Kari Dahlgren

Coach | Author | Advocate

feel normal around food again

The Psychology of Weight Loss: How to Master Your Mindset (According to Clinical Evidence)

how to master the psychology of weight loss: pour your energy into breaking down barriers, not dieting

Discovering your unique psychological blocks to weight loss is far more effective than dieting, which only keeps you stuck at the surface level of food. If you want to lose weight but all your past attempts have led to “weight cycling” — losing weight only to regain it later — you may find relief by turning your attention inward.

There’s a good chance that you already know what good food and exercise entails. Self-sabotage does not usually happen due to lack of knowledge. Rather, self-sabotage around weight loss often happens because there’s a psychological block standing in the way — out of sight but not out of mind.

If you’re new, allow me to briefly introduce myself: My name is Kari, and I’m both a recovered compulsive eater and an eating psychology coach. I’ve spent almost a decade of my career as a medical writer, so I know my way around clinical literature, and I’ve spent 7+ years coaching others through their relationship with food — entirely through psychological and spiritual practices, not dieting.

The psychology of weight loss goes deep, and we’re about to peel back layer after layer. While this post was originally written in 2018, I continuously update it to contain the latest clinical evidence. I hope the compelling research here inspires you to ditch diet culture in favor of fostering a better relationship with food and yourself.

The Psychology of Weight Loss: Understand Your Motivations

Let’s compare weight loss to the proverbial iceberg. What you see first is all about diet and exercise, but that’s only the tip. Just like an iceberg, the true bulk lies hidden beneath.

The massive, unseen portion of the iceberg is your psychology — the intricate workings of your mind and how these internal processes profoundly influence your behavior. For many of us, the psychological blocks to weight loss often go sight unseen.

weight loss psychology: image of an iceberg with the top half labeled as 'diet & exercise advice' and the bottom half of the iceberg under water labeled as 'eating psychology: thoughts, feelings, and beliefs'

To understand the psychological factors that trigger compulsive eating, let’s look at the very definition of compulsion: an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes. Compulsion goes hand-in-hand with self-sabotage. It involves yearning for a specific goal but compulsively doing the opposite.

Have you ever been there? Wanting so badly to lose weight and then somehow finding yourself standing in front of the fridge at midnight? I’ve been there many times, and dieting never helped. It was understanding the psychology of overeating that finally helped me get off the yo-yo dieting merry-go-round and make peace with food.

When you begin to understand the motivations behind your actions, especially around food, you develop a new awareness, much like finally catching a glimpse of the iceberg beneath the water’s surface. You cannot heal what you cannot see, and delving into the psychological blocks to weight loss is a great step towards change.

Mastering the Psychology of Weight Loss: 7 Evidence-Based Barriers to Overcome

While I place an emphasis on weight loss psychology, that’s not to say that food doesn’t have its place. It truly is the tip of the iceberg, which means it plays a role — it’s just not the main act. Food deserves consideration so long as it’s accompanied by the inner work of addressing your psychology.

Below, you’ll discover some of the most common psychological blocks to weight loss. Some of them involve the biological aspect of food, but always in the context of how it impacts your psychology.

1. Dieting Is Actually Linked to Long-Term Weight Gain, Not Weight Loss

If you’ve been trying to eat less in order to lose weight, it’s an uphill battle and arguably an unwinnable battle too. An abundance of clinical evidence shows that dieting is linked to long-term weight gain, not weight loss.[1], [2], [3] While this is frustrating, I hope it provides some peace of mind that you’re not broken.

When you restrict your food intake, your metabolism slows down, which means that you burn less calories.[4] This is called adaptive thermogenesis, and it’s one of many ways that your body defends its set point weight (i.e. the weight range your body naturally gravitates to).[5]

When your metabolism slows, you need to eat less in order to maintain your current weight. If you do overeat, your body is even more likely to store that excess energy as fat.[6]

The bottom line: dieting doesn’t work. It works in the short-term, but in the long-term, your biology works hard to ensure that weight remains stable; and if it can’t stabilize your weight, then your body will deploy biological mechanisms to increase your set point weight.[7]

2. Making Foods Off-Limits Makes You Want Them More

Dieting doesn’t just fail at a biological level — it also affects your psychology too. There’s a “forbidden fruit” effect where, once we place certain foods off-limits, we actually want them more. 

