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Your Brain Might Sabotage Your Weight Loss Efforts

Your Brain Might Sabotage Your Weight Loss EffortsEveryone knows weight loss is challenging. But you might not be aware of just how unsuccessful the task can be.

According to the 2011 Food & Health Survey, 77 percent of Americans were trying to lose weight or were avoiding weight gain. Simultaneously, 70 percent of the population was deemed overweight.

Many Americans recognize the dire straits of the obesity epidemic. As a result, the sales of weight loss products has grown by 11 percent each year for the last five years. By the end of 2014, experts anticipate sales will surpass $586 billion.

Why is this happening?

If only 25 percent of dieters are succeeding on their weight loss journey, what has happened to the other 75 percent? Are they lazy? Do they give up too quickly?

More likely than not, these individuals are suffering psychological setbacks. Their brain is coming between them and their weight loss goals.

We all know there are things like genetics and biological issues that can make weight loss challenging. But we all agree that each individual dieter is responsible for his or her daily decisions.

Why, then, do so many of us forsake those weight loss goals and fall back into old habits?

Dr. Howard Rankin says, “What drives our behavior is not logic but brain biochemistry … We are emotional beings with the ability to rationalize — not rational beings with emotions. The more primitive, emotional brain generally has precedence over the newer, more rational brain.”

Additionally, it’s believed that resolve comes and goes. We might be enthusiastic about our weight loss journey one moment and then eat a piece of chocolate cake the next. If our mood, state of consciousness, or context changes, our resolve can change too.

We can persuade ourselves to do almost anything we want to do, but trying to trick our brain into doing something it isn’t too jazzed about is another matter entirely.

There are several psychological exercises that can be implemented to make weight loss more successful.

  • Consider an alternative form of motivation. Many people state their weight loss goals in a positive light: I want to be healthier. I want to enjoy playing baseball with my grandson. In reality, we often are more worried about what will happen if we don’t make changes.Use that reverse mindset as a motivation. If you want to lose weight because you are afraid of the adverse health conditions that are associate with obesity, focus on what would happen if you don’t lose weight.
  • Exercise self-control. Think of self-control like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Each time you resist temptation, it is like you’re treating your self-control to a sweaty, excruciatingly painful workout at the gym.
  • Create a support system. You are the only one who can make change happen. However, emotional support is one of the most influential aspects of change. Surround yourself with positive, uplifting people. Create a support system of family and friends who will encourage you on your journey. (Take note: you may need to ask people for their support. They won’t automatically assume you want their involvement.) Likewise, nix anyone who threatens to hold you back.
  • Curb depressionScientists have found there is a direct correlation between obesity and depression. Unfortunately, these characteristics reinforce each other: you may overeat because you are depressed and you may be depressed because you are obese. Additionally, weight-loss hopefuls often cut essential food groups from their diet. This can lead to vitamin deficiencies, which often lead to depression. A nutritional expert said, “Vitamin B12 is a key player in the nervous system, so it has a large role in regulating mood. Studies show that people who get more B12 have less risk for depression and a more positive outlook in general.”Talk with your doctor about the possibility of deficiency-induced depression. Supplementation might be needed to keep your vitamin levels — and mental state — in check.
  • Understand the underlying issues. Bad habits are hard to break but easy to recognize. Once you’ve identified those negative lifestyle choices that are holding you back, investigate what is really causing them. If you can understand the situations, emotions and cues that trigger unwanted behaviors, you can work to curb them.
  • Don’t be embarrassed. Many dieters don’t exercise as much as they should because they are afraid of the gym. Granted, the environment is intimidating — all those tan, gorgeous 20-somethings who don’t really need the gym are hogging all the good machines. And those mirrors! Fortunately, there are several ways to diminish the anxiety associated with the gym. You could hire a personal trainer. This ensures you are doing the exercises properly. You won’t have to worry about anyone mocking your poor form or noting how funny you look. A professional ensures you are doing everything exactly the way it should be done.An alternative is to avoid the gym altogether. There is no rule that says exercises can be accomplished only inside a gym. Go walk through the park, ride your bike, hike through the hills, or row a canoe on the lake. Even following along with an exercise video in the comfort of your own home is better than nothing.
  • Fight your brain. If you want to lose weight, don’t let your brain hold you back. Confront the psychological issues that are making the process more challenging than it should be.

What psychological issues make your weight loss journey less fruitful than you’d like it to be?


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Global Weight Loss and Gain Market. (2009, June). Global Market for Weight Loss Worth US$586.3 Billion by 2014. Retrieved from$726-billion-by-2014.asp

Matthews, J. (2011, August 31). 2011 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Safety, Nutrition and Health. Retrieved from

Your Brain Might Sabotage Your Weight Loss Efforts

Jessica Velasco

Jessica earned a degree in Child and Family Services at Iowa State University. She took a particular interest in the psychology courses recommended for her major. Since graduating, Jessica has enjoyed sharing all her freshly acquired knowledge with online readers.

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APA Reference
Velasco, J. (2018). Your Brain Might Sabotage Your Weight Loss Efforts. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 8 Nov 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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