Calling Weight Loss Difficult Can Improve Weight Loss Success

Close-up of an apple with a measuring tape around it and chrome dumbbells at the background. Weight loss support strategies often involve little more than a “You can do it!” mantra. But according to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, strategies aimed solely at promoting self-control may not help with long-term weight loss. Instead, admitting weight loss is difficult may be a more effective strategy.

Three Weight Loss Interventions

Dieting, behavioral therapy, and lifestyle changes can all help people lose weight. Yet most people trying to shed weight gain it back with time. This phenomenon has perplexed mental health providers and weight loss experts alike.

Researchers from Drexel University analyzed whether specific interventions could promote sustained. They recruited 262 adults whose body mass index (BMI) classified them as overweight or obese. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups. Their weight was assessed at 6, 12, 18, 24, and 36 months. The study also assessed participants’ attitudes toward food, binge eating, food cravings, quality of life, and sense of restraint around food.

One group received behavioral therapy alone. This approach is currently considered the “gold standard” for weight loss. It includes weigh-ins, exercise, goal-setting, food intake monitoring, and group support. Behavioral therapy tries to improve self-control and self-efficacy regarding health choices.

A second group received behavioral therapy plus meal replacements. They substituted their usual breakfast and lunch with shakes or nutrition bars.

A third group received a novel intervention that focused on modifying their home food environment (HFE). The group had homework assignments to help participants replace unhealthy foods at home with healthy alternatives. The intervention included health education and group support. Yet unlike the BT group, the intervention downplayed the importance of self-control in weight loss. Instead, the group heard reminders that weight loss is very difficult and maintaining weight loss is even harder. Researchers hypothesized this strategy would motivate participants to make realistic goals.

Why Weight Loss Requires More Than Self-Control

All three groups were able to lose weight the first year. But by the three-year mark, all three groups regained much of the weight. The HFE group lost and kept off the most weight over three years. The HFE group did this despite failing their original goal: to replace unhealthy foods at home.

The HFE group also had higher cognitive restraint than the other two groups. The study’s authors suspect the messages about the difficulties of weight loss caused a reverse psychology effect. The HFE group may have been inspired to “push back” and become more vigilant about their eating habits. The researchers called this development “more than a little ironic.”

The study’s authors say mantras about self-control may be counterproductive. Acknowledging that weight loss is difficult, they argue, may prepare people to make lasting changes. This insight could shed light on more effective weight loss strategies.


  1. Lowe, M. R., Butryn, M. L., & Zhang, F. (2018, January 26). Evaluation of meal replacements and a home food environment intervention for long-term weight loss: A randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 107(1), 12-19. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqx005
  2. To improve self-control, call weight loss what it is: Difficult. (2018, January 29). Drexel NOW. Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Woden

    February 22nd, 2018 at 4:24 PM

    Reverse Psychology strikes again!

  • Bibek B.

    March 18th, 2018 at 8:14 AM


  • Bibek B.

    March 18th, 2018 at 8:13 AM

    Great article Mr. Villines. I hope many people like me will be benefited from your article. Looking forward to see many more like this. Incidentally, I recently used The Red Tea Detox, which helped me a lot during my weight loss program. You may also find that helpful.

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