When a client has a weight loss goal, the client will likely experience many temporary setbacks. As the coach, you need to help your client understand that such a setback does not mean a complete failure. This failure is only temporary. More importantly, how you help your client deal with these setbacks means the difference between their giving up and you getting them results.

Break the vicious cycle that negativity creates

Negative self-thoughts about breaking a diet are related to an interesting concept called the limit violation effect, where people blame themselves for harmful actions, like drinking too much or eating unhealthy food, and end up repeating those behaviors to a greater extent to cope.

If eating is a coping mechanism for escaping negative thoughts and self-awareness, eating poorly only exacerbates the situation by providing very short-lived relief. It is important to remember that success rarely comes from a place of negativity. Dr. Mantzios and Dr. Wilson, professors from the University of Portsmouth, once said:

“Dieters usually fail to find compassion when they think of past mistakes (e.g., ‘It is my fault that I cannot have a cookie now’) or when they fail (e.g., ‘Of course I failed, this is why I gained weight in the first place, this is why I am a loser’).”

In contrast, research from BMC Medicine suggests that having a positive body image is correlated with successful weight loss and long-term maintenance. In an article on Thrillist by Kelley Coffey, a personal trainer who once weighed 300 pounds, Coffey comments on her weight loss:

“I've worked my ass off (both literally and figuratively) for these results, and I couldn't have done it without accepting myself, not just as a thin person, but as the person I was before I lost my weight.”

In other words, the key to weight loss is self-compassion.

The most important thing to teach your clients is not a diet or program

Self-compassion is a kinder approach toward oneself; it’s the understanding that one's experiences are part of what everyone goes through during challenging times. As this article in Self and Identity notes, self-compassion is "offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s inadequacies and failures, so that one's experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.” It is also characterized by kindness toward yourself and mindfulness.

The benefit to self-compassion is that your clients learn to recognize their harmful and self-destructive behavior and evaluate it in a non-threatening manner. They would then be able to improve their own self-regulatory capabilities in the future. In regard to weight loss, self-compassion helps your clients respect their health, and if necessary, give up the behaviors that are counterproductive to their very well-being.

Research supports the notion that self-compassion training may be useful for long- term weight loss. In one experiment in Mindfulness, men who were taught self-compassion meditation with mindfulness meditation fared better with long-term weight loss than those who were only taught mindfulness meditation, as well as those in the control group who only received educational information.

In another study from Louisiana State University, participants were taught self-compassion after being asked to eat doughnuts and watch a video. The doughnut was used to initiate the limit volition effect (e.g. “I already ate a doughnut, so why not eat more unhealthy food to make myself feel better about my mistake?”). However, in the self-compassion group, the researchers read the following script to the participants:

“You might wonder why we picked doughnuts to use in the study. It’s because people sometimes eat unhealthy, sweet foods while they watch TV. We thought it would be more like the ‘real world’ to have people eat a dessert or junk food. But several people have told me that they feel bad about eating doughnuts in this study, so I hope you won’t be 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 really bad about it. This little amount of food doesn’t really matter anyway. Just wait a second and I’ll bring you the questionnaire.”

Following this script, participants were asked to taste test three different types of candies and fill out a questionnaire. Individuals who identified themselves as rigid dieters had more negative feelings toward their eating behavior than more flexible eaters. Rigid dieters also ate more candy than flexible dieters, demonstrating the limit volition effect.

However, these negative feelings were not present in rigid dieters who were first primed to feel self-compassion. These dieters also ate marginally less candy than those in the group without self-compassion.

Can self-compassion solve everything?

If self-compassion could help clients with weight loss, then could it help solve greater issues like obesity?

Obesity is a complex disease with many components to address. But learning self-compassion may be an essential tool to helping individuals cope with their weight.

One useful technique in particular is an adaptation of construal level theory, where individuals focus more abstractly and on higher level goals. Let's say a client wants to lose 30 pounds. Have your client ask himself why--why is the goal of losing 30 pounds important? Perhaps the client just wants to look better in his polo shirt. With each answer, keep asking why. This exercise makes the client dig into the deepest level of his intrinsic motivations.

Eventually, your client will arrive upon a higher level goal that more likely reflects compassion and desire to improve himself for the right reasons. Here’s an example:

Self-compassion is highly useful for people who tend to follow highly restrictive diets and often suffer from feelings of guilt. They may be one and the same: People who follow rigid diets may feel guilty about eating certain foods. Guilt may cause someone to avoid being mindful about his or her own actions and lose focus on higher-level goals.

A related concept called ironic rebound effect is the idea that if you tell yourself “don’t do this” it becomes more difficult to follow those instructions. That means, if your client tells herself that she should not have a cookie, it’s much harder for her to resist. And if your client gives in, the guilt and feelings of failure are more profound.

The solution is to be a more mindful flexible dieter. This means your client should allow himself to have unhealthy foods in small quantities and forgive slip-ups with the focus on future improvement.

Also, you can instruct your client to adopt a process orientation, which is related to mindfulness. Rather than having your client ask himself “can I do it?” have him ask “how can I do it?” This effectively reframes the idea in your client’s head from maintaining hopelessness to finding solutions. It would, of course, entail a trial and error process, characterized by mindful improvements each day.

In summation, here's a quick checklist of psychological aspects of weight loss you can help your client work on:

  • Have  your client dig deep into the why behind their goal to lose weight. This helps them create the intrinsic desire to improve themselves for the right reasons.
  • Help your client realize that being kind, the negative self-talk (“Ugh, I have no self control!”), and understanding to her struggles shifts the focus to continual improvement, rather than succumbing to helplessness.
  • Self-compassion is important to help clients to be kinder to themselves when they've messed up, as long as they pick themselves back up and continue.
  • If your client has a hard time with sticking to a rigid diet, consider teaching them to be more flexible with their diet. 

Weight loss and maintenance are a long-term process after all. Highly restrictive and guilt-ridden dieting can cause negative feelings and emotions which paradoxically may cause more harmful behavior.

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