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The Main Reason You Can’t Lose Weight

At one time or another in our adult lives, most of us embark on efforts to lose body weight. The typical efforts we employ usually include increasing physical activity in order to burn more calories and making dietary modifications to reduce the number of calories we consume through food and drink. Sometimes we are successful, and other times we are not.

Most often we start out with good intentions and solid commitment, but then many of us lose our resolve to exercise and/or diet within the first few weeks. According to scientists who study various weight loss and healthy weight management approaches, the primary catalysts for our lost resolve are a set of behavioral barriers that conspire to take the wind out of our sails.

When it comes to diet, researchers have identified five main behavioral barriers that seem to stand in the way of achieving meaningful weight loss and prolonged healthy weight maintenance:

  • Lack of self-control (overeating, unable to control portion size and volume)
  • Lack of knowledge (unclear which foods are healthy and which are not)
  • Lack of time (to buy/prepare healthier foods vs. fast/convenient unhealthy options)
  • Taste preferences (healthier food options don’t taste the same as unhealthy options)
  • Cost (healthier food choices are often more expensive)

As one might expect, the primary key to successful weight loss through dietary change is reducing caloric intake. There are many paths to the same end goal (fewer consumed calories); some people reduce portion sizes of the foods they normally eat, others substitute less calorie-dense foods for high-calorie dense foods, some simply halt eating certain high-fat, high-calorie foods altogether and some masochistic individuals attempt all of the above!

When we are unsuccessful in sustaining one or more of these diet-altering approaches, one or more behavioral barriers seem to get in our way and cause us to give up the chase. Given this knowledge, most reputable weight-loss approaches/programs attempt to incorporate methods to eliminate or reduce these barriers in order to keep us headed in the right direction on the weight-loss path.

And according to a new research study published this month online ahead of print in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, there is one particular behavioral barrier from the above list that stands out among the rest as the toughest to beat — and the most effective in generating significant weight loss if overcome.[1]

Seize Control to Win the Weight-Loss Battle

Yes, as simple as it seems, exhibiting greater self-control when sitting down for a meal can make the biggest difference in the success of a weight-loss program (in terms of daily calories consumed and amount of weight lost). So concludes the authors of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior study.

The research team arrived at this conclusion by enrolling 213 obese adults (113 women, 100 men) into their “barriers to healthful eating” study. The study participants ranged in age from 23 to 77 with an average age of 49. All were considered obese with an average Body Mass Index (BMI) rating of 35 but were free of chronic physical disease at the time of enrollment.

The study subjects were assigned randomly to one of two different weight loss treatment approaches that had common elements – restricted-calorie diet plan, exercise plan to increase physical activity and education on weight-management strategies.

At the outset of the study, participants were measured for weight and height, and completed a questionnaire to establish “usual dietary intake” (i.e. the questionnaire asked what foods were typically consumed by each study participant and, based on the answers, the questionnaire tool calculated an associated number of daily calories consumed by each participant).

In addition, each subject completed a 39-item “environmental and motivational barriers to diet and exercise” questionnaire. For each question on this survey, participants were asked to rate their answer on a scale of 1 to 5 where a score of 1 meant the question was “not at all true for me” and a score of 5 meant the question was “very true for me.” Examples of some of the questions on the survey included:

  • I have trouble estimating the calorie and fat content of food
  • I have trouble estimating portion sizes
  • I don’t know what food I should eat to lose weight
  • When I’m very hungry, I have trouble controlling what I eat

After reviewing the weight-loss treatment approaches with the study subjects, the researchers sent the participants off on their own to begin their weight-loss pursuit. Six months into the study and again at 12 months after study commencement, the participants returned to the study center to complete the same questionnaires and had their weight/height measured again. From these data, the research team sought to identify correlation between weight lost and calories consumed over the study period with participants self-scored perceptions of the barriers to eating a healthier diet.

The researchers reported the following findings:

** Lack of control, lack of knowledge and lack of time were the most prominent behaviors noted by study participants as barriers to eating a healthier diet.

** Of these three barrier categories, the one with the highest scores at baseline was “lack of self control” with an average score across all study participants of 3.5 (on the 1 to 5 scale noted above) meaning a majority of the study subjects had significant issues with controlling the volume of food they consume at each meal.

** When researchers looked at the six-month and 12-month questionnaire answers in comparison to these baseline measure, they found those who made the greatest strides in reducing their lack of self control experienced the greatest weight loss and greatest reduction in daily consumed calories. For every 1-point improvement in the aggregated score of the “lack of self-control” related questions, participants lost an average of six pounds and consumed 229 fewer daily calories.

** The weight loss and calorie reduction improvements among those who reported better self-control were higher than improvements achieved by participants who reported better ratings in “lack of knowledge” (117 calories per day reduction and 1 pound weight loss for each 1 point rating improvement) and “lack of time” (75 calories per day reduction and 2.5 pounds weight loss per each 1 point rating improvement).

It should be noted that the research team did not examine the other two healthful eating barriers noted earlier in this article as part of their study (cost and taste). That said, the study authors did note that previous research has reported lack of self control, knowledge and time as the most prominent healthy eating barriers so it is unclear whether adding cost and taste barriers would have materially altered the study’s results.

3 Ways to Improve Eating Self-Control

The net takeaway from this study in our point of view is this: If you’re beginning a new weight loss regimen that includes changing your diet, a good place to start is exhibiting greater self-control when you do eat. While we acknowledge this is easier said than done, three specific ways you can work on eating self-control include:

  • Limit portion sizes at each meal (i.e. smaller first helpings, avoid second helpings)
  • Eat more frequent but smaller meals (i.e. avoid large gaps in time between meals that can contribute to excessive hunger and/or binge eating)
  • Reduce the amount of time spent at the table during a meal (i.e. once you’ve consumed your first helping, avoid the temptation to pick at leftover dishes by pushing back from the table and moving on to other activities)

If this study’s results are to be believed, emphasizing greater eating self-control in comparison to other diet approaches may help you prolong your overall weight-loss program, and that may in turn help you lose more weight and keep it off longer.


[1] Welsh EM, et al. Measuring perceived barriers to healthful eating in obese, treatment-seeking adults. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2011 June 10. [Epub ahead of print].