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Three ways behavioural psychology might help you lose weight

A person tracking their healthy meal using a notebook.
Tracking what you eat is one method proven to work. Okrasiuk/ Shutterstock

There’s no shortage of weight loss programmes out there to choose from, each of which claim to have the key to shedding pounds. One of the latest popular weight loss programmes out there is Noom, which claims that behavioural psychology is the key to helping people lose weight for good – including those who haven’t had success in the past.

Behavioural psychology aims to understand why we behave the way we do and analyse patterns in our actions and behaviours. Using it to aid weight loss means understanding the many factors that influence weight gain, such as easy access to unhealthy foods. This can help us make changes to prevent this from happening.

Although one study has looked at Noom’s effectiveness when it comes to weight loss, it’s still difficult to say whether it’s more successful than other similar programmes in aiding weight loss. But we do know from a wide body of research that many behavioural psychology techniques can be used to help people successfully lose weight.

1. Goal setting

Many weight loss programmes start by asking people to set a goal. And research indeed shows that creating this “intention” actually motivates you to change your behaviour.

And this is true no matter if your goal is to lose a certain amount of weight, eat healthier or to exercise more. But since physical activity on its own is unlikely to cause a significant amount of weight loss, a combination of goals may be most effective in keeping people motivated and helping them reach their goals.

But how many goals should a person set? One study found that frequent goal setting means that you’re more likely to implement changes, which ultimately means you’re more likely to lose weight. However, there’s no concrete evidence of the exact number of goals to be set.

Woman performing lunges while holding dumbbells.
A combination of goals may keep you motivated and help you lose weight. LightField Studios/ Shutterstock

Previously it was thought that goals had to be specific – for example, aiming to lose one pound a week until you’ve lost twenty pounds altogether. But more recent research suggests this may not true – with data showing goal setting is effective even if the goals are vaguely defined (such as aiming to be more active, rather than aiming to run for ten minutes everyday).

The jury is also still out on whether goals should be large or small. But one review that looked at goal setting for behaviour change concluded that goal setting was effective when goals were challenging, set publicly, and was a group goal. While only 6% of the studies in this review were about weight loss specifically, other research has found that people who have large goals (such as losing 20kg in three months) lose more weight than those with smaller goals (such as losing 5kg in the same time frame). The same has been found for goals relating to physical activity – showing how important setting goals is.

2. Self-monitoring

Measuring your weight and what you eat – known as “self-monitoring” – is one of the most effective strategies from the field of behavioural psychology for weight loss. It’s also included in most weight management programmes. Self-monitoring works by making you more aware of what you’re eating and drinking, and what is happening to your weight. In turn, this can help you avoid overeating indulgent, unhealthy foods.

People that are successful at losing weight – and keeping it off – weigh themselves regularly. Research shows weighing yourself at least once per week leads to the greatest success – with one study even suggesting weighing daily.

Recording what you eat takes more time then weighing yourself, but it’s as important and is proven to work.

The trick here is finding an easy way to do this so that you can sustain it. While filling out food diaries works, people can often feel like they don’t have time or are too tired at the end of the day to do so. A compromise could be to record what you eat when you first begin trying to lose weight, then weigh yourself to keep on target. If your weight goes back up, go back to recording what you eat.

There are concerns that tracking weight and diet – particularly with weight – can create obsessiveness and lead to eating disorders. However, other research has shown self-monitoring has no bad effects. Overall, self-monitoring may not work for some people, but is proven to be helpful for many.

3. Social support

The third strategy is to get feedback and support from friends, family, or supervised programmes. The reason social support helps is because it creates a sense of accountability.

Research has shown that people who attend weight loss programmes with a friend or family member are more likely to stick with it and lose more weight. There appears to be no particular person that’s better for motivation – the important thing is that supporters are engaged.

Since most weight loss programmes that use these strategies from behavioural psychology work, the key is to find a programme that you like and stick to it. If a programme or app isn’t your thing, then set a goal, measure your progress, and ask someone in your social circle to help.

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