Focusing on Long-Term Weight Loss: The Art of the Possible

Judith Beck_Deborah Beck Busis_2014-2015.jpgDeborah Beck Busis, LCSW

Diet Program Coordinator

Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy

A recent article in the American Journal of Public Health (Fildes et al., 2015) reiterates the disheartening statistics on weight loss. This study and many others have shown that most obese people who lose weight gain it back.  In our experience, a major reason for this outcome is that dieters make changes that they are unable to sustain. For example, they reduce their calories too much, eliminate favorite foods, decline social events that include food, or set exercise goals that are too strenuous or time-consuming. When they inevitably return to previous eating, social, and exercise habits, they regain weight, feel helpless, become hopeless and stop their weight loss efforts altogether.


To reverse this trend, we ensure that every change we suggest is reasonable and maintainable. This means that dieters usually do not lose weight as quickly as they have in the past or lose as much weight as they would like. But they are much more likely to keep off the weight (plus about five pounds or so) that they do lose. Our philosophy is that successful weight loss entails figuring out the art of the possible.


One of our dieters, for example, had a very busy schedule and disliked cooking. Through a variety of standard cognitive therapy techniques, we helped her prioritize exercise and healthy eating and then did problem solving. She committed to exercise 30 minutes three to four times a week, which meant reducing (but not eliminating) the time she spent watching television and reading for pleasure. She also chose not to cook dinner at home, so we created a list of healthy take out and frozen options and planned when she could make the time to pick up her food.  Could we have persuaded her to commit to several hours of shopping and cooking every Sunday to prepare healthy meals for the week? Probably. But as she disliked cooking, it seemed likely that at some point she would stop prioritizing and scheduling cooking and be left unprepared with no healthy food for the week.


Another dieter really loved pizza but believed, like many people, that he had to stop eating it altogether to lose weight.  Dieters frequently try to eliminate certain foods or entire food groups, but they almost always revert at some point to eating their favorite foods again (which is fine, as long as it is in moderation). Once they begin eating the “forbidden” food again, though, they overdo it, because they haven’t learned to plan when and how much they’re going to eat nor how to stick to this plan. They interpret their abstinence violation as a sign that they are off track and then have difficulty regaining control over their eating overall.


We taught this dieter a combination of cognitive and behavioral skills so he could stay in control around pizza. First we made a plan. He would go to a pizza shop several times and order two large slices to take out. We identified likely thoughts that would interfere with this plan and created strong responses that he read before he went. He practiced this plan several times, bringing the pizza home so he wouldn’t have immediate access to more. Once he gained confidence in his ability to eat a reasonable amount of pizza in a controlled environment, he practiced eating pizza in more difficult circumstances–when he went out to dinner and to a party. Each time we predicted the thoughts he might have that could lead him off track and developed coping cards for him to read. He was able to gain the skills and confidence to control himself around pizza, which significantly increased the probability of his keeping weight off long-term.


It just doesn’t work for most dieters long term to make changes they can sustain only in the short term. We believe that reversing the dismal statistics on weight loss starts first with a focus on the art of the possible and is predicated on two words: reasonable and maintainable.