Losing Weight Is Hard. Here’s One Way to Make It Easier.

Man having a healthy salad and green smoothie.
 Hugh Whitaker / Getty Images

Most weight-loss strategies and programs focus on the positive—telling people they can achieve their body goals if they just exercise enough willpower and deny themselves the unhealthy foods and habits that are keeping them overweight.

But the opposite approach—soberly informing dieters how tough it is to sustainably lose weight—may actually make dropping pounds easier, according to new research from Drexel University.

To perform the study, psychologists gathered more than 250 overweight and obese people and put them through one of three different weight-loss methods for three years: behavior therapy, behavior therapy with meal substitutions, or a plan that focused on changing the foods people brought into the home (aka home-based food intervention, or HFE). They discovered that the behavior therapy—boosting your own self-regulation with diet and exercise—didn’t work as well as HFE, which resulted in greater weight loss overall. Moreover, the particpants sustained their weight loss when they got warnings about the difficulty of weight loss, because the warnings increased their sense of restraint.

“You can’t just give advice,” said study co-author Michael Lowe, Ph.D., a professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel. “You have to work with people to eliminate and substitute very specific foods, and teach them to prepare food differently. Asking people to make healthy decisions, when there are thousands of food choices available, is both emotionally challenging and also complicated.

“HFE treatment is really about mechanically trying to ensure that these changes are made, so the level of chronic temptation generated by foods in their homes is reduced.”

In other words: If you want to avoid eating bad foods, start off by scratching them off your shopping list. (Here’s a better one to use.) And above all, remember: Weight loss is hard, and you’ll need to work hard to achieve it. There’s no shame in reminding yourself as much.