Think Thin -- for Life

5 Ways to Put Your Mind to Work and Reach Your Weight Loss Goals

By John Foreyt, PhD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Know thyself.

That ancient bit of wisdom stands the test of time, and it's particularly relevant for people who want to lose weight and keep it off -- without crash diets, special foods, or punishing self-denial.

Being successful at weight management is a question of mind over matter: You start by changing the way you think and act. It's a lot easier than it sounds, and there are five basic strategies to accomplish the goal.

Self-monitoring -- Knowledge Is Power

First and most important is self-monitoring, which means increasing self-awareness. In other words, if you're really going to change the way you eat and keep fit, you have to know what you're eating and how active you are. The first step is to keep a food diary -- not forever, just a few days or weeks. Write down what you eat, then look up the calories, write down the number of minutes you're active every day, then gradually make changes that are necessary.

For example, if you discover that you're eating more than you would like, think about why, and start evaluating your mood state when you're eating. When I work with patients in the clinic, I have found that people generally have no problem with overeating in the morning, and most often not in the afternoon. For most people who struggle with their weight, night eating is the culprit, so certainly pay attention to your mood states when you're eating during the day, but pay most attention to the evening. We find that the No. 1 cause of people getting into trouble is emotional eating: People eat in response to stress, tension, anxiety, depression, loneliness, anger, boredom -- all negative mood states.

You can get a handle on this when you're eating by asking yourself "How am I feeling?" and write it down.

Stimulus Control -- Breaking Down the Barriers to Healthy Eating

Once you've identified the barriers to weight management -- stress, lack of regular exercise, time constraints, etc. -- you can figure out a plan to break down or get around those barriers. For example, perhaps you could exercise at lunchtime by taking a brisk walk. In our society, everybody is too gosh darn busy to exercise, so to change the mindset we talk about starting with five or 10 minutes of purposeful activity: Stand up, shut your TV off, put your computer on standby, and just go walk for 5 or 10 minutes, and gradually build from there. You just want to make small changes over time, gradually building up to 30 to 60 minutes a day.

Setting Realistic Goals ('Cognitive Restructuring')

Although every person is different, you can realistically expect to lose about 10% of your body weight, so a 200-pound person can reasonably expect to lose about 20 pounds over six months and maintain the lower weight.

How do you get there? With small steps. What we typically do with patients is get them to record what they're eating for a week, find out the average calories for a day, and then follow the "100-100" plan: just cut 100 calories and add 100 calorie-burning units of activity (about a 20 minute walk) a day. Take the 100 calories from hidden fat -- that means a little less dressing on your salad or a little less butter or margarine on your bread; you'll never miss it. That 200 calorie daily deficit, if you stick with it, will translate into about a 20 pound weight loss in a year.

"Being successful at weight management is a question of mind over matter: You start by changing the way you think and act."

I also remind patients to get a life. Some people put their life on hold because of their weight -- they don't go to a party or neglect doing something because they think they're too fat, and that's really unhealthy. I ask my patients to write positive statements about themselves, such as "I'm a great person, I'm doing what I can, I'm doing a little bit of exercise each day, I'm getting up and walking early in the morning for 15 minutes," and have them repeat that 3 to 5 times a day. It really helps people start changing the way they think about themselves. I also ask them the meaning of life, which has nothing to do with what people weigh, but everything to do with loving other people and helping other people. What's really important is your family, your friends, your colleagues, and getting on with living.

Stress Management -- Chilling Out to Slim Down

Stress is a major predictor of relapse or weight regain, so we ask our patients to try to identify major stresses in their life and deal with them either directly or indirectly. What does that mean? Well, if your boss makes your life a living hell and you can't get another job, you can still use proven stress reduction techniques, such as breathing exercises, repeating simple words or phrases as a "mantra," or simple physical activity such as a brisk walk to warm the blood and cool the head.

Social Support -- In Unity There Is Strength

It always helps to share goals with family or friends. If you've got a family or close friends who will share healthy meals, take walks together, and generally support you in your goals of weight management, terrific.

But what if you don't have a support network? I had one patient whose husband kept plying her with donuts and other fattening foods when he knew she was trying to lose weight (she got rid of the weight and him, by the way). I ask my patients who can't get family support to take a class in something, join a club, or in some other meaningful way to get involved with other people, building good relationships and finding a good support system.

Small Changes, Big Results

When you put all of these strategies together, you can see that they're aimed at changing the way you think about yourself. You begin to think, "I can do this, I can be in charge of my life, I can make small steps over time" and then you can focus on health and well-being.

It works. Try it. You have nothing to lose but weight, and a world of self-esteem to gain.

Originally published Jan. 30, 2004
Medically updated Dec. 9, 2004

John P. Foreyt, PhD, is a professor in the department of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. A widely respected weight-loss scientist, he has coordinated studies on the physical and behavioral aspects of weight loss and has authored the books Living Without Dieting and The Xenical Advantage.

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