10 steps for a successful weight loss mindset
Losing weight may not be simply about the food you eat. Some behavior change research shows that your mindset may be a key factor in your healthy weight loss success.1
That’s because our thought processes can:
- set and maintain our motivations;
- boost our confidence and commitment;
- shape our actions and goal;
- create new healthier habits;
- and help manage the stress and challenges that might cause us to slip.
All this mental preparation may add up to better outcomes and more sustained health and weight loss improvements — especially if linked to an eating plan that you enjoy and that, like a low-carb diet, helps you manage your hunger and cravings.
This practical guide highlights our top 10 positive steps and mental skills that you can foster to create a winning mindset that lets you be ready, willing, and able to succeed with the diet you adopt.2
Key takeawaysPreparing yourself mentally may increase your ability to stick to, and succeed, on a weight loss diet
A series of specific steps may help get you into a winning mindset for weight loss;
Steps include finding your “why”, planning for challenges, setting specific goals, and disarming self-limiting beliefs.
1. Motivation: Find and stay focused on your “why”
What’s your motivation for losing weight? What difference will it make to your life, your happiness, or your health?
Is the reason coming from you, or is someone else saying you need to slim down?
Your own internal reasons, arising from your own values and desires, appear to be more motivating and lasting than those suggested by others.3
Finding your “why” can help sustain you through inevitable challenges and slips. You can ask yourself some specific questions:
- How would you benefit from losing weight or changing your diet?
- What are the good things that would come from weight loss?
- What are the risks or negatives of not changing your diet or not losing weight?
- What consequences might you face from not making a change?
You may have many different motivations. Common reasons often fall into two broad categories: health and appearance.4Appearance-related reasons can be compelling, but research shows they may be less enduring and more likely linked to possible negative results, including poor body image, low self-esteem, using unhealthy methods to lose weight, and, over time, gaining weight back.5 Health-related motivations are linked to more positive long-term outcomes, including more weight lost and less weight regained, and — bonus — an improved appearance and body image as a by-product.6 Explore a few health-related reasons to lose weight. It could be that you want to have more energy, better mobility, reverse metabolic syndrome, improve your heart health, experience less joint pain, sleep better, or to discontinue certain medications.7
Some people post their “why” on their fridge, mirror, or cupboard, so they will see it daily.
Your “why” may change over time, so re-visit, alter, or update it to keep your motivation relevant and inspiring to you.
Other Diet Doctor resources may help in exploring this area:
2. Choose a diet that’s right for you
Once you know your “why,” the next mental task is to think about what diet will be best for you.
We believe a successful weight loss diet should feel like a natural lifestyle choice and not a diet you have to muscle through. It should be satisfying, not leave you feeling hungry or deprived, and fit with your values, lifestyle, and food preferences.
There are many possible ways to lose weight, including low carb, keto, paleo, Mediterranean, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore, low calorie, and low fat. Many people now add intermittent fasting — skipping a meal or two — to one of these diet plans.
A healthy plan shares these common features:
- Prioritizes protein and other essential nutrients
- Includes high nutrition and fiber-filled carbs at a level appropriate for your goals and carb tolerance
- Contains enough fat for flavor and enjoyment
- Does not severely restrict calories for an extended time
- Limits or eliminates ultra-processed foods that combine fat and sweeteners
- Limits or eliminates sources of sugar
- Contains food you enjoy eating
Many people who have tried many different diets over the years find they can achieve success with a well-formulated low-carb or ketogenic diet, especially if they have a lot of weight to lose or have blood sugar issues, such as prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.8
And just like your motivation, over time the diet that is right for you may need revisiting or tweaking. Keep open to adjusting your food choices as you go, based on your progress and preferences.
Other resources to explore:
- Diet Doctor: Low-carb for beginners
- Diet Doctor: Keto for beginners
- Diet Doctor: Low-carb vegetarian
- Diet Doctor: Low-carb vegan diet
- Diet Doctor: Mediterranean diet
- Diet Doctor: Intermittent fasting
- Diet Doctor: High-protein diet: what it is and how to do it
3. Plan for key challenges
What challenges and obstacles may arise when following your diet? What strategies could you use to overcome them?
