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Leveraging Your Brain to Reach a Healthier Weight

Proven strategies that work when fad diets don't.

Key points

  • $33 billion is spent on weight loss products each year, but that doesn't mean they're all effective.
  • The mind you already have and habits you learn form the foundation of lifelong weight management.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidenced-based approach to thinking and behaving your way thinner.
  • If a diet fad seems too good or whimsical, it likely is just that.

Many people resolve to lose extra pounds gained over the holidays and what seems like an endless pandemic. Forty-five million Americans go on a diet each year and spend $33 billion on weight-loss products.1 Thousands of other people enroll in gym memberships and at-home fitness programs.

What works best, especially over the longer life view, to maintain a healthy weight and body mass index (BMI)?2 Two authors (literally) weigh in on the topic.

In The Shift: 7 Powerful Mindset Changes for Lasting Weight Loss, Gary Foster, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of WW (formerly Weight Watchers), argues that science-backed thinking habits pave the way to healthy weight management.3

Dr. Foster addresses self-compassion in three components—being kind and understanding rather than self-critical; mindfulness without judgment; and recognizing imperfection as part of the humanity that occurs with us all. Self-compassion isn’t beating yourself up if you have an off day; it starts with the idea that “I’m worth taking care of” to empower yourself to make healthy choices.

The book outlines 24-character strengths, including but not limited to: perseverance, social intelligence, fairness, forgiveness, self-regulation, gratitude, humor, creativity, judgment, and perspective. Using the entire list, readers narrow to their top five and leverage them to improve wellness, starting with examples the author provides.

You already possess powerful tools to lose excess weight.
Source: Luxstorm/Pixabay

Your Mind and Habits Are Powerful Tools

The psychology world addressed weight with behavioral treatment in the late 1960s. Dr. Richard B. Stuart applied behavior analysis to ask: What triggered overeating and reinforced it? Under what conditions and how did it occur? In the 1980s, Dr. Kelly Brownell’s LEARN (lifestyle, exercise, attitudes, relationships, nutrition) approach expanded behavioral treatment and incorporated one’s thought process to improve outcomes.

At the time, Foster worked at the University of Pennsylvania in obesity research. One floor up worked Aaron T. Beck, M.D., a pioneer of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Beck’s work profoundly contributed to the fields of psychology and psychiatry, impacting millions of lives since then.

“Beck’s premise, and the foundation of CBT, was that the cause of unpleasant feelings and undesired actions was what people thought—their perceptions, the filters they used to interpret events,” writes Dr. Foster. “More than two thousand studies provided evidence that CBT helps people get better with various conditions, such as anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.” What’s more important is that studies showed people stayed better since CBT orients toward relapse prevention.

Dr. Foster quotes Dr. Beck’s daughter—Judith Beck, Ph.D.—who is president of the nonprofit Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. “When people are in distress or engage in unhelpful behavior, some of their thoughts are distorted or unhelpful… when they learn to identify, evaluate, and respond to their thinking, they generally have an improved reaction.” Modifying beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts are key to long-term change.

CBT Training to Help Manage Weight

In The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person, written by Dr. Judith Beck in 2007,4 readers gain 42 tasks and skills over six weeks, such as:

  • eat slowly, mindfully while seated
  • resist craving and learn that hunger is not a true emergency—it passes
  • identify self-defeating thoughts and write rational responses to these on cards
  • list your reasons for losing weight
  • read your response cards before meals or at least daily
  • identify common thinking errors that sabotage

The last bullet refers to an often-cited list that appears in so many psychology-based books. Common thinking errors include all-or-nothing thinking, negative or overly positive fortune-telling, emotional reasoning, mind-reading, self-deluding thinking, unhelpful rules, justification, and exaggerated thinking.

Other Habit Hacks

The two authors have evidence-based approaches to helping those who want to lose weight. What doesn’t work? Typically, fad diets, are temporary fixes but not long-lasting. Goofy products that seem too good to be true, such as slimming creams, diet powders, and teas that serve as a laxative, aren't worth your time and expense. Ninety percent of people using fad-products gain the weight back.

Habit hacks that work include sleeping well, managing mood, and identifying triggers using the mnemonic HALT (which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, or tired). Exercise helps to dissipate anxiety and bad mood, and it does help to burn calories. Many smartphone apps allow people to track exercise and intake; online recipe builders may also be helpful. Overall, the ways we learn to limit our intake—largely through our thoughts and behaviors—stand the test of time.

Copyright @ 2022 by Loriann Oberlin, MS

Also check out: "CBT Helps Your Happiness and Your Therapy"






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