For years our approach to weight loss has been to eat less and move more. The approach may have taken on different names like Atkins, South-Beach, or The Zone, which all have their novelties, but the bottom line is very similar. While each of these programs offers a successful weight loss platform for many individuals, research into the long-term outcomes of dieters finds that after a few years the vast majority of dieters who follow these regimens regain the weight, or gain even more weight.

Why are there so many people who fail at dieting even when they are successful in other areas of life? What is the secret to those who manage to defy the odds, and keep the weight off?

First, it must be understood that describing overweight and obesity (O&O) simply as the product of too much caloric intake plus too little caloric expenditure, is not accurate. While there is some utility to this formula, O&O is now recognized in the scientific literature as the result of deviations from the norm in many complex biological functions.

Next, it follows that tackling O&O is also not a simple equation, but is rather a complex process that addresses every individual at the biological level. Furthermore, since weight management is an emotionally charged subject, successful weight loss programs must include strategies to maneuver through complex psychological processes.

In fact, when we analyze why diets fail, we find that emotional and psychological factors are many times at the root of the failure. For instance, if the motivation to lose weight is simply due to dissatisfaction with personal appearance, as opposed to being motivated by health or idealistic reasons, then the diet is almost doomed to fail from the start.

Why is this type of motivation self-destructive? Interestingly, there are many common dieting behaviors in those dieters who are motivated by dissatisfaction with appearance. Their choices regarding food variety and amount often become overly restrictive. Choice restriction is often accompanied by thought restriction, which means forcing oneself to avoid thoughts about certain foods and food venues. Interestingly, this in itself can lead to food cravings.

Furthermore, these dieters are more likely to analyze their dietary performance with dichotomous (all-or-nothing) thinking, using statements like “today was a good/bad day for my diet,” or “I’m on/off the diet.” It seems that the combination of restrictive choices and food cravings plus dichotomous thinking leads to binge eating, loss of self-efficacy (the trust in one’s ability to succeed) and ultimately dropping the diet.

To summarize, the self-destructive diet pattern starts with motivation not driven by health or ideals, but usually dissatisfaction with appearance. Restrictive eating and thoughts promote cravings. Perceived failures are analyzed with all-or-nothing thinking, which opens the door to bingeing, loss of confidence, and diet termination.

This is a major point! We’re saying that motivation and attitudes are more important for weight management than which weight loss program you choose!

Now that the formula is clearer, let us examine opportunities for success. First, those engaging in weight loss need to trust in their ability to succeed. Even after so many failures, they must understand that in many instances their dieting was doomed to fail from the beginning, independent of their actions.

Next, one must consider that loss of control is part of the process. Our world is filled with so many gastronomic delights, it’s almost impossible not to lose oneself occasionally. Therefore, setting reasonable goals to improve control is appropriate, especially with the use of mindfulness and relaxation techniques.

Moving on, emphasizing success, and having self-mercy will discourage all-or-nothing thoughts, and encourage a deeper, more objective thought process. Finally, supporting positive attitudes towards personal appearance will shift weight-loss motivation away from vanity dieting, and towards health and ideal driven weight management. This is the intention that will spark interest in healthy eating, and motivate long-term lifestyle changes.

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