When researchers asked a group of people to eat normally but keep chocolate off-limits, the chocolate-lovers in the group found themselves craving chocolate even more than before.[8]

Have you ever experienced this yourself? After vowing to eat less carbs and sugar, you somehow end up ordering Italian take-out and eating the entire entrée — plus dessert? It’s not just you. Studies show that restricting certain foods not only increases preoccupation with them, but it also increases the chances of binge eating too.[9], [10]

Many people are scared to let go of the food rules because it feels like the only thing keeping their eating under control. While I hope to address this fear throughout the rest of this article, know that an abundance of clinical evidence shows that the more we restrict certain foods, the more we want those foods.[11], [12] You’re better off giving yourself permission to eat the foods you love and enjoy!

3. High-Carb, High-Fat Foods Trigger “Hedonic Eating”

what is hedonic eating? eating for pleasure, hyperpalatable foods, managing cravings

We can’t talk about weight loss psychology without discussing food because some have a significant impact on the brain, the very home of your psychology. Hyperpalatable foods in particular — those high in fat, salt, carbs, or sugar — activate the brain’s reward centers and increase the desire for these foods.[13], [14]

This is known as “hedonic eating:” a drive to eat pleasurable food for reasons other than hunger (i.e. because they taste good). Do you ever find yourself eating sweets and then craving sweets even more during the following days? I used to, and the brain’s response to hedonic food is part of the reason why.

However, I encourage you to give yourself more credit in this context too. Although hedonic foods are addicting,[15] I believe the average compulsive eater already has enough willpower to choose to stop eating these foods once you’re full.

Imagine what would happen if you took all the willpower currently channeled towards your diet and redirected it towards your psychology instead? Once you get the psychological blocks to weight loss out of the way, it’s likely that you can have some sweets and stop. I used to think that was a far-fetched fantasy, but I finally got there by giving up dieting and focusing on psychology instead.

4. Stress Creates a Proneness for Weight Gain

Work, finances, and relationships are the most common sources of stress. However, dieting is a hidden source of stress. Studies have found that the act of counting calories — just counting calories, not restricting calories — increases cortisol and stress.[16] This is another reason why dieting is one of the biggest psychological blocks to weight loss.

Stress increases your desire for hyperpalatable foods like chips, sweets, and baked goods.[17] Many of us are all too familiar with “stress eating,” where we reach for our favorite comfort foods for, well, comfort! Unfortunately, the stress hormone cortisol is linked to weight gain.[18] If your clothes tend to fit tighter during stressful times, biology is partly to blame.

One of my favorite mantras is relax and eat what you want to eat. Relaxation gets you much farther than stress, and eating the foods that appeal to you often results in eating less than before.[9], [10] This demonstrates the importance of the psychology of weight loss. Both your mindset and the foods you eat make a difference.

5. “Emotional Tolerance” Is the Best Psychological Skill for Reaching Your Natural Weight

Speaking of mindset, some argue that it’s important to reduce negative emotion to stop overeating. After all, some studies have linked substantial weight loss with reduced anxiety and depression.[19] When we don’t have the right skills to cope with unwanted emotions, it can lead to overeating; and trapped emotions that go unexpressed can lead to weight gain.

But in terms of goal setting, I think it’s better to set your sights on managing anxiety and depression, not reducing it. What we resist persists, and this especially applies to emotion.[20] We need to focus on working with negative emotion, not getting rid of it completely; because if we can’t effectively reduce discomfort, we begin to resist it, and then it only grows stronger and drives compulsive eating.

SDF video thumbnail - 3

The Stop, Drop, & Feel is my trademarked tool for “feeling your feelings” to develop tolerance for your discomfort — a skill I like to call emotional tolerance. This tool asks you to train in sitting still with the edgy emotions that push you to eat without hunger. When you become more resilient to discomfort, there’s a reduced desire to buffer with food.

“Feeling your feelings” is the spiritual lynchpin of my approach to stopping compulsive eating, Psycho-Spiritual Wellness. By training in feeling your feelings, you directly address some of the biggest psychological blocks to weight loss like resistance to being uncomfortable and low tolerance for discomfort.

