Realistic goals could make weight loss easier, new study says | The Triangle

Realistic goals could make weight loss easier, new study says

Photograph courtesy of

A new study by psychologists at Drexel University has found that when it comes to weight loss, a more realistic strategy may create a better outcome.

Participants in the study were more motivated to lose weight when they were told that it was hard, as compared to being told that they could do it. One of the authors of this study is Michael Lowe, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. According to him, this study’s findings have conflicting implications.

“On one hand, giving overweight people a realistic sense of the dilemma that they are in and the powerful forces they are up against — including a genetic predisposition toward obesity and an increased susceptibility to many food cues in the environment — may actually promote cognitive restraint over their eating in the short-term,” Lowe said. “But, on the other hand, this message did not motivate participants to make numerous changes to the foods they surround themselves with.”

Lowe and a team of researchers enrolled 262 overweight and obese individuals into the study. They assigned each of them one of three methods: behavior therapy, behavior therapy and meal replacements, or a technique focused on getting people to change foods in their home food environments. The research team wanted to discover how effective these weight loss methods were and tracked each individual’s weight over three years.

Behavior therapy is a weight loss treatment where the aim is to successfully raise someone’s self regulation over food intake and exercise, although the study found that one’s self control is hard to maintain and that weight is likely to be regained.  

This caused Lowe and his research team to hypothesize that modifying the home food environment (HFE) would be the most effective strategy for losing weight and maintaining weight loss. Participants in this group were given homework assignments that asked them to identify foods and make changes that were still satisfying but healthier.

“Asking people to make healthy decisions, when there are thousands of food choices available, is both emotionally challenging and also complicated,” Lowe said. “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.”

The HFE group were constantly reminded by the researchers how challenging weight loss can be. The idea was to acknowledge a participant’s vulnerability to overeating their favorite foods.

Researchers suggest that, by making changes to foods in their environments, participants would be reducing the need to exercise self control to maintain the weight that they lost.

At the end of the three year period, it was found that those in the HFE group lost more weight than those in the behavior therapy group. However, all participants showed signs of heading toward weight regain.

“We failed to get them to translate our warnings into the kind of actions we were trying to get them to take,” Lowe said.

These warnings did manage to have a positive effect. Cognitive restraint showed the most prolonged increase in the HFE group as compared to the other groups.

This suggests that the researchers’ constant reminder of how hard losing weight is may have caused the HFE group to fight against weight gain and strive to succeed.

Regardless, the HFE group did not make greater changes to their home food environment. This suggests that future studies should focus on how to better monitor and improve this weight loss intervention.

This study reinforces just how challenging it can be for those seeking to maintain weight loss, which leads to the question of whether or not there should there be more done to prevent obesity.

“Once these conditions develop and you are continuing to live in the same obesogenic environment, it is unrealistic to expect that many people will be able to sustain a large weight loss,” Lowe said.  “Society ultimately needs to prevent these unhealthy weight gains before they occur.”