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The Surprising Power of Compassion for Weight Loss

Research and practical experience show that how people think and act toward themselves can have a big impact on self-control and goal achievement.

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Whenever I sit down with a client who wants to lose weight I always tell them that my goal is not to have them lose weight as fast as possible but to lose weight and never have to lose that same weight again. Taking this approach has led me to discover a new paradigm for weight loss that isn’t about the calories or carbs that we eat but instead how we feel about and treat ourselves with respect to food. I want to share some of this approach with you to illustrate the importance of self-compassion when it comes to long-term weight-loss success.

The Restriction Paradox
Decades of research into the psychology of eating behaviors have shown us that the more we attempt to rigidly control our eating the more likely we are to lose that control when faced with unpleasant feelings, especially when these feelings arise due to perceived “diet failure.” I call this the restriction paradox because the more strongly and aggressively we work to perfectly control our diet and eating patterns, the easier it is for us to fall off the wagon when things don’t go as planned.

Why would eating a little ice cream drive you to eat the whole pint? Diving into the whole pint is thought to be a defense mechanism. By eating more and focusing on the food you are protecting yourself against the negative self-talk regarding not being able to stick to your plan and long term goals. Researchers call this “cognitive narrowing.” The pleasure and act of eating more ice cream is just a way for your brain to focus on one small thing while ignoring the negative emotions associated with breaking your diet. This effect is not just limited to food. In his research on self-control, Mark Muraven, associate professor of psychology at the University of Albany, observed a similar thought process in people with alcohol dependence: “I feel bad about how much I drank so I will drink more to cope with those feelings.”

Self-Loathing and Snacking
Fortunately research shows us that these behaviors don’t have to be your fate. At Wake Forest University, researchers enlisted a group of diet and body-weight conscious college women to participate in a fake candy taste test. Before the official taste test the participants were brought to a room to watch as short video, designed to be very boring, while waiting their turn. They were also given a glazed or chocolate doughnut to eat and a glass of water to drink.

Next is when the magic happened. After eating the doughnut and drinking the water, half of the women in the study received a message of self-compassion from the researchers. The researchers told the participants:

…Several people have told me that they feel bad about eating doughnuts in this study, so I hope you won’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel bad about it. This little amount of food doesn’t matter anyway…

After hearing this message from the researcher about self-compassion and self-forgiveness, the study participants began the taste test, which included eating as much candy from three different bowls and rating the candy. The people who received a message of self-compassion from the researchers ate about 2.5 times less candy during the taste-test portion of the study compared to those who did not receive a message of self-compassion.

From our partner: Learn about the proven healing power of compassion.

Self-Compassion Checklist
How can you be more compassionate to yourself following dietary indiscretions? Here is the simple checklist used by the Wake Forest researchers.

1. Self-Kindness: Don’t be hard on yourself. Eating more of a food that you didn’t plan on eating doesn’t reflect on you as a person.

2. Mindfulness: Be in the moment. Acknowledge your feelings, don’t run from them or try to ignore them via a different behavior. Just experience and notice them.

3. Common Humanity: Remember that everyone eats higher-calorie foods, it is part of the human experience. Being more compassionate to yourself will help reduce many instances of overeating, which compound to frustrating weight re-gain. For lasting success, don’t obsess over calories; be kind to yourself.

Related: Try this guided meditation to cultivate self-compassion.

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