I'm A Behavioral Scientist & This Is Why People Fail At Their Weight Loss Goals

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August 22, 2022 — 9:39 AM

Why do so many of us fail at nutrition and weight loss goals? You may start a specific intention (be it an eating or exercise plan) with a full tank, but it can be difficult to keep the habit up as time goes on. Temptations arise, your motivation wanes, and soon enough you’re back at the starting line. How do you give your healthy habits a bit more longevity? 

That’s where behavioral sustainability scientist Michelle Segar, Ph.D., author of The Joy Choice, comes in: On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, Segar shares how to create sustainable, long-term healthy behaviors and what’s keeping us from reaching our well-being goals. Below, she discusses four of the most common nutrition “traps” and exactly how to escape them: 

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: You’re getting ready to go to the gym or for a walk around the neighborhood, but the cozy couch is calling your name, or you’re at a party and feel a visceral pull to the slice of chocolate cake glistening across the room. “We face these temptations all the time, and they pull us away from what we hope to do,” says Segar. “But what people don’t know is that the temptations calling to us are not actually what we’re looking at… It’s actually our past histories with those things.” 

Meaning, it’s not the actual food itself that has power over you; it’s the emotional connections you have with those items. “[When you] understand why your past experiences are tempting you away from your intentions and plans, then you have more control over these things,” says Segar.

Next up, we have rebellion. “Rebellion is this force that people experience when they’re starting a new eating plan,” Segar shares. “If people feel that they should do [something,] their natural human tendency is to want to rebel against it.” Essentially, it’s a classic case of “you want what you can’t have.” For example, let’s say you’re following a restrictive diet that eliminates sugar—when you see that glistening chocolate cake from across the room, you might want it even more. 

“Eventually there’s a booming effect and you rebel against your intention,” Segar adds. “And instead of just having some of the cake, you eat three pieces of it, because the energy is this reactance and rebellion against the, I can’t, I should, I’m being forced to do this.” 

Here, we have the accommodation trap. “This is a very different type of trap,” says Segar, as it actually has good intentions. Allow us to set the scene: You’re at a friend’s party, and again, you notice that same rich chocolate cake. You’re not tempted to grab a slice, and there’s no sense of rebellion, but then your friend approaches you with said cake and offers you a piece (and some pizza, too). 

Instead of sticking to your plan, “you want to honor their needs to care for you, so you just take it and say thank you,” Segar explains. “You eat the whole thing, and you feel terrible because you’re trying to accommodate their needs instead of your own.” You may have good intentions, but try to remember that your eating choices are yours, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to indulge to show your appreciation or fit in; a true friend will respect your choices, anyway. 

All of the previous three traps ultimately ladder up to perfectionism. “We have been taught that we’ve got to do [everything] right,” says Segar. “You’ve got to plan to exercise; you’ve got to plan to eat. And if you can’t follow the plan, it’s not worth doing.” But this all-or-nothing mindset often fails because if you make one tiny misstep, you might throw all of your progress out the window and reject your intentions entirely. 

Rather, “being flexible and doing some part of our plan, instead of trying to do it all, actually will set most of us up for better success,” Segar notes. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when that all-or-nothing thinking is so ingrained in our brains. But once we understand that this mindset is not productive, it frees us up for more flexibility. As Segar adds, “There are going to be ups and downs and forks in the road. Know that they’re part of the path to lasting change.” 

When it comes to implementing healthy eating habits, a few common traps can keep you from maintaining your goals. The key, according to Segar, is to name those traps so you can eventually overcome them. (She even offers a quiz to determine which specific disrupter you’re dealing with.) By calling out whatever is getting in your way, you take away some of its power. 

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