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Three Little-Known Psychological Reasons Why You Can’t Lose Weight
If you’re having trouble losing weight here’s something to consider. Your problem may have as much to do with what’s going on inside your head as in your mouth. Here are three little-known psychological reasons why reaching your weight loss goals might be eluding you.
Any time you frame your weight-control challenges in moral terms, you are at risk of a willpower-sapping psychological glitch in your thinking called moral licensing. If you have ever said to yourself: ‘I was “good” to spend thirty minutes on the treadmill today, I deserve to be a bit “bad” and have a slice of cake for lunch,’ then you’ve experienced moral licensing first hand.
Can you see the problem? When we moralize over our choices, we tend to offset the “good” with the “bad” in our morality ledger and risk taking our eyes off our actual weight-loss objective.
The antidote for this kind of screwy thinking is to think of your choices, not in moral terms (as “good” or “bad”) but, rather as either goal-supporting or goal-undermining. Will the choice that I’m about to make move me towards or away from my weight loss goal? When you think about your decisions in this way, it’s clearer to see that, while the time you spend exercising is a crucial stepping stone towards achieving your goal, acquiring healthy eating habits is an independent (and important) step.
Another crucial time in our path to a trimmer, healthier self occurs when we actually begin to see results. Making progress towards our weight loss goal can satisfy our sensible self to the point where we start paying more attention to our impulsive self and, as a result, start eating more than is helpful. This psychological trap is called goal liberation.
Celebrating our success in the wrong way can hinder our chances of even greater success. It’s counterintuitive I know but, according to the research, undoubtedly true. For example, in a study carried out at Yale University, highlighting a dieter’s progress made it far more likely that when offered the choice between a chocolate bar or an apple the successful dieters would opt for the candy.
To avoid the pitfalls of goal liberation we need to strike a balance. Take time to reward yourself in a way that’s meaningful to you but not out of step with your higher level weight-loss goals. You might, for example, spend an afternoon hiking or an evening indulging in another hobby.
The Health Halo
In my work as a medical doctor and motivational speaker I commonly meet people who, as they try to diet, make a third psychological mistake called the health halo. For example, researchers at Northwestern University have demonstrated that tossing a little salad onto the plate next to a burger leads people to estimate that the entire meal has fewer calories than the burger alone. That is to say, the burger plus a salad has less calories than the burger served on its own. Curiously, this error of judgment is stronger among dieters than non-dieters.
This illusion of “negative” calories is one example of the health halo, a mental quirk that appears whenever an indulgent food item is paired with a healthy food item. Sure you just chomped through a twenty inch, all toppings pizza…but let’s not forget the diet coke. Get the idea?
When at risk of seeing your food through a health halo, look for the most concrete measure of what you’re about to consume. Many restaurants list the nutritional information of their menu online. You can use this information to tarnish the halo and move yet another step closer to your goals.
Achieving Your Weight Loss Goals
Now that you know about these psychological obstacles to successful dieting, look for evidence of them in your daily life. And, when you catch yourself thinking in these unhelpful ways, use the strategies above to stay on track and exceed your weight-loss goals.