A Psychologist Explains New Study on How Self-Compassion Can Benefit Your Weight Loss Goals, Plus Tips to Succeed

Written by Jessica Yu, Ph.D.

Published 02/01/2024

For the millions of American adults trying to lose weight, the journey can be long and arduous. Weight loss requires a person to make a host of lifestyle changes, think differently about nutrition and exercise (among other things), and demonstrate dedication, patience and perseverance. In fact, weight loss is such a behavioral, mental, and physical undertaking that relatively few stick with it. Studies show that, on average, 40% of people enrolled in weight loss programs drop out of them within the first 12 months.

Researchers from Drexel University’s Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science (WELL) Center may have found the key to helping people stay on their weight loss journeys: self-compassion.

In their study on the role of self-compassion in weight loss, the WELL Center researchers had overweight and obese adults enrolled in a behavioral weight loss treatment program complete a seven-day ecological momentary assessment, or EMA—a method used to understand people’s behaviors and experiences in real time in their natural environments. 

The EMA in this study collected information on whether participants experienced any dietary lapses, whether they responded to those lapses with self-compassion, their mood and their body dissatisfaction. 

The researchers found that self-compassion, specifically being kind to oneself, following a dietary lapse was associated with less negative affect and greater perceived control over weight loss behaviors in the hours after a lapse. They concluded that self-compassion could be an adaptive trait for those working to lose weight, helping them get back on track after experiencing a setback.

The study confirms what psychologists have long known: that our attitude and mindset can have a major impact on our physical health. When it comes to weight loss, cultivating a flexible and encouraging attitude can help a person stick with their goals. 

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It’s common for people to experience some kind of lapse—a day or two of poor eating habits, a couple of missed workouts—during their weight loss journey. Those who are overly rigid or harsh on themselves are likely to see such lapses as failures and give up on their efforts to lose weight. On the other hand, those who are more forgiving and compassionate to themselves are likely to see such lapses as minor blips, and as the study finds, they’re more likely to get back on track.

Dr. Amy Lukowski, a counseling psychologist and expert in health behavior change, says that she always encourages people to acknowledge that lapses will happen, but that they shouldn’t detract from people’s weight loss goals. She tells people, “When you fall off, because you will, get back on your plan as soon as you can.”

Experts encourage people looking to lose weight to set achievable and realistic goals, take a holistic approach to weight loss, and reward themselves for their achievements.

“I like to tell people to break their weight loss into small chunks. If someone has 50 pounds to lose, they don’t have to lose it all at once. They can break it into 10-pound increments and celebrate their milestones,” says Dr. Craig Primack, obesity medicine expert and Senior Vice President of Weight Loss at Hims & Hers. 

He reminds people that three things tend to influence weight loss: diet, movement and sleep. And he notes that medications can help turn off hunger signals and turn on satiety signals, especially for those who have tried and struggled to lose weight in the past.

In short, the weight loss journey isn’t an easy one. But setting realistic goals, being consistent with lifestyle changes, celebrating successes and being kind to oneself for the inevitable and occasional bad days can go a long way toward helping people lose weight.

One final note on self-compassion? We should strive for it more often. Life is hard, and as Dr. Lukowski notes, “You should always be your biggest fan.”

3 Sources

  1. Perna, S., et al. (2022). Two, Six, and Twelve-Month Dropout Rate and Predictor Factors After a Multidisciplinary Residential Program for Obesity Treatment. A Prospective Cohort Study. Frontiers in Nutrition, 9:851802.
  2. Hagerman, C. J., Ehmann, M. M., Taylor, L. C., & Forman, E. M. (2023). The role of self-compassion and its individual components in adaptive responses to dietary lapses. Appetite, 190, 107009. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2023.107009
  3. Shiffman, S., Stone, A. A., & Hufford, M. R. (2008). Ecological momentary assessment. Annual review of clinical psychology, 4, 1–32. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.3.022806.091415
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