Giving up cookies helps. So does swimming an extra lap or two in the pool. But no matter how religiously you diet and exercise, experts say, you'll never make a permanent change to a healthier lifestyle without the right attitude.
Elaine Wicks of Canastota, N.Y., knows that all too well. At 195 pounds, it took a major shift in how she looked at herself -- and how she felt -- to make a change.
"Attitude, and the supportive attitude of the people around you ... is such a major part of weight loss and adopting a healthier lifestyle," says Wicks, who now weighs 135. "If you're completely positive and have that 'I can do it' attitude, you're going to go for a walk around the block instead of sitting down with a bag of chips."
The first step in changing your attitude, experts say, is to recognize that you need to exercise both your body and your mind.
"Dieting and eating well are both an exercise in physical abilities as well as mental abilities," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "It's mind over matter -- that's what drives behavior." Your best protection against bad habits is something called self-efficacy, says Brian Wansink, PhD, a consumer psychologist.
"It's believing that you can do it, and starting with the right attitude that you can accomplish your weight loss goals, and having the power and the stamina to do it," he says.
But what if you simply can't muster up such a can-do attitude? Give yourself the pep talks, get support -- and just start adopting those healthier habits anyway.
"Habits make up eating styles, and eating styles define how and what one eats," Moores says. "They are directly linked with psychology, emotion, and mental outlook."
In other words, changing your habits, and maybe even getting rid of a few particularly nasty ones -- like triple chocolate fudge ice cream -- can actually help to change your attitude.
When Doubt Sinks In
Believing you can do it means you can. Having doubts, however, makes failure loom larger.
"It's called tyranny of the moment," says Wansink, who is also director of the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois. "It's not having a solid attitude. ... You end up uniquely rationalizing every situation you're in so that you can eat the food that you know is causing the problem." Where does this kind of negative thinking come from, just when you're trying to adopt new habits?
"It's frustration; depression; a sense of a lack of control or power over your abilities; rejection; lack of support; or a sense of deprivation," says Moores. For many people, it's believing that making healthy changes "won't be fun or enjoyable. They feel like they'll be missing out on life."
That's not necessarily the case, as Elaine Wicks found out. In fact, she says, her positive attitude and outlook had her exploring a whole new world.
"As your weight goes down, you get more and more positive," says Wicks. "And as that happened to me, I got even more adventuresome in doing things I normally wouldn't have done -- Rollerblading, roller skating, cross-country skiing, riding four-wheelers, things I had never done before."
But when you're just starting out, how do you get the attitude you need to succeed? Wicks, Moores, and Wansink offer some suggestions:
1. Have a good support system. "It's easy for your attitude to get lost, especially if you have someone who is walking into the living room every night with a bowl of ice cream," says Wicks. "It so important to have a support system that believes in you and wants to help -- friends, family, and the person you're with.
"I have someone who is my lifeline to everything, not just this. He makes every effort to cook what I'm supposed to have, buy what I'm supposed to have, and he's a sounding board and stands behind me in front of the mirror and says, 'You look gorgeous in that red dress.'"
As a member of the Weight Loss Clinic, it's easy to find this kind of support. You can connect with a weight loss buddy or just get an attitude adjustment whenever you need it on our community message boards.
2. Throw away those old clothes. "I threw out my fat clothes -- it's very easy if they're there to go back up to those sizes," says Wicks. "If you throw them out, you say, 'I can't afford to buy a new wardrobe.' So if your pants get snug, you know you have to watch it and keep that positive attitude for your body and your wallet."
3. Look in the mirror -- and like what you see. "One of the big things that helped me was when I went into the bathroom every morning, I would look in the mirror and give myself pep talks, whether they were in my head or out loud," says Wicks. "I would tell myself, 'Hi, beautiful!' It sounds silly, but it really helped make me feel better and give my attitude a jump-start in the morning to get my day started right."
4. Keep up with your journal. You already know that keeping track of your food intake and physical activity can help set you on the road to healthier habits. But you can also use your journal to help you adopt a healthier attitude. Use the "Notes" section of your journal to keep track of the ups and downs of how you're feeling.
"Consider ways to learn from the valleys in order to achieve more peaks," says Moores.
5. Learn from others. "Find others who have been successful," says Moores. "Talk with them about the pitfalls and how they mustered the willpower to carry on." You can find such role models on the Weight Loss Clinic's community message boards. Visit The New You: Maintenance board to talk to people who have met their weight loss goals.
6. Bring in the cavalry. "Meet with a dietitian when the going gets tough," says Moores. "Bring in the cavalry to help get you over the hump." WebMD Weight Loss Clinic dietitian Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is always just an email away on our Ask the Dietitian board.
7. When faced with temptation, take a break. "Give yourself a break so your attitude can take hold in those tempting moments," says Wansink. "If you're out with your friends and they just ordered fried mozzarella sticks -- something very tempting -- it's your attitude that keeps you from saying, 'What the heck?'
"So give yourself a break. Put a physical, distracting distance between you and the food -- go to the bathroom, put on lipstick -- anything that gives you time to grab on to that attitude."
8. Never, never give up. "Adopting a whole new attitude is not something that goes away," says Wicks. "With losing weight, once you lose it, that's not the end, you can easily gain it back plus more. So you always have to keep your attitude and your braveness."
Originally published August 14, 2004
Medically updated July 26, 2005.