The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Give Up Body Hate as a Self-Control Strategy: More Evidence It Doesn't Work

A new study shows how self-compassion leads to weight loss.

One of my favorite quotes about weight loss is from an interview I did with Deb Lemire, president of the Association for Size Diversity and Health: "If shame worked, there'd be no fat people."

A new study provides further evidence that making peace with your body -- accepting it as it is, and letting go of body hate and preoccupation -- paves the way for positive change. 220 overweight or obese women (age: 37.6±7.1yr; BMI: 31.5±4) participated in a year-long health education program that included body image training, along with the usual advice about exercise and healthy eating.

The program aimed to dismantle the usual reasons people diet: because they hate the way they look, because they are ashamed of their bodies, or because they want the approval of others. Instead, the women were encouraged to focus on creating health, strength, and well-being. They were asked to challenge the deeply held belief that they could only be happy when their bodies looked different.

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The women also learned to monitor self-critical thinking, and how negative self-talk influenced their mood and behavior. (Hint: Telling yourself that you are a fat cow is not, in fact, motivating, and is more likely to prompt a cookie batter binge than a sudden enthusiasm for exercise and eating right.)

The results, 12 months later? First, the intervention worked: The women reported better body image and less self-criticism and social anxiety related to their weight and appearance.

But it wasn't just about feeling good: When the "motivation" of self-hate decreased, the women's eating habits improved. They showed more self-control around food, fewer cravings, less emotional eating, and more flexible attitudes toward food (e.g., they were less likely to characterize food as "good" or "bad," and less likely to beat themselves up for being "bad"). In fact, the more self-acceptance improved and self-criticism decreased, the bigger the improvement in all of the eating attitudes and behaviors.

The women also showed a greater average weight loss (-7.3±5.9% of initial body weight) than a control group of women who received similar education in nutrition and self-management, without self-acceptance training (-1.7±5.0%).

Past research has shown that self-compassion is far more effective than self-criticism and shame for not just dieting, but all forms of self-control, including procrastination, quitting smoking, and staying sober.

If you're interested in developing self-compassion, psychologist Kristin Neff has a great new book out; I also recommend There's Nothing Wrong With You by Zen teacher Cheri Huber.

Study:
Carraca E.V. et al. (2011). Body image change and improved eating self-regulation in a weight management intervention in women. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8. See in-press provisional fulltext at: http://www.ijbnpa.org/content/pdf/1479-5868-8-75.pdf

 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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