The Psychology of Weight Loss: Take Control of Your Weight

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Do you want to learn about the psychology of weight loss? What are the key psychological factors that determine weight loss success?

Weight loss advice tends to focus on the mechanics of weight loss (e.g., counting calories and exercising). However, weight loss is ultimately all about changing your behavior to achieve a desired goal, and behavior change is in the realm of psychology. 

In this article, we’ll talk about the psychological side of weight loss. Specifically, we’ll discuss why motivation isn’t that important when it comes to losing weight, how to form weight loss habits you can stick to, and what to watch out for when embarking on a weight loss journey. 

What Does It Take to Lose Weight?

People blame various factors for their difficulties with losing weight, such as a sedentary lifestyle, insufficient motivation to stick to a healthy routine, low metabolism, or “fat genes.” However, the psychology of weight loss is much more complicated. 

This story about financial traders on Wall Street can help put the struggle with weight loss into perspective. A novice asks a guru, “How do you make money in the market?” 

The guru responds, “It’s simple: buy low, sell high.” 

The beginner replies, “How can I learn to do that?”

The guru responds, “Ah—that takes a lifetime.”

Simple doesn’t mean easy.

How do you lose weight easily? It’s simple. Eat fewer calories than you’re burning each day. But simple doesn’t mean easy.

What weight loss really requires is:

  • A fixation on the goal you want to achieve
  • An understanding of what’s required to achieve the goal
  • Developing a rational plan to meet your goal
  • Carrying out the plan
  • Willpower and a high tolerance for pain

This is what’s needed in any of life’s hurdles, and this is precisely what losing weight takes.


You wouldn’t even attempt weight loss if you didn’t have the motivation to do it. However, the initial motivation will wane quickly once you actually begin your weight loss efforts. This is because motivation comes in waves. It ebbs and flows on large and small timescales. Something that feels like no big deal when you’re surfing the motivation wave can become insurmountable when you’re wallowing in the trough. Motivation can vary:

  • Daily—Willpower is known to be highest in the morning.
  • Seasonally—Weight Watchers has consistent peaks and troughs in their signups throughout the year (peaks in January and after Labor Day; troughs in November and December in the lead-up to food-saturated holidays).
  • Depending on the circumstances—If you eat lunch at 1 pm, you’ll be more tempted by a pizza at 12:30 than at 1:30.

Furthermore, competing motivations can pull us in opposite directions. You may want to reduce the sugar in your diet, but you may also really want that chocolate chip cookie.

Finally, motivation can be opaque: Often we don’t have a clear understanding of our own motivations. This means that unconscious motivations can rise up out of nowhere and sabotage our efforts. 

So, as far as the psychology of weight loss is concerned, motivation alone isn’t sufficient to achieve lasting weight loss.

Habit Formation 

Once your motivation is in order, the next step is to set up habits that are conducive to weight loss. Here, things are not as simple either. There are two things you need to keep in mind when selecting your weight loss habits:

Idiosyncratic Habits

The habits you are more likely to stick to are influenced by your genetic make-up, predispositions, and natural talents. To ensure success, you must adopt the habits that fit your natural personality, not the ones that friends, family, or society deem best. For example, your friend lost weight by working out at a gym. But you hate crowds, so taking daily walks or hiking works better for you.

The Difficulty Level

The habits or behaviors you select should be of manageable difficulty. In other words, they should be easy enough for you to stick to them in the long term. If the behavior is too difficult, it won’t last, no matter how high your motivation is. This principle can be illustrated with the Action Line graph.

The Action Line is a curve marking the threshold at which an action will be performed.

In this graph, the blue star is a behavior that’s very easy to do and for which you have a moderate level of motivation. It sits far above the action line, so when you’re exposed to the prompt you’ll have no problems doing this behavior. 

The green star is a behavior that’s much more difficult. Though you have almost as much motivation as for the blue star behavior, the high level of difficulty means that even with a well-designed prompt you won’t get above the Action Line and manage to do the behavior.

When designing your weight loss plan, you need to ask yourself whether the individual actions within your plan (e.g. doing an hour of cardio first thing in the morning) are above the Action Line. 

If a behavior is currently below the Action Line, how can you lift it above the curve? You can target any of M (Motivation), A (Action), or P (Prompt). If motivation isn’t going to change, target A or P.

Motion Versus Action

One sneaky psychological trap many people get into when deciding to embark on a weight loss journey is getting stuck in the planning mode. They research the latest diet trends, seek out the best weight loss apps, or look for gyms with the best equipment. They rationalize planning as their desire to determine the perfect behaviors for change, but a perfect system isn’t what creates results. Repetition is. Notice the difference between the two processes and the end result of each.

  • Reading blogs about weight loss and diet trends generates information about eating healthy.
  • Eating a salad for lunch three times a week generates a habit of eating more healthy foods.

You can plan endlessly and never get anywhere. The only way to get results is by beginning the desired behavior, whether it’s perfectly planned or not.

Final Words

There’s more to losing weight than cutting calories. The psychology of weight loss is complicated, but science is paving the way to ever greater understanding.

If you want to learn about the psychology of weight loss, here are a few books that can help you make long-term changes for lasting results: 

The Hacker’s Diet

The Hacker’s Diet was written by John Walker, founder of the software company Autodesk. This is an engineer’s approach to weight loss, described in terms of control systems, feedback loops, measurement noise reduction, and practical problem-solving.

Tiny Habits

Have you ever tried to introduce a new habit (or kick an old one) and flopped? In Tiny Habits, Stanford behavioral scientist BJ Fogg diagnoses why you failed and shows you how to succeed next time. The Tiny Habits method is judgment-free and science-based, and it has resulted in success for thousands of people around the world.

Atomic Habits 

Do you struggle with bad habits? Do you try to create good habits that will bring positive changes to your life, but have trouble making them stick? In Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that adopting the right habits will drastically improve your life—but to do so, you must understand how habits work and how you can change yours.

The Psychology of Weight Loss: Take Control of Your Weight

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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