We all know the weight control mantra of calories in, minus calories out, equals weight gain or loss. And, we all understand that exercise is the best tonic for improving our caloric balance.
New research adds a small, albeit critical component to the weight control equation – journaling to maintain self-worth.
A study published in Psychological Science, found that women who wrote about their most important values, like close relationships, music, or religion, lost more weight over the next few months than women who did not have that experience.
“We have this need to feel self-integrity,” said Christine Logel, who cowrote the new study with Geoffrey L. Cohen. Logan believes the importance of self-worth is essential for successful lifestyle modifications.
For example, when something threatens your sense that you’re a good person, like failing a test or having a fight with a friend, “We can buffer that self-integrity by reminding ourselves how much we love our children,” she said .
In the current study, the researchers recruited 45 female undergraduates who had a body mass index of 23 or higher. A body mass index of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal weight.
Study participants were reflective of the national population with 58 percent of thewomen overweight or obese.
Each woman was weighed, and was then given a list of important values, like creativity, politics, music, and relationships with friends and family members. Each woman ranked the values in order of how important they were to her.
Then half the women were told to write for 15 minutes about the value that was most important to her. The other half, a control group, were told to write about why a value far down on their list might be important to someone else.
The women came back between one and four months later to be weighed again. Women who had written about an important value lost an average of 3.41 pounds, while women in the control group gained an average of 2.76 pounds, a pattern of weight gain that is typical for undergraduates.
“How we feel about ourselves can have a big effect,” Logel said. “We think it sort of kicks off a recursive process.”
Maybe when one of the women who wrote about an important value went home that night, she felt good about herself and didn’t eat to make herself feel better. Then the next day snacking wasn’t as much of a habit, so she skipped it. Over a few months, that could make a real difference in her life.
Reminding ourselves of values is a critical step toward working through times when we feel a threat to our integrity.
Many studies have found that even briefly thinking about values can have a big effect.
For example, Cohen used the same technique on minority seventh-graders who were underperforming relative to their white peers. Those who did the exercise were still performing better years later.
Researchers are unsure if journaling can help everyone to lose weight as more study is needed.
In fact, the women in the study didn’t know that writing about values was supposed to help them live better (although they may have wondered why this psychology study required a weigh-in).
“My dream, and my research goal, is to get this to the point where people can do it deliberately to benefit themselves,” Logel said.
In the meantime, she carries around a keychain that reminds her of a value that she considers to be important. And everyone else can do that, too.
“There’s certainly no harm in taking time to reflect on important values and working activities you value into your daily life,” Logel said.