain foods or macronutrients from our diets.

It’s about developing healthier habits and reshaping our relationship with food and exercise. Long-term changes are very much driven by our psychology. Because of this, it’s key that we seek to understand ourselves. 

Essentially, addressing the psychology of weight loss can help us achieve significant, meaningful changes that will not only help us lose weight but also keep it off. 

References:

Gut Health Doctor (2020) Could different types of fibre have unique effects on our gut bacteria? https://www.theguthealthdoctor.com/could-different-types-of-fibre-have-unique-effects-on-our-gut-bacteria

Hall KD, Kahan S. (2018) Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. Med Clin North Am. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5764193/

Leow, S. Jackson, B. Alderson, J.A. Guelfi, K.J. Dimmock, J.A. (2018)  A Role for Exercise in Attenuating Unhealthy Food Consumption in Response to Stress. Nutrients 10, 176. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020176

Martin, S., & Strodl, E. (2023). The relationship between childhood trauma, eating behaviours, and the mediating role of metacognitive beliefs. Appetite, 188, 106975. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2023.106975

National Centre for Eating Disorders (2023) The Psychology of Dieting.https://eating-disorders.org.uk/information/the-psychology-of-dieting/

Normand E, Montero A, López-Nava G, Bautista-Castaño I. (2022) Review about Psychological Barriers to Lifestyle Modification, Changes in Diet Habits, and Health-Related Quality of Life in Bariatric Endoscopy. Nutrients. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8840117/

Stephanie Gregory(2023) How long does it take to break a habit? As the season changes, you can too. Embla https://www.joinembla.com/resources-guides/how-long-does-it-take-to-break-a-habit-as-the-season-changes-you-can-too

Rubin, R. (2002). Will the Real SMART Goals Please Stand Up? https://www.siop.org/Research-Publications/TIP/backissues/tipapr02/03rubin

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Nicol Ingram
Nicol Ingram
Health coach
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8
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