The holidays are fast approaching, and many women still find themselves overweight. As we all know, trying to lose weight is no fun at all. It’s just too hard.
A Connecticut husband and wife have definite ideas about how to change that. Dr Kenneth Schwarz, a psychologist, and Julie North Schwarz, a writer in the field of women’s weight issues, are helping women have an easier time losing weight. Their advice and encouragement come from the psychological side of dieting and weight loss, the side that has the most power to bring about weight-loss success.
The message is that losing weight is never just about food. Any woman with a weight problem knows this in her heart of hearts. Being a success at losing weight requires much more than a food plan. What matters most is preparation, thought, planning, and commitment to making behavior changes that last.
The old formula, diet + exercise = weight loss, is clearly not working. On any given day 45% of women are dieting, but still 62% of women from 20 to 74 are overweight. Some experts in the field of weight loss say diets don’t work, but Dr. Schwarz believes it is not the actual diet that doesn’t work. More often than not, it is the woman herself who can’t work the diet very well.
Why do so many women fail at losing weight? Dr. Schwarz says it is because their firmly established habits and usual ways of thinking and feeling are still operating. You can’t drag along your old ways of doing things and expect a new result. If you’ve been a failure at losing weight in the past, and you truly want to succeed, you need to make significant changes.
Losing weight permanently always means going through a process of personal change. The psychological research on personal change shows that people never accomplish behavior changes instantly. Giving up a behavior such as overeating means a woman needs to self-reflect, prepare, plan carefully, create ways to overcome obstacles, and learn how to accept slips and still be able to move forward. Doing these things may sound hard, but when a woman sets her mind to it, it isn’t hard. It’s much, much easier than trying to diet without doing this basic change work.
So, let’s say you are a woman who really wants to lose weight. And let’s say you want to keep it off for good so you don’t need to go through the losing-gaining-losing-gaining cycle over and over again. How do you do it?
According to James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente, experts in how people change unwanted behaviors, you can’t simply expect yourself to snap into action and be successful. You need to prepare for the actions you will take, and anticipate the challenges these actions will bring. In other words, if you just jump into the next diet without getting yourself ready to do it, you will most likely fail.
One of the most important ways to prepare is to set goals. Setting reachable goals for yourself takes you from merely wishing to lose weight, to being committed to losing weight. Research on goal-setting shows there are different kinds of goals you need to set. Of course, there is the long-term goal, “I want to lose 30 pounds.” Or, “I want to be a size 6.” But there are also important short-term goals, such as “Tomorrow I will start thinking about which diet would fit me best.” Or, “This week I will note down three things each day that are interfering with my decision to lose weight.” Or, “ I will research ways that people use to keep up their motivation.”
Another important method of preparing yourself to lose weight is to plan. Careful planning for the steps you will take makes goals reachable, whether they are short-term or long-term goals. Peter Gollwitzer of New York University has shown that setting a goal is important, but having a plan to implement that goal is essential. Otherwise, the goal remains just an intention, and can’t be put into action. Plans to get to your goal can be written or thought, but they need to have as their basis “If this happens, then I will do that.” Or, “When this obstacle presents itself, I will overcome it by doing such and such.” Plans that include details like these are a clear roadmap to goal, and help people feel much more capable of getting there.
So, first of all, a woman who wants to lose weight needs to be prepared. Then she needs to be able to stick to her weight-loss plan, which calls for ongoing motivation. Exactly how do you keep up your motivation when the weight-loss process takes time? The best way is to establish a series of small goals along the way to the big weight-loss goal. Each small goal achieved is a mini-success. Lots of small successes add up and greatly strengthen motivation and commitment.
Here’s a perfect example of a small goal that has a lot of power: Getting right back on your food plan after you fall off. Research by G. Alan Marlatt at the University of Washington shows the best way to recover from a lapse in behavior is to think of it as caused by something outside yourself. Marlatt cautions that if your attitude toward a cheat is that it’s due to some unfixable personality characteristic, it will be much harder to face it and move on. You might say to yourself, “See, I knew I didn’t have it in me”, or “I’m much too unreliable”, or “I’m a total failure.” However, if you attribute the cause of the cheat to the situation you were in at the time, you can forgive yourself much more easily. The result is that you can figure out what went wrong in the situation so it won’t happen again. Then you are very likely to get right back to your regimen.
Dr. Schwarz, who has counseled many women over the years in his private practice says, “One of the most serious problems women have with regard to weight control is that they don’t know how to keep the weight off once they’ve lost it. Gaining back weight can be heartbreaking for a woman who has achieved a hard-won weight loss. That’s when we work together on how to make such an important change stay in place.”
The research figures show that only about twenty percent of people who lose weight will actually keep it off. That means that eighty percent of people who reach a weight-loss goal will not be able to maintain the weight loss. It is all too common for people to regain the weight they’ve lost, and sometimes gain back even more than they’ve lost.
The central them of weight-loss maintenance: There is still work to be done. It’s not simply over because you got to that magic number on the scale. You need to keep up with all the behavioral-change aids and supports you used during the active losing stage. You need to keep investigating your habits, your thoughts, and your feelings. You need to stay aware of your environment. You still need to enlist support from significant people around you. You need to keep in mind that lapses are a natural part of life from which you can move on. Maintaining is a process, just like losing the weight was.
“Losing weight permanently is very achievable,” says Dr. Schwarz. “But just going on another diet won’t do the trick. Don’t do it the hard way, by constantly having to fight against yourself. Pave the way by preparing, planning, trying things out, learning as you go, and allowing for whatever time it takes to make real personal change. That’s the way to make losing weight and keeping it off much easier.”
The Schwarzes publish a daily blog at http://blog.mariaslastdiet.com.
Their new three-volume book set, Psych Your Diet: A Daily Dose, is due out in December.
Kenneth Schwarz PhD is a psychologist practicing in Connecticut, where he is on the allied health staff at Sharon Hospital. Julie North Schwarz is a writer in the field of women’s weight issues. They are authors of the novel Breaking Up With Food: Maria's Last Diet, and Diet Tuffy: The Online System for Diet Mastery.