That said, the psychology of weight loss also goes beyond this because often times, it’s not about our own feelings, but about the feelings of others as well.

6. A Need for Connection Can Actually Become a Psychological Block to Weight Loss

Many of us are inclined to eat past fullness if it makes our loved ones happy. Clinical studies have even proven this: people are more likely to indulge in high-calorie treats if it means invoking positive feelings in others.[21] Formally, this is known as the “social facilitation of eating.”[22] Informally, this is people pleasing.

People pleasing can be a sneaky psychological block to weight loss because, although many of us wish we could stop being people pleasers, the way it triggers overeating is subconscious, which is the very essence of self-sabotage. For example, if you tend to vent to your friends about feeling bloated and puffy — and you feel connected through commiseration — you might risk losing some connections if you lose weight.

Humans are social creatures, and we are wired to for connection. Therefore, if the struggle with weight loss forms a foundation for any of your friendships, the fear of losing those connections or a fear of feeling lonely can subconsciously block your weight loss efforts.

However, if you lose friends just because you lose weight, it’s a sign that you deserve better connections. Never dim your shine for anyone. While this is easier said than done, developing emotional tolerance can help you navigate the vulnerability that often surrounds these psychological blocks to weight loss.

7. Limiting Beliefs Fuel Self-Sabotage Around Food

From both my personal experience overcoming compulsive eating and coaching others through the same, here’s what I believe triggers self-sabotage around food: Subconsciously getting a greater benefit from struggling with weight loss than the perceived benefit of losing weight.

It may sound preposterous at first, so allow me to gently repeat: Self-sabotage happens when you subconsciously get a greater benefit from overeating than the perceived benefit of losing weight.

the #1 psychological block to overeating

I know from personal experience how preposterous it sounds to be getting any kind of benefit from the weight struggle. Trust me, I get it! That’s why I made the video above to further explain this common psychological block.

What could be some of the so-called benefits that might be standing in your way? All you need is a pen and paper. As Joan Didion once said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

My workbook on stopping self-sabotage, Why We Do the Things We Do, provides the perfect prompts for unpacking your relationship with food. Through juicy self-inquiry, you’ll dig up all the limiting beliefs that might be fueling your unique psychological blocks to weight loss.

Tips for Mastering the Psychology of Weight Loss

Now that you know some of the subconscious blocks standing in the way of weight loss, let’s take action. After all, awareness is the first step towards change, but awareness without action does not help us reach our goals.

Here are some steps you can take to address the psychological blocks to weight loss:

  • Ditch the food rules and eat intuitively: While dieting is linked with long-term weight gain instead of weight loss, intuitive eating is linked with better body satisfaction, reduced depression, improved metabolic fitness, and weight maintenance.[23] Doesn’t that sound much better than restricting the foods you love and constantly weight cycling?
  • Read up on set point weight theory: If you really, truly do not want to “settle” for weight maintenance (despite all the psychological benefits of intuitive eating) and prefer weight loss, giving up dieting is still your best bet. Plenty of clinical evidence shows that dieting encourages your body to settle upon a higher natural weight, not a lower weight.[24]
  • Discover joy beyond food: One of the best ways to stop hedonic eating is to find joy outside of food. Explore different hobbies and forms of self-care to nourish yourself without relying on food.
  • Manage stress with progressive muscle relaxation: This involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups to reduce stress and improve sleep. Doing progressive muscle relaxation therapy for a little over a week was found to reduce night eating tendencies,[25] demonstrating the importance of stress management in weight loss psychology.
  • Use the Stop, Drop, & Feel anytime you want to overeat: This tool is the bread and butter of my approach to stopping compulsive eating. With this tool alone, you can overcome many of the psychological blocks to weight loss that are related to unwanted emotion and resistance to discomfort.
  • Harness the power of workbooks to stop self-sabotage: Once you let go of the food rules and learn to manage your emotions, the next step is to address the limiting beliefs that drive self-sabotage around food.

Once you become aware of your limiting beliefs, you can let them go. But you cannot heal what you cannot see. My workbook on stopping self-sabotage, Why We Do the Things We Do, quickly shows you how deep the psychology of weight loss goes. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be surprised by what comes up!

