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The Connection between Building Better Self-Control Skills and Weight Loss

ABSTRACT

Weight loss remains both a necessary condition and a challenging experience for many people who struggle to lose weight and keep it off, regardless of how it may deleteriously affect their health. A literature review indicates a strong connection between successful weight loss efforts and improvement in cognitive behavioral skills. As regards medical intervention to achieve weight loss, research is clear that cognitive behavior change is required to keep the weight off and improve outcomes.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF WEIGHT

The potential for weight and lifestyle improvements through weight loss often seem out of reach for patients, even with bariatric surgery, because their cognitive skills and awareness around self-control are poorly developed. As psychologists, we know that psychological factors affect how we use food. We regularly see clients approaching eating as a necessary element of our survival, a demonstration of self-control, or as a soothing mechanism in response to stress.

Whether through calorie restriction, increased exercise, or medical/surgical intervention, the potential for weight regain remains high, unless the patient/client has access to tools that will help them change their behaviors and lifestyle. “A key aspect of tackling obesity is determining the psychological factors that make some individuals more resilient to relapse.”

So what do we know about brains and weight loss? Research from just a few years ago identified higher-level brain functions with a significant role in losing weight. “In a study among 24 participants at a weight-loss clinic, those who achieved greatest success in terms of weight loss demonstrated more activity in the brain regions of the lateral prefrontal cortex associated with self-control.” And certainly we know that self-control allows people to manage their thoughts and feelings, and behave in ways that are more purposeful. Without self-control, goal-focused behavior change is not likely to occur because the mental ‘guard rails’ are not well defined or tolerated.

Recognizing the mind-weight connection is of vital importance for anyone working with clients/patients who want – or need –  to lose weight. When regular psychological sessions are out of reach for any client or patient, other options may serve to create cognitive change that serves them in staying on track to reach weight loss goals. Focus on building new habits and skills around managing stress, learning how to avoid eating over emotion, tamping down negative self-talk around body image and self-image, and learning to hold themselves accountable, are all elements of a successful growth arc for anyone who wants to achieve and sustain weight loss.

To support cognitive behavior change, the WALT Method is consistent with recommendations for weight loss made by the US Preventative Task Force, the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, and the Obesity Society, and includes:

  • Longer-term duration (1 year membership; 6 month re-assess; 12 weeks of focused modules)
  • High-Intensity (1-2 hours per week)
  • Multi-component/Comprehensive
  • Focused on behavioral change
  • Setting clear goals
  • Regular self-monitoring
  • Strategies for maintaining lifestyle changes to sustain weight loss