One of the best predictors of successful weight loss may have less to do with eating than with thinking.
A team of researchers from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands reports that obese people who think they will be successful in weight loss shed significantly more pounds than their counterparts who are less certain of their ability to adhere to a weight-loss program. The results are the latest to underscore the importance of "self-efficacy" in fostering successful behavior change.
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"Self-efficacy is your confidence that you can perform a particular behavior," explains Carlo C. DiClemente, chairman of psychology at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and co-author of the book "Changing for Good" (Avon).
First described by Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, "self-efficacy is a potent predictor of treatment outcome across dozens of health behaviors," notes John C. Norcross, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton. "In fact, it supports the age-old wisdom that if you think you can succeed, you will, and if you don't, you won't."
In the Utrecht study, researchers recruited 66 obese men and women to participate in an eight-week, very-low-calorie weight-loss program. Before entering the study, all participants completed a questionnaire to assess their physical and mental health, bodily self-esteem, eating behavior, social network, sexual functioning and reasons for being overweight. During the study, all participants received the same information, support and direction on dieting, ate the same number of daily calories and completed the same number of follow-up visits during the study.
The study found that those "who perceived themselves to be better able to control their weight, who did not attribute their being overweight to a physical origin [which they could not control] and who experience more self-efficacy with respect to eating behavior, lost significantly more weight," the team reports in the March issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Strong self-efficacy was the best predictor of weight-loss success.
All of which is well and good, you may say, but how would people with low self-efficacy -- those who don't think they can lose the weight -- get themselves to believe they can? Here's what experts say has been proven to help boost self-efficacy to achieve a healthier weight:
Start small. One way to strengthen self-efficacy is to pick, and then accomplish, small goals that are easy to meet. So instead of setting an ambitious diet overhaul, start by improving just one meal. Or trade regular soda for diet soda, whole milk for 1 percent, or a candy bar snack with fruit or veggies. When you've mastered one goal, move on to something else. "Success breeds self-efficacy, which breeds success, which breeds self-efficacy," DiClemente says.
Set goals for behavior, not weight loss. "It's the behavior that gets you to your goal," Norcross notes. Rather than aiming for a 30-pound weight loss, aim at the steps that will get you there. "Instead of saying, 'I will lose two pounds,' tell yourself that my goal is to change [specific] eating habits and exercise twice a week for the next month," Norcross advises. The pounds will take care of themselves if the right behaviors are in place.
Learn from your past weight-loss experience. Few people who change their habits succeed on the first, second or even third try. In fact, behavioral research suggests that it takes at least half a dozen attempts -- and often far more -- to instill a new habit. Those with strong self-efficacy view these unsuccessful attempts not as failures, but as teachable moments to learn what didn't work, experts say.
Look for a good role model. If you're looking for inspiration, your best choice is someone similar to you who has succeeded, a person who can provide something called vicarious learning. "If I see someone who is like me doing well with weight loss, then I think that I can do this, too," DiClemente notes. But the flip side is that if your role model starts slipping, it can erode your self-efficacy.
Get support. Recruit your spouse, friend, colleague, relative or just someone who knows you and shares your goal for better eating and increasing physical activity. It's important for that person to provide constructive coaching, not platitudes about character. "You want someone to whom you can say, 'I blew it. I haven't been to the gym and I've just been eating comfort food,' " Norcross notes. "And they'll say, 'Tomorrow will be a better day. I know you can do this. I've been there, too. ' "
Reward yourself. Although it may feel unfamiliar, patting yourself on the back is a proven way to strengthen self-efficacy. "You need to remind yourself that you can do it," Norcross says. Give yourself a concrete reward as you meet your goals. No need to spend money on rewards either: Soak in a bubble bath, read a great book, listen to music or take a respite from an onerous task such as cleaning. In other words, Norcross says, "give yourself a break."
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