Finding Your Motivation with the Psychology of Weight Loss

The psychological blocks to weight loss take time to unravel. Be gentle with yourself during the process. Also, if you’ve made it this far, I think you’ll like Psycho-Spiritual Wellness – my method for stopping compulsive eating rooted purely in psychology and spirituality instead of dieting. 

To learn more, check out the free ebook below, which includes a free 5-day course in my philosophy to help you apply these concepts and put them into action.

Keep It Going: Get The Spiritual Seeker's Guide to Stop Binge Eating (Free Ebook)

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Free 13-page ebook: Keep your momentum going by downloading my free ebook, The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating. It’s not just junk to get into your inbox, I promise. Sign up and see for yourself. You can unsubscribe anytime.

5 day email course — also free: You’ll also receive a 5-day email course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, my unique approach to stopping compulsive eating, enriching your journey with more practical tips.

Sign up below: Enter your email below to dive deep into this wiggy world where eating psychology and spirituality collide:

You're On a Roll: Take the Eating Psychology QUIZ!

Even if you struggle with overeating, I bet I can guess your strength around food.

You're Really on a Roll: Let's Put an End to Self-Sabotage

Ready to dive even deeper into your journey of self-discovery? I proudly present my most celebrated workbook, Why We Do the Things We Do. This 75-page digital workbook reveals your unique psychological blocks to compulsive eating. By actually putting pen to paper, you’ll be surprised by what comes up.

Some say ‘feel it to heal it’ but this workbook takes it a step deeper and helps you ‘see it to heal it.’ If you’re the kind of person who logically knows how to live a healthy lifestyle but you compulsively do the opposite, this workbook will illuminate what’s standing in the way. Then, you know exactly where to focus your energy.

You scrolled a looong while to get here. I'd love if you could leave a comment!

I read and reply to every single one! Just like I do with my emails. Since I don’t use much social media (outside of Pinterest and YouTube), I very much enjoy this opportunity to hear your thoughts and connect ✨

34 thoughts on "The Psychology of Weight Loss: How to Master Your Mindset (According to Clinical Evidence)"

  1. NOTsays:

    Great tips! A TON of reflection. Ouch! Very insightful. Thx for sharing. 🙂

  2. NOTsays:

    I just finished writing 3 bullets in my journal: things to do once I’m skinny????, things that bring me joy outside of food, and my tracker of food & feelings for the day! Thank U! Now, I’m #teamtired but I’m gtb realizing a MAJOR step I made today in the psychology of eating!????

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      OMG you are adorable! I am so happy that you actually did the Food Feelings journal. A lot of people hear that advice and barely anyone actually DOES it, so good for you!!! You’re totally ready for change 🙂 that’s exciting.

  3. Bethsays:

    Have just put step one into motion and ordered a copy of why weight off of eBay. Really like your post will refer back to it later Thankyou 🙂

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Woo hooo!!! Awesome!!! I hope that book changes you life the way it did mine 🙂

    2. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Kudos to you for getting the book!

  4. Natashasays:

    Really enjoyed your article and could not agree more. It’s refreshing when you read something written by someone who understands. The “foodie” part really hit home with me. I find WAY too much joy in food and eating. I will look into your suggestions and hope to see changes in the future.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Best of luck Natasha!

  5. Maxisays:

    Wow. I now see losing weight through completely different eyes. Even though I´ve been telling myself not to, I´ve always counted my calories or focused on the number on that scale. The thought of not being allowed to eat or do things has always surrounded me. But not once did it occur to me that it is my mind that needs to be changed. Thank you so much.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Oh Maxi, what a wonderful epiphany to have!! Diet culture does us no favors by ONLY ever talking about the surface level of food!

  6. Lisasays:

    Giving up being a foodie out going to be a rough ride!

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Ohhh but you don’t need to give up being a foodie for any of this to work. In fact, enjoying delicious food is highly encouraged!

  7. Lekeisha Burfordsays:

    Thank you for this delightful article I have been really struggling with what has been stopping me from losing weight and getting healthy it’s nice to know someone has thoughts about this dieting thing !!

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Dieting ohhhh dieting. It kept me distracted and preoccupied for years and years. As many people here can relate, I’m sure! Glad I could help 🙂

  8. Madisonsays:

    This post makes me want to try it! Im going to order the work book! Although I feel that it will be hard for me to not think in a diet mentality, I will do my best!

