Overhauling your health and fitness can be hard, there’s no doubt about it. But new research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that telling yourself just that – instead of a positive pep talk – could help you better control your eating habits.
For the study, psychologists at Drexel University put 262 adults into three groups and assigned them different weight loss methods. Behaviour therapy (BT)– which involves group support, regular weigh-ins, goal setting, monitoring food intake and exercise. Meal replacement treatment (MR) – which replaces breakfast and lunch with calorie-controlled shakes or nutrition bars. And finally modifying the home food environment (HFE) – which involved homework assignments to identify and make numerous changes to specific foods that were still satisfying but less loaded with calories.
"Asking people to make healthy decisions, when there are thousands of food choices available, is both emotionally challenging and also complicated," co-author Michael Lowe said in a statement. "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."
Furthermore, the research team repeatedly reminded the HFE group about how challenging weight loss and maintenance would be.
"We said, 'It's impressive and encouraging that you are taking this step to improve your weight and health, but we need to help you understand the daunting challenges you're facing.' The reason we did this was not to discourage them, but to give them a more realistic sense of how crucial it is for them to make lasting changes in their parts of the food environment that they could control," Lowe said.
After three years, they found that those in the HFE group lost more weight and maintained more weight loss but researchers said that the difference in results between the methods was modest. However, the most surprising finding was that those in the HFE group showed the longest, most prolonged increase in cognitive restraint. This was defined by a participants ability to make healthy choices and measured with mediation analysis.
This suggests that the researchers constant acknowledgement of the struggles associated with overhauling one’s health and fitness helped participants control their unhealthy eating habits.
"That is, by questioning the usefulness of building self-control skills, the HFE treatment may have bolstered the very capacity it was meant to downplay – stronger self-control with regard to food," the study authors write.
"Rather than acting as cheerleaders giving facile encouragement, leaders of weight loss groups might serve their clients better by providing a more sobering description of the challenges participants face," Lowe explained.
So before you take on the challenge to lose weight or get fit, it might help to admit how hard the task ahead will be.