Research shows that we are more likely able to avoid temptations when we anticipate them and have tailored our environment and relationships to support us.9
Do an honest inventory of all the people, places, or things that may threaten to derail your commitment. Analyze when cravings or temptations are apt to arise. What environments, events, or emotions may make sticking to your diet difficult?
For every challenge or obstacle that you identify, think about possible actions you could take to avoid or overcome that challenge.
- Does someone bring tempting food into the house? Can you ask for their support or plan an alternate food to eat alongside them?
- Do you often pass a favorite donut shop? Can you take a different route?
- Are you used to snacking as you watch TV or drive in the car? Can you change the habit or substitute a healthier snack?
- Do stressful situations or unpleasant emotions tend to drive you to food or drink for comfort or release? Examine instances where uncomfortable emotions like stress, frustration, anger, sadness, shame, guilt, worry, resentment, boredom, envy, loneliness — or any other unpleasant feeling — has you trying to numb it with food or beverages. What could you do instead?
- Is an event on the calendar where it may be tough to stick to your eating plan? Can you bring a diet-friendly dish? Or make a plan around the foods you can eat?
- Is there any other situation, such as travel, where you feel it will be impossible to stick to the diet? Make a plan for how you can “cheat smart” and then get back on track.
Don’t let this process defeat or overwhelm you. Instead, think of it as empowering yourself to face adversity and anticipate tests of your commitment. You are girding yourself with resources and choices in order to triumph over the natural struggles of doing any lifestyle change.
4. Rate your confidence and focus on your strengths
How confident are you that you can keep focused on your motivation as suggested in tip #1, adopt the diet you selected in tip #2, and plan for challenges in tip #3?
This confidence is called “self-efficacy” and it means your level of belief in your own abilities to do the task you’ve set out to do.The more we believe in our abilities to do something, the more we are apt to do it.10 Research shows that it can be helpful to rate your confidence to make a change on a scale of one to 10. Then, look for ways to increase that rating by focusing on your known strengths and abilities.11
Ask yourself, for example, How confident am I that I can stop eating potato chips when watching TV? or How confident am I that I can pass the candy dish on my colleague’s desk without taking one?The higher you rate your confidence, the more you are likely to resist those temptations.12 However, almost no one rates themselves at one or zero. And even if you give yourself a low score, that number can be increased by reframing your mindset.13
For example, if you give yourself a confidence rating of just two or three, ask yourself, Why did I not rank myself even lower? Hidden in the answer are instances of your past resilience or a past success that can be built upon.
Then, ask yourself, What would it take to rank my confidence even higher? Examine if there is anything, or any person, that might help you move that ranking up a few numbers.
This is the time where you focus on your strengths and skills that can be applied to the situation.
- Think of times when you made successful changes in your life. How did you do it?
- What personal character traits do you have that might help you succeed? It may be that you are organized, creative, patient, determined, energetic, or adaptable.14 Even traits with negative connotations, like being stubborn, could be tapped to help you raise your confidence.
- What skills do you have? Some skills that have been shown to directly relate to successful weight loss include:
- Being able to cook, or being willing to learn.
- Having good problem-solving skills.
- Having hobbies that fulfill and relax you.
- Having good coping skills or ways to deal with stress that do not include food
- Having self-monitoring skills, such as noticing what you are feeling and experiencing, keeping a food journal, and being mindful of the food you are eating.
Feelings of confidence can be increased incrementally by breaking down goals into small achievable actions, as described in tip #6. Your confidence can also be increased by putting more positive, supportive people around you, as described in tip #9.
Confidence matters, but small steps that increase confidence may make a big difference.
5. Examine — but don’t believe — self-limiting thoughts
The mental exercise in tip #4 may have revealed an inner critic in your head.