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Thanks Madison! I have no doubt that you will have a breakthrough once you put pen to paper. I could not believe the words that came out of my mouth (or rather, what came onto my paper) once I started writing in it myself. It is crazy how the conscious mind blocks out so much. Good luck, and let me know what you think!

  9. Beverlysays:

    So here is my first share. I am 58 years old and being overweight my whole life has completely ruined my life. I have been waiting to get thin in order to start living. So, I will be ordering this book and committing to do the 15 steps outlined in this article. Thanks for all of the wonderful information.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Oh Beverly, this is a beautiful epiphany. I am sure there are many people who can relate to waiting until thinness to start living, myself included! I commend your commitment to start now!

  10. Genasays:

    WOW! I’m in shock and awe! I’m in shock because I’ve been on a diet (or bingeing while planning my next diet) for 30 years and it never freaking occurred to me that I didn’t have to be! I’ve gained 75lbs over the course of all those years and after many different diets and finally, after reading many of your posts and your e-book, I’m done! I’m free! I’m relieved! I’m excited!
    I’ve read and studied countless books, articles, blogs and testimonials that never quite hit the nail on the head so I’m in awe at the way you’ve written and presented this information and that it has struck a chord within my soul. WOW! Thank you and thank you and thank you for your insight and sharing this invaluable perspective–it has changed me already and I can’t stop reading!!

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Wow Gena, thank you for the most amazing compliment EVER. I am so glad that I could help you on this journey. It means a lot to me. I felt just as relieved as you once I realized that dieting wasn’t the answer. Cheers to freedom from diet culture!

  11. Tristansays:

    This is the most valuable blog post I’ve read in a few years. I even saved it so I can read it again when I need inspiration. Thank you so much for encapsulating this in one clear, easy to read and understand place. I ordered Why Weight (I already love Geneen) and plan to take my growth in this area to a new level.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Thanks so much Tristan! I am so excited for you to do the workbook!!

  12. Jennifersays:

    Is there an audible book you can recommend on weight loss through psychology.
    Thank you for this post. This is me to a T.
    Thank you so much

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Perhaps you can find one of the books in audible format from my list of weight loss psychology books: https://karidahlgren.net/self-help-books-weight-loss/

  13. Teresasays:

    Ordering the book now!!! I am 64 and have been fighting my weight on and off since I was 10. No more dieting. Ready to move forward!!! Thank you for giving me the first steps.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Love the commitment Teresa!!!

  14. Anisur Rahman Redoysays:

    Hope finally get some clear concept what should need to be done. Thanks by the way.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Thanks for the comment Anisur 🙂

  15. Melodiesays:

    Very interesting. After the type 2 diagnosis, I lost about 50 pounds by really watching my carbs. Then I got good numbers, lost my sense of smell a year ago and started working from home six months ago. The weight is back. I am really going to study this to see if I can change my mindset.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      I am sorry to hear what you’ve been going through Melodie. Losing your sense of smell sounds very tough, especially if you like food! I hope these steps are able to help with your ability to enjoy the other aspects of food, like feeling nourished and eating until comfortable fullness.

  16. Mary Nichollsays:

    OMG you just made me realise that I am a foodie, but also that I spent so many years wanting vindictive revenge for all the things my mom said to me, not just as a child but as an adult too.
    One thing I have noticed when I’ve managed to lose the weight, is that those who are thinner, suddenly start telling me I’ve lost too much weight, it’s like they’re scared that you’ll look good and they sabotage your efforts and make you feel bad about yourself. Sure fire way to get someone to eat is to make them feel bad about themselves.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Hi Mary! You really hit the nail on the head with this one. I hear things like this A LOT. People seem to try and bring others down when they begin to shine really bright. And the best thing we can do for ourselves is continue to shine no matter how uncomfortable it makes someone else. Keep shining!!!

  17. Shannonsays:

    Seriously woman. Searching for depth scrolling through Pinterest. I can’t wait to dive in now that I’ve found THE REASONS I’ve been stuck. Thank you a million. Already.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      LOL! I was almost tempted to shorten this because it’s so long, but now I won’t! Thanks Shannon 🙂

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