The Truth About Weight Loss

The Mental Strategies You Need to Lose Weight

What do you really need to do to lose weight? The typical answer will include things like eating less and exercising more, both of which are correct. However, neither of those makes a bit of difference if you're not actually doing them, a problem more and more of us are struggling with. What stops you from eating less and exercising more? Maybe you think it's because you're too busy, tired or stressed.

Maybe you think it's because you've tried everything –- diets, gym memberships, weird workout gadgets or waiting for the planets to align correctly — and nothing seems to work.

Those are great excuses, but perhaps what really stands in your way isn't your body, your schedule or your whip-cracking boss; it's your mind.

The mental side of weight loss is the most important aspect of losing weight. Your mind is what drives all of your decisions and your choices and, if it isn't in the right place, your choices won't be either. With that in mind, what are the mental strategies you need to finally lose weight? They may not be what you think.

1. Honesty. It's amazing how easy it is to lie to ourselves. We lie about eating too much: "Oh, it's just a few handfuls of M&Ms…there can't be that many extra calories, right?" We lie about exercising: "I promise, I'll workout tomorrow. I know I said that yesterday, but I really mean it this time!" Some people take it even further, avoiding looking at themselves in the mirror, stepping on a scale or acknowledging when they have to buy bigger clothes.

Even keeping a food journal doesn't always keep us honest. I had one client who, if she ate the way she reported in her diary, wouldn't have the energy to pick up a glass of water, much less a dumbbell. It turns out that a dinner of wheat crackers, fruit, and some string cheese was also supplemented by three beers ("I didn't really count those as food,"), nachos ("I only had a few!") and some cookies ("They were on my kid's plate, so I didn't count them.").

She's not the only one. One study delving into the topic of underreporting calorie intake found that 18% of the men and 28% of the women in the study underreported their calories.

Being honest isn't just about knowing what you eat and how much exercise you're getting. It also means being honest about whether you're really ready to make a lifestyle change.

Getting Honest With Yourself

  • Decide if you're ready to change - If you're not ready, learn about how to enjoy exercise and healthy eating and simple ways to take better care of yourself. Even if you're not ready for big changes, small changes make a difference.
  • Start a Weekly Weight Loss Checklist - Each week, record your measurements, write down your goals and plan out how you'll reach them.
  • Create a Daily Check-In – Along with your weekly checklist, create a ritual where you check in with yourself to assess how you're doing. Update your fitness journal before bed or first thing in the morning and make notes of what you did well and what you need to work on.
  • Keep an Honest Food Diary – Self-monitoring is a must if you're trying to lose weight. You should measure portions whenever possible, check food labels, look up nutritional information for restaurants and track everything you eat and drink. After practicing, you'll be able to eyeball your meals without having to be as meticulous. You can keep an online diary using sites with calories counters like FitDay or FitWatch or a journal such as DietMinder or this Food Diary Print Out.
  • Hold Yourself Accountable – During your daily check in, note what you did well and what you struggled with. New behaviors take time to catch on and there may be deeper issues to work through, like emotional eating, stress and other ways you may sabotage your weight loss.

2. Forgiveness. Here's something most people won't tell you about losing weight: You will fail sometimes. That doesn't mean you'll never lose weight or that you possess a weakness of character that other people don't have. It means that you're just like the rest of us – sometimes you'll make healthy choices and sometimes you won't.

Failure is actually an essential part of success. Talk to anyone who's lost weight and they'll no doubt describe a string of failures that came before. It's those failures that teach us how to succeed.

Forgiveness is key to getting yourself back on track after a stumble. We often use our mistakes to give up (e.g., "I obviously can't follow this workout program, so why even bother?") or justify our behaviors (e.g., "I already ate too much cake, so I might as well have the rest of it."). Use your mistakes to do better next time instead of punishing yourself.