This is the voice that finds fault in what you do or undermines your confidence in your ability to do it.We all have that inner critic, but some of us have voices that are louder or more persistently negative than others. That nagging voice of self-doubt can undermine our efforts because we actually believe those thoughts to be true.15 Thought stopping or other cognitive skills can help, but research shows that trying too hard to suppress negative or self-critical thoughts can actually make them more persistent.16 Instead, people can be taught techniques to examine negative thoughts and diffuse them.17
Approaches to disarm thoughts include the following basic steps:
- Notice the thoughts that you are having. When and why did they arise? Is there a pattern to their arrival or a common situation in which they occur? How do your thoughts make you feel?
- Accept or allow the thoughts to exist. Don’t try to change, suppress, or deny them. This allowance puts space around them. Some call it “watching your thoughts” as if they were balloons or clouds in the sky.
- Don’t believe or identify with the thoughts. They are not you, nor are they true facts. They are just thoughts. When you notice that you are having a negative or difficult thought, say I am noticing that I am having the thought that …
- Commit to an action instead of dwelling on or fighting the thought. Let’s say you are suddenly craving cake and your thoughts say, You are weak … you can’t do this. Answer with, I am noticing I am having the thought that I am weak. And then, decide to go for a walk instead, or call a supportive friend, or do something else that you have planned to do, as described in tip #3, when difficult challenges arise.
If you practice using this technique, you may find that, eventually, you will be able to recognize and defuse difficult thoughts and feelings. Not only could this help with self-doubt but also with hunger, cravings, temptations, and other self-defeating thoughts. The technique may be useful for other issues, such as addictions, anxiety, depression, pain, and other chronic health conditions.
Check out this video demonstration or these Diet Doctor resources:
6. Make SMART goals
When we are trying to lose weight, it’s common to make vague aspirational goals or goals that are not in our control to reach.
A vague goal could be “I’m going to lose weight.” A goal that we can’t control is a number on the scale.
Instead, make SMART goals. These are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based goals.These are small individual steps that we can commit to for a specific time period and that we can control.18
An example of a SMART goal is:
- Specific: I am going to make my lunch each morning this week.
- Measurable: I will note each day whether I did this or not.
- Achievable: I will shop on Sunday and I have the time to get lunches ready before work every day this week.
- Relevant: This will prevent me from eating fast food at work.
- Time-bound: I will try it this week and assess at the end of the week.
SMART goals can often be translated into a series of healthy habits. For example, you can start preparing food ahead, shopping with a list, switching drinks to water or other no-calorie options, having healthy snacks in the car or ready as grab-and-go items in your fridge.
Check out our list of healthy weight loss habits. Any of these habits can be adopted as SMART goals to try as you get started.
Don’t try to do too much too fast. It is better to start slowly to build your confidence and experience.
So do one or two SMART goals at a time. Then, evaluate how it worked for you. Add another goal when you have the first few under your (shrinking) belt.
7. Reframe “failures” as learning opportunities
It’s inevitable: There will be days — or even weeks — when you go off your diet plan.
If it happens, don’t label yourself, or the diet, as a failure. Rather, mentally investigate what happened. What can you learn for next time? How can you get back on track?
Whenever you find yourself “cheating” or slipping on the diet, just use it as a chance to learn what happened and then start again.
Some of your learnings may come from re-visiting this list of mental preparation. Tweak one of the tips and try again.
8. Practice mindful eating
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment without judgment.
In tip #5, you were coached to notice the self-critical thoughts in your head, allowing them to exist without believing them. That’s a mindful practice.
Mindful eating gets you to pay full attention to the cues, sensations, and body signals around the food you eat.
However, there’s no clear evidence from scientific studies that it helps with weight loss. A meta-analysis of mindful eating and intuitive eating interventions concluded that most studies did not show a significant improvement in dietary quality or reduction in calories with these interventions.24
From an evidence-based standpoint, we still have to figure out why mindful eating works in some cases and not others. But from an anecdotal and clinical perspective, it appears mindful eating can work well for many people and comes with little to no risk or cost.
