Mental Health and Weight Loss: The Surprising Connection

To maintain motivation, it’s essential to keep things fresh, says Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, an obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. That means changing things up — trying new forms of exercise, for example, or new types of foods — when you feel your enthusiasm is starting to wane.

“When we’re trying to lose weight, we must allow ourselves the flexibility to change,” Dr. Stanford says.

Flexibility and self-compassion are also needed at those times when your motivation may flag. While some people take a rigid, perfectionist approach to weight loss, Stanford says we all have slip-ups and off days, and we can’t let these derail us.

“Sometimes patients and I make a 100-day plan, and then at the end, they say to me, ‘I missed a few days, so I failed,’” she says. “I ask them, ‘Did you fail?’ Because completing 80 or 90 days out of 100 is not failing.”

She says even the top athletes in the world take days (or weeks) off. “I say give yourself some grace,” she adds. In other words, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Takeaway No. 4: It’s Not as Simple as ‘Lose Weight, Feel Happier’

Three out of four survey respondents said that their weight affects how they feel about themselves. An even greater proportion — 79 percent — believed that reaching their target weight would make them “happier.”

Experts say that, depending on how a person attempts to lose weight, these sorts of expectations may be unrealistic.

“There are healthy ways to lose weight and there are unhealthy ways to lose weight,” Young says. “If someone is losing weight but developing an increasingly unhealthy relationship to food and their own body in the process, weight loss is not likely to bring contentment or self-fulfillment.” She says feelings of guilt or shame can also increase when someone is on their weight loss journey.

Research supports Young’s take. Studies have found that if your weight-loss plan is all about avoiding or restricting certain foods, this may increase the risk of can lead to both disordered eating and an increase in psychological distress.

While weight loss can be associated with improvements in mental health, that’s not always the case.

Everyday Health‘s Weight Loss Reframed Survey queried 3,144 Americans nationwide ages 18 and older who have tried losing weight in the past six months. The study was fielded between July 10 and August 18, 2023, across demographic groups, genders, and health conditions. Survey recruitment took place via an online portal, in-app, and email. The margin of error for the sample size of 3,144 is +/-1.7 percent at a 95 percent confidence level.

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