Skill-Training Method Works for Weight Loss, Study Finds

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 23, 2000 (New York) -- Hawley, a 37-year-old Internet software engineer from San Mateo, Calif., tended to overeat whenever she was working on a project she hated.

But that was 45 pounds ago. About a year ago, Hawley signed up for a program called the Solution Method, which aims to teach people two skills that proponents of the method say can lead to long-term weight loss: self-nurturing and limit-setting.

"I lost 45 pounds with the program. I basically felt Weight Watchers and other restrictive food plans were a temporary fix and I got tired of them," says Hawley, who spoke to WebMD on condition that her last name not be used. Now, "I don't want to eat when I am not hungry, and I don't look for food to comfort me during stressful times."

The Solution Method "has changed the relationships in my life profoundly," Hawley says. "I am more in touch with my feelings. I know that I like myself and I want to take care of myself," she says, and that means eating more healthfully.

And according to results of a small study recently presentedat a meeting of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in Denver, others are deriving similar benefits from this program, now offered in 150 hospitals nationwide.

The study showed that 19 obese participants lost an average of 13 pounds in the first 12 weeks of training and continued to shed pounds after the treatment ended, maintaining a total weight loss that averaged 17 pounds. Participants also were less depressed, exercised more, and had lower blood pressure levels after joining the program.

Study participants attended a total of 18 two-hour group sessions -- one per week -- to help them learn and practice the developmental skills. They also wrote in journals and phoned other group members to practice these skills. The researchers followed their progress for six years.

Although study author Laurel Mellin, MA, RD, warns that larger studies are needed to confirm the results, she says the results show persistent changes in the participants' emotional and behavioral balance. Mellin is an associate clinical professor of family and community medicine and pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco.

The program, Mellin says, "turns off the drive to overeat without using diets and drugs."

"We teach these developmental skills like you would teach someone how to type, until they become the natural dominant, integral way of functioning," says Mellin, who began developing the Solution Method 22 years ago as a way to treat obese youths. "When people integrate these skills, they make a leap toward soothing and comforting themselves from the inside without external gratifiers like food.

"Traditional weight loss programs provide external sources of nurturing and limits, which can go away," she says. For example, Mellin says, your personal trainer could move away, or your doctor could cut off your diet pill prescription.

During the Solutions sessions, participants are basically taught to ask themselves questions whenever they feel stressed and are tempted to overeat or engage in any other unhealthy behavior, she says. The self-nurturing questions include: How do I feel? What do I need? Do I need support? Among the limit-setting questions are: Are my expectations reasonable? Is my thinking positive and powerful?

The program, she says, works by reprogramming the limbic or "feeling" brain, says Mellin, who has written a book called The Solution: 6 Winning Ways to Permanent Weight Loss.

"Other current obesity interventions focus on information, insight, decision making, and ideas -- all processed by [the] thinking brain, or neocortex," she says. "Unfortunately, there is no significant relationship between the thinking brain and what we do on most primitive behaviors, like eating. This is why a person can have a PhD in nutrition and an eating disorder or why a licensed psychologist can also be depressed."

Mellin believes the Solution Method may one day help people with substance-abuse problems to kick their bad habits. "The drive to do anything to excess, whether it's eating, drinking, smoking, or gambling, goes away," she says.

Gail Frank, RD, DrPh, a spokesperson for the ADA, thinks Mellin's solution makes sense.

"All weight management has to have a sanity about it because if you don't try to think sensibly about food and eating, you can create very neurotic people and disordered eating," says Frank, who also is a professor of nutrition at California State University in Long Beach and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of California at Irvine.

"People need to move out of having food as a reward," she says. "It is important to have sanity -- through food store aisles, menus, and fast-food driving lanes -- to help you make the healthiest choice."

For more information on the Solutions program, visit