Why is it so hard to lose weight? Many people around the country struggle to lose weight, and often even if people do manage to lose weight, 90% of them gain that weight back.1 According to self-determination theory, people can only be successful in their weight loss endeavors (both in initiation of weight loss and the maintenance thereafter) if they are autonomously motivated to do so.4 In other words, for a person to successfully change their lifestyle, it must be their choice, not the choice of someone else who is pressuring them. Additionally, environments that support this autonomous mindset are critical for successful weight loss and maintenance. Manipulation and control will never intrinsically motivate a person to change — they must want to change for themselves.
After reading this, many people’s response would likely be, “Of course I want to make a change to become healthier!” But when probed further, people may be reluctant to give up their less healthy habits. Not only must a person be intrinsically motivated to take control of their health, they must want to improve their health more than they want to hold onto their old habits.
However, human physiology could help explain why our unhealthy habits are so hard to let go of. The body goes through many physiological changes in response to weight loss. Leptin, the hormone that makes the body feel full, plummets during weight loss, which makes people feel hungrier than they did before they started to lose weight.1 In addition, the hormone ghrelin, which makes the body feel hungrier and decreases the amount of energy burned, increases simultaneously. The theory behind these changes is that the body is fighting to maintain balance, or homeostasis: It knows a person is losing weight due to calorie restriction, which makes the body think that food is scarce and could evolutionarily put them in danger. To combat this, and to return your body to the weight it was before these healthy lifestyle changes, this cascade of hormonal effects take place, making it more likely that a person will survive (in evolutionary terms) by increasing the drive to find food and by limiting the amount of energy it uses (in order to increase energy reserves in this time of famine).3 In other words, being drawn to food while trying to lose weight is natural. This does not, however, mean that this outcome is inevitable.
Despite this, there is also some good news. The changes people typically start to feel in their body as they begin to make healthier lifestyle choices and lose weight could offer some protective benefits against their physiological drives to eat more. In our experience, when asked how they feel after a healthy meal of lean protein, vegetables, and a complex carb most people respond much more favorably than when asked how they feel after finishing a bag of chips or a couple slices of cake. Eating better typically makes your body feel better. In addition, it has been found that weight loss has many positive psychological effects. These include increased self-esteem, body image, and quality of life related to health, as well as reduced levels of depression.2 Furthermore, it has generally been found that the more weight a person loses, the more benefits they will experience in each of these areas of psychological health. Positive reinforcement in terms of how people feel could keep them motivated to say “no” to unhealthy indulgences.
Being intrinsically motivated to get healthier and the positive effects of actually improving your health keeps you on the right path. However, you may be wondering how to become intrinsically motivated in the first place. Luckily, we’ve compiled our top tips to help you do just that.
- Think about why you started your health journey, and frequently remind yourself of whatever this reason is. Do you want to improve your health to be able to be more involved in your children or grandchildrens’ lives? Do you want to feel better? Do you just want to be able to fit into that pair of pants you haven’t worn in years? Whatever the reason is, big or small, write it down and remind yourself of it frequently.
- Ask yourself if the momentary pleasure you receive from unhealthy behavior is worth risking your future health and happiness. That is a question ultimately only you can answer, but I would venture to guess that the answer is probably no.
- Focus on how you feel. Notice how you feel an hour after you eat a nutrient dense meal versus how you feel an hour after eating a refined sugar-laden dessert. Do you feel more energized and ready to tackle your goals, or do you feel sluggish and ready for a nap? Focus on these feelings, and even write them down if you want to remind yourself of these differences in order to deter you from unhealthy indulgences in the future.
- Find a support system. It could be a friend, family member, or co-worker. Anyone who can help encourage you to reach your goals and subtly remind you if you’re falling off track. Having someone to confide in and encourage you can motivate you even more.
You can succeed in reaching your goals. You just have to remember why you started, and to remind yourself of all the ways your health and mentality have improved. Use the tips above to help you increase your intrinsic motivation, and then use the benefits you receive from improved health to keep you progressing forward on your wellness journey.
You can do this. We believe in you!
“Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”
— Lou Holtz, Athletic Coach
- Kolata, G. (2011, October 26). Study Shows Why It’s Hard to Keep Weight Off. Retrieved October 26, 2015.
- Lasikiewicz, N., Myrissa, K., Hoyland, A., & Lawton, C. L. (2014). Psychological benefits of weight loss following behavioural and/or dietary weight loss interventions. A systematic research review. Appetite, 72, 123-137.
- Soni, A. C., Conroy, M. B., Mackey, R. H., & Kuller, L. H. (2011). Ghrelin, leptin, adiponectin, and insulin levels and concurrent and future weight change in overweight postmenopausal women. Menopause, 18, 296-301.
- Williams, G. C., Grow, V. M., Freedman, Z. R., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (1996). Motivational predictors of weight loss and weight-loss maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 115-126.