Forgiving Yourself

  • Admit it - Admitting your mistake right away can turn things around before you get too far off track. Too often, a missed workout can turn into weeks or months without exercise, making it that much harder to get back to it. Acknowledging your mistake from the beginning can help you avoid longer lapses into old behaviors.
  • Decide Where You Went Wrong – Did you pick up some fast food because you were too hungry to make it home? Or maybe you skipped your workout because you couldn't stand the thought of another boring routine. Keeping track of what triggers those lapses will show you the weak spots that leave you vulnerable.
  • Make a Plan - Once you know that you tend to eat junk food when you're starving, you can keep more snacks available so you can resist the temptation. Or, if you know your workout routine is stale and boring, you can find other workouts or activities you can look forward to.
  • Do Something Healthy Right Away – A great way to counteract guilt is to do something healthy after a lapse. Take a walk, do some yoga or chop up some vegetables for a snack. It reminds you that you're always one choice away from getting it right.

3. Trust. When you first start a weight loss program, it's hard to trust yourself. How many times have you said you'll do your workout only to skip it? How many times have you sworn you wouldn't have that extra slice of pizza only to give into temptation? Learning how to trust yourself may be one of the hardest parts of losing weight. If you know you'll sometimes fail, how can you trust yourself?

Trust is not about being perfect or guaranteeing that you'll always do the right thing. It's about knowing you'll stumble, but that you can handle it without giving up. Ask yourself how many times you've tried to lose weight. You may feel like you've failed at it, but the fact that you keep trying is a sure sign you haven't given up.

Trusting Yourself

  • Make it Easy on Yourself – When you put yourself in vulnerable situations, it's hard to make the right choices. Do everything you can to make the healthiest choice the easiest one to make. Have your workout gear ready and a plan in place so that it's easier to get started. Eat regularly throughout the day so that you won't be tempted to blow your diet. Give yourself treats sometimes so that you can enjoy the things you love without the guilt.
  • Set Realistic Goals - Part of trusting yourself is setting goals you know you can reach. Going from no workouts to 6 days a week is a goal you may not be able to reach, physically or mentally. Starting with a schedule that fits with your life and what you're capable of doing allows you to follow through, increasing your self-efficacy and sense of empowerment.
  • Reward Yourself - Rewarding your success it is another way to build confidence and trust. Whether it's finishing a week's worth of workouts, finally trying that scary fitness class or losing weight, celebrate with a night out, new workout clothes or an hour indulging in your favorite activity. Being healthy doesn't mean you can't have fun.

4. Persistence. Here's something else people don't always tell you about weight loss: You will probably doubt yourself at some point. It may be because you're not getting results, or not getting them as quickly as you'd like. It may be because you feel sore, overworked or just overwhelmed by all the decisions you have to make. Whatever the reason, you may start to wonder: Am I doing this right? Is it worth it?

The enthusiasm that carries you through the first few weeks usually fades, leaving you with the daunting task of keeping yourself going. That's where persistence comes in, staying committed to your program even if you're feeling some uncertainty.

Be More Persistent

  • Get Back to Basics - If you get too caught up in the details (e.g., "I only lost .23 pounds this week!"), getting an overall picture of how far you've come may give you a much-needed boost of confidence. Look over your fitness journal to see all the workouts you've done and all the meals you've logged. You may be surprised at all the changes you've made.
  • Determine the Problem - Do you doubt yourself because you're not seeing results? Maybe you are, but you're just not recognizing them. Perhaps you've hit a plateau or your workouts seem boring. Figure out where the doubt is coming from so you can tackle it right away.
  • Make Changes - Once you've determined the problem, figure out how you can change things. Do you need fresh workouts? Or perhaps it's time to hire a trainer to jumpstart your training.
  • Allow For Uncertainty - The weight loss process isn't always black and white. It may take weeks for your body to respond to what you're doing, so uncertainty is something we all have to live with. Allow for that, knowing that your body will give you clues for when you need to change something.


Briefel, R.; Sempose, C.; McDowell, M.; et al. Dietary Methods Research in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey: Underreporting of Energy Intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997 Apr;65(4 Suppl):1203S-1209S.

Cochrane, G. Role for a Sense of Self-Worth in Weight-Loss Treatments: Helping Patients Develop Self-Efficacy. Can Fam Physician. 2008 Apr;54(4):543-7.

Latner, JD. Self-Help in the Long Term Treatment of Obesity. Obes Rev. 2001 May;2(2):87-97.

Continue Reading