When it comes to losing weight, many individuals know to focus on eating less and exercising more. But a major aspect of weight control involves understanding and managing thoughts and behaviors that can interfere with weight loss.
Psychologists can help people make behavioral and lifestyle changes that assist with weight management. They may work with individuals and families independently in their private practice or as part of a health care team, often in a setting where mental health and medical services are integrated. Sometimes a psychologist will work on weight control with a patient who has been referred by a physician, dietitian or other health care professional.
People who seek help from psychologists include those who simply struggle with managing their weight as well as people whose weight problems are related to chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease, or other conditions, like depression, anxiety or eating disorders.
What to expectYour first visit with a psychologist will involve a discussion about your history, including your weight management goals and past efforts to lose weight, medical history, stress levels, current life situation, and sources of social support, like family and friends.
Psychologists also want to learn about your habits and attitudes about food, eating, weight loss and body image that may not support your health goals. Patients commonly say they feel obligated to clean off their plate, need dessert after meals, and feel like a failure when weight loss stalls. Some typical behaviors include eating excessively after exercise, using food to cope with boredom or stress, and eating when they are no longer hungry.
These behaviors and beliefs often sabotage weight loss efforts. Psychologists help identify the triggers that prompt the patient to make unhealthy choices. A psychologist may also evaluate a patient for anxiety, depression and eating disorders such as binge eating, which can contribute to weight gain.
Treatment plan offers guidanceAfter getting a comprehensive picture of a patient, psychologists then discuss what patients are already doing well and should continue as they identify areas of difficulty related to weight management. The psychologist and patient create a treatment plan, which is tailored to the individual but tends to be brief. The plan often involves teaching self-monitoring behavior, changing old beliefs, building new coping skills, and making changes to home and work environments to support health goals.
Many psychologists concentrate on one health behavior at a time. For example, if evenings are a challenging time to maintain good eating habits, the psychologist may ask the patient to keep a log of food eaten in the evenings and make notes about their environment, how they felt, and what they were thinking. These factors provide important information about what is driving eating behaviors and helps the psychologist and patient figure out a way to address them.
Together with the psychologist, a patient can determine how long treatment should last. People with extreme anxiety and depression, eating disorders or chronic physical health conditions, may require longer or more frequent treatment.
For tips on how to change behavior and thinking on the way to a healthier lifestyle, please see sidebar.
Source: The American Psychological Association: www.apa.org/helpcenter