6 Behavioral Science Principles That Can Help You Lose Weight

ZeroPoint foods are foods that form the basis of a healthy eating pattern, like fruits and vegetables.
Image Credit: WW

Between figuring out what foods to eat and how many calories to burn, trying to lose weight can feel like it's all about the physical, but your brain can actually play a bigger role than you might think.

It all boils down to how you think, and something called the action-intention gap, which is a fancy name for the difference between what people want to do versus what they actually end up doing, says Allison Grupski, PhD, director of behavior change strategies and coaching at WW (formerly Weight Watchers).

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"What we do is impacted by all sorts of factors — how we're feeling, the thoughts going through our minds, our past experiences, the habits we've developed and the environment around us, just to name a few," Grupski says.

Behavioral science seeks to understand those factors and can be used to help people do more of what they really want to do in regards to living a healthy life. So, while learning which foods and workouts work for you is important, understanding a few different behavioral science principles can help you tackle your weight-loss goals and the obstacles keeping you from hitting them.

Principle 1: Self-Efficacy

When embarking on a weight-loss journey, believing you can reach your goals is actually part of the battle. "Self-efficacy is the confidence or belief we have in our ability to complete a specific task," Grupski says. "We are more likely to take action when we believe we'll succeed, and we're more likely to keep pushing forward, even in the midst of setbacks, when our self-efficacy is higher."

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Creating small, achievable goals instead of lofty, long-term ones can help keep you motivated (think: "eat an extra serving of veggies every night this week" instead of "lose 40 pounds this year").

And don't forget to cheer on your friends who are reaching their goals (like you can do via the WW Connect app) as well. "When we see people who we can relate to succeed, it increases our belief that we can, too," Grupski says. "WW leverages the power of community and member-to-member connections, providing members with opportunities to learn from and be inspired by one another's successes along the way."

Principle 2: The Abstinence Violation Effect

It sounds serious, but if you're trying to lose weight, there's a good chance you're familiar with this concept — which is the name for feeling like you've failed when you don't follow your plan perfectly, and then just giving up entirely.

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To avoid throwing in the towel, find a system that works for you. For example, WW members have a certain number of SmartPoints per day (based on which plan they're on), but they also have a total number of SmartPoints for the week. That way, if they eat more SmartPoints than they have budgeted for at a meal or over the course of a day, they can rely on a bank of additional SmartPoints that provide a cushion, Grupski says.

"Additionally, having ZeroPoint foods (learn more about ZeroPoint foods here) ensures that members are never in a situation where there is nothing they can eat without going over or further over their budget." Each myWW plan has different levels of flexibility (and different numbers of ZeroPoint foods), so members can choose a personalized plan that best sets them up for success.

Cheering on friends with similar weight-loss goals to yours can help reaffirm that you, too, can reach your goals.

Principle 3: The Ostrich Effect

While it's important to celebrate your successes, it's also important not to bury your head in the sand (hence the name of this principle) when you're not sure if you've been hitting your goals.

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"The ostrich effect refers to human's tendencies to bury our heads in the sand [like ostriches do] to avoid information or experiences that we expect will cause us discomfort," Grupski says. "For example, we tend to avoid weighing ourselves because we 'don't want to know,' especially if we think our weight has gone up. But research has shown that weighing ourselves regularly is an important behavior when it comes to losing and maintaining weight, so WW programing aims to minimize the impact of the ostrich effect."

For WW, it's more about the act of weighing yourself rather than the actual number. By weighing yourself regularly (WW encourages weekly weigh-ins instead of daily) you'll become more in tune with your body and normalize day-to-day ups and downs.

Principle 4: Friction vs. Fuel

"Friction is anything that makes a behavior less likely to happen (you're tired, you are surrounded by tempting foods, the behavior requires a lot of complicated steps)," Grupski says. "Fuel is anything that increases the likelihood of it happening (feeling energized, knowing how to do it, the behavior is inherently pleasurable)."

Setting your workout clothes out the night before or keeping processed foods out of your home are a few ways to remove friction. For WW members, the WW app is a key resource for both decreasing friction and increasing fuel. On the friction front, the app has tools like a barcode scanner that quickly tells you a food's point value — thus, reducing friction — and ZeroPoints foods don't even need to be measured or tracked. On the fuel front, users can score in-app wellness rewards and healthy-living content to fuel them up with all the knowledge they need to be successful.

Principle 5: Scarcity Effect

"When we attempt to rigidly restrict certain foods from our diets or say they are 'off limits,' a feeling of deprivation can develop that can backfire, making us more likely to eventually overdo it on those foods," Grupski says. Put simply, when you label things as off limits, you'll want them more.

Instead of labeling certain food groups as "good" or "bad," try adopting an anything-in-moderation stance. "This is one of the principles behind the WW approach that 'all foods fit,'" Grupski says. "WW encourages members to approach all foods in a balanced way, making room to fit in favorite foods and avoiding elimination approaches."

That means with WW, every food is on the menu, and you can even have unlimited quantities of ZeroPoint foods (though of course balance is the ultimate goal), meaning members don't have to worry about not having foods to choose from when they still feel like eating.

Principle 6: Practicing Self-Compassion

Lastly, the way you talk to yourself about your weight-loss journey matters. "Practicing self-compassion essentially means talking to ourselves the way we talk to people we care about," Grupski says.

Since people have a tendency to focus on the negative, WW flips the script by encouraging you to highlight the things that are going well. "This is important because getting stuck in self-defeating thoughts (i.e. what I did 'wrong') gets in the way of progress and growth," Grupski says. According to Grupski, the WW Coaches as well as tools within the app (like meditation guides) encourage self-compassion.

If you want to try WW out for yourself, snag two months of the digital program for over 50 percent off here.

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