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The psychology of weight loss.

Why Do You Say You Want to Lose Weight But Then Don’t Do It

What to do when your intentions don't match your actions

The older I get the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do.

Andrew Carnegie

Why do we sometimes say we want to achieve a goal and then don’t act on it? I have worked with more patients that I can count who have looked me in the eye and said how much they want to lose weight, but then seem to put in very little effort. Truth is we all do this on one thing or another.

Are we liars? Are we lazy?

Neither is the case. Life is more complicated than that. It’s easy to want, it’s much harder to do. Here are 10 reasons why we want but don’t do:

1. I Don’t Know How To Do This—When you do not move forward on a goal, it may be due to a lack of skills. You might have tried a few things, none of them worked, and then find yourself confused and discouraged. Feel like you don’t know where to begin with weight loss? Check out this post. I also recommend that you find an experienced counselor. You might be surprised to know that many clinical psychologists (like yours truly!) have this expertise and can dig a little deeper into the issues with you. Find a clinical psychologist with training in behavior therapy for weight loss—it may be covered under your mental health insurance too.

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2. Something/someone is punishing your effort—This is the scenario where you feel like every time you try, you get hit over the head. This can come in many forms. I remember one person I worked with talked about how every time she tried to lose weight her mother would make infuriating comments, like “Are you going to eat that? I thought you were trying to lose weight!” or “I can’t even tell you lost 10 pounds, isn’t that strange?” Kindly ask the person to stop once, but after that I recommend distancing yourself from the offending person—not entirely, but to the extent that you can tolerate them without losing your enthusiasm. Find the comfortable distance and stick to it.

3. Fear Part 1—Fear is the number 1 thing that holds us back from our wants. If you are stuck, try to imagine what would happen if you achieved your goal exactly as planned. Does it terrify you? In one fear scenario, we are afraid of bad things that might happen if we achieve the goal. I have had patients who worried a lot about the discomfort they would feel by attention they might attract if they were leaner. Others have said that being thinner might take away their longstanding excuse to not have sex, which would bring a deeper relationship problem to light---one he or she is not ready to confront. Progress can come with new problems, or unearth old ones. As a first step, try to understand what negative consequence might be holding you back, what is at the root of that problem?  Keep in mind that successful weight loss may hinge upon your progress with that problem.

4. Fear Part 2—Another fear is fear of the process. One patient told me, “I’m afraid I’ll feel deprived all the time” and another said, “I’m afraid I won’t have time to do the other things I love because I’ll be so busy exercising and planning meals.” If these sound like you, try talking to someone who has been through it (Maybe a Real Life Biggest Loser). Ask them, did you feel deprived? Did you still have time for your hobbies? People who have been through it probably have lots of ideas on how to navigate these challenges and will show you that the process may not be as bad as you think.

5. Fear Part 3 —The third fear is the fear of failure. Victorious weight losses are sometimes followed by devastating regains. This feels really bad, sometimes worse than you felt before you lost the weight in the first place. Taking the plunge means taking the chance that a failure will happen again. However, not going for it guarantees you won’t achieve anything. Before starting, think very hard about what went wrong last time so you don’t relive the cycle all over again. I have a post about how to do a post-mortem on a regain that you may find helpful.

6.  Unrealistic Expectations. Sometimes our idea (or hope) of what it takes to achieve a weight goal is a bit unrealistic. If your efforts are repeatedly resulting in little to no progress, you may need to increase the intensity of your effort. Even though you may feel like you are doing a lot, it still might not be enough to be really moving the scale. See this post about getting started losing weight for more on making sure your efforts result in outcomes.

7. Resentment.  Have you ever wanted something so badly that you found yourself feeling negatively about or even angry at someone who has it?  We’ve all been there at one point in life or another and while we know it’s unreasonable, you can’t help but feel it’s not fair that it’s easy for some people, but not so easy for you. This can lead to an “us” versus “them” mentality and consequently, self-defeating behavior. If you have found yourself thinking that you don’t want to exercise or make a healthier diet choice because it feels like “giving in” to the skinny ideal, you might be stuck in this type of thinking. Remind yourself that making healthy choices is not about living up to a skinny ideal, but very simply to be the healthiest person you can be.

8. Genetic Destiny. Your efforts may be lacking because of an underlying belief that your genetic destiny is in more control than you are. Just because several or all of your family members are overweight does not necessarily mean it is genetic. Families share more than genes in common—households, neighborhoods, and learned habits. Even if your weight is genetically driven, it is a misconception that it isn’t malleable by your efforts. Check out this post on genetic destiny. You are in more control than you think.

9. Hierarchy of Needs Imbalance. Sometimes people who genuinely would like to lose weight have bigger fish to fry in more basic areas of life. If you are worried about whether you can pay your mortgage, put food on the table, or keep your marriage together, losing weight is probably not a top priority. Unfortunately, some people live in a constant state of stress about basic needs that they never get the chance to focus energy on self-improvement. If this is you, table your weight loss goal. Put all your focus on taking care of those basic needs because doing so will free you up to really focus on this. If you can’t resolve your basic needs issues, get help or time may run out on you. Getting your life on solid ground is the best thing you can do for your physical and mental health.

10.  I say I want to lose weight because other people think I should, but secretly—I don’t.  Maybe you don’t really want to do this now, or ever. If you are overweight you might feel like you should want to lose weight, but if you aren't ready, you aren't ready. Be sure that when you try, you do it for you and not because people in your life, or society says you should. You will never be successful at a thing if your motivation is to satisfy someone else's expectations. Your attempts will always come off half-hearted. It’s ok to say, “Not now.” Wait until your heart says, "I'm ready." You’ll know when you are ready...and when you are, blast off...

Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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