How to keep going when it's hard to lose weight

Jane Ogden, Professor in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey, gives her tips on staying motivated if you're trying to lose weight.

Eating healthily - saying no to cake

Most of us are much more motivated by carrots than sticks, and that’s important in weight loss too. It’s important not just to see weight loss as the outcome.

You need to reward all the little things that you do along the way to manage your weight, whether it’s exercise, or making the right food choices, or the fact that you thought about it and made the effort. 

Be compassionate with yourself. Not every day is going to be perfect

Try to think 'today I had a really good day because I did only eat at meal times and plan what I was going to eat and I did think about it and try hard'. And don’t get on the scales. Just think, 'that was a really good day because of the effort’ and reward yourself for that.

Use sticker charts or pennies in a jar to recognise the small achievements until you reach a bigger milestone. Then reward yourself. Something small that still feels like a treat to you. It doesn’t have to mean spending money – having a bath, talking on the phone to a loved one, taking time to listen to some music or sit in the garden.

What if it’s been a bad day in terms of healthy eating?

Still try to see what you’ve done well. If you’ve really done nothing well then you can still think 'well, at least I know I’ve not done well which means I’m still sort of trying.' Thinking about it means you haven’t totally given up. Think 'I’ll try harder tomorrow, but at least I’m trying.'

Recognise what went wrong and why and what you might do differently next time

Be compassionate with yourself. Not every day is going to be perfect, but at least there is something in today worth celebrating. Hold on to that and resolve to be a bit better tomorrow. 

But don’t forgive everything! You still need to keep it real – recognise what went wrong and why and what you might do differently next time.

A family eating healthily together

What about the people around us? It can be hard to eat differently from friends and family.

If you have a reason for changing, like a heart attack, then you have a bit more power. People often like things to stay the same, because it makes them feel safe.

So if you try and make changes to what you are going to eat just because you feel like you should, then that can feel irritating to others because then they have to change too. When that happens often the motivation in the family is to sabotage what you are trying to do.

If you’ve had a diagnosis you’re in a powerful position. You can say 'I need to change and I need your help.'

But if you’ve had a diagnosis you’re in a powerful position. You can say 'I need to change and I need your help.'

The trick is to be really explicit about it. If they do say, 'I’ve bought you some chocolates’ then say ‘thank you but I don’t want them anymore.' And that’s easier for you to do because you’ve got a proper reason. 

Maybe your reason for making a change isn’t as dramatic as that. You might have been told that you’re at risk of diabetes, or need to lose weight before surgery, or need to bring your cholesterol and blood pressure down.

Perhaps you’ve been told that your weight is affecting your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. Practice explaining to friends and family why this is important to you and why your health will benefit.   

It’s easy to lose motivation – how can we keep focused? 

If you’ve decided to improve your eating habits, write down as a starting point why you want to do this, and how you feel. Do you feel scared, or more mortal, or are you imagining a future without seeing the children or grandchildren growing up?

Visual imagery is very powerful as a reminder that this could happen again

In a few months or years, if you start feeling more complacent, go back and read this list. If your health meant you ended up in hospital, do you have a photo of yourself in hospital or one taken around that time? Visual imagery is very powerful as a reminder that this could happen again. 

You don’t want to be anxious for the rest of your life, but you do want to have a little bit of you that says 'I’m not going to go back there and this is my chance. This is my wake-up call and I’m going to absolutely grab it.' 

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