Some of the steps of mindful eating include:
- Eating slowly, really noticing the taste, texture, smell, temperature, look and feel of the food you are eating.
- Eating deliberately, without distraction. This means no smartphones, TVs, or computers. Just pay attention to the food itself.
- Noticing physical sensations in your body around food: cravings, hunger, thirst, fullness, satiety.
- Noticing what triggers stress eating or emotional eating. Are you using food to medicate for bad feelings or reward for good behavior?
Mindfulness is called a practice because you really do have to practice it. But these techniques may help you break the cycle of mindless eating and snacking, control triggers for binge eating, and remove automatic eating habits that may contribute to weight gain.
Eating mindfully is a way of consciously replacing unhealthy eating behaviors with healthier ones.
9. Seek support
You don’t need to travel your weight loss journey alone.
A positive mindset for weight loss can be bolstered by support. Can a partner, friend, or family member do your diet with you? Or, look for an in-person support group, or an online community, to share your questions, struggles, and triumphs.
Weight loss support groups are available in person or online or through smartphone apps. Google “weight loss support group” and dozens near you will arise.
Diet Doctor has a very active community, available through our membership. It is moderated by experienced administrators who link you to key resources and keep the discussion positive and helpful. The emotional and psychological challenges of weight loss often figure in the shared discussion.
10. Embrace a “growth” mindset
What’s a growth mindset?
It’s the willingness to seek out new information, try a different approach, and to adapt or adjust as things change. The term was created by Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized through her research, best-selling books, and TED Talk. It is being flexible and responsive to the inevitable changes that happen in life.
At some point, it is likely that some aspects of your diet may stop working for you.
If that happens, when you cultivate a growth mindset, you are willing to explore and experiment, even reinvent yourself for the next cycle of success.
A growth mindset can foster a resilient personality that is curious and adaptable to unexpected situations, seeing them as a chance to learn, grow, and evolve.
It’s likely that a growth mindset has led you to explore healthy weight loss diets and the mental skills it takes to succeed — and therefore to this guide.
Keep cultivating that mental curiosity as you embark on your weight loss journey.
At Diet Doctor, we believe in being transparent about the strength of the supporting research in our guides. The psychological research presented in this guide tends to be low or very low quality with regards to study controls, outcome measures, and strength of measured differences. However, we still chose to characterize this guide as an evidence-based guide. We try to be clear about the strength of each reference, and we acknowledge that the evidence base isn’t as strong as many of our other evidence-based guides. ↩
More than three decades of behavior change research support these tips. However, most of the research comes from studies in which trained psychologists, therapists, or health coaches work with clients to help them achieve the right mindset for lasting lifestyle change. You can use the same principles and techniques to interrogate your own mental processes and set yourself up for success. If you find you are continually struggling with any of these steps, you may benefit from seeking help from a qualified therapist or health coach specializing in health behavior change. ↩
This is called self-determined or autonomous motivation.
- Health psychology open 2018: Health and appearance reasons for weight loss as predictors of long-term weight change [observational study; very weak evidence] ↩
Health psychology open 2018: Health and appearance reasons for weight loss as predictors of long-term weight change [observational study; very weak evidence]
Eating and weight disorders 2015: The monster in the mirror: the reasons for wanting to change appearance [survey; very weak evidence]
Obesity Reviews 2016: Impact of low‐carbohydrate diet on body composition: meta‐analysis of randomized controlled studies [strong evidence for fat mass loss on very low-carb diets in particular] ↩
Psychological Review 1977: Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavior change. [expert review article; ungraded] Perspectives in Psychological Science 2012: Self-Determination Theory Applied to Health Contexts: A Meta-Analysis [expert review article; ungraded] Health Psychology Reviews 2016: The confounded self-efficacy construct: review, conceptual analysis and recommendations for future research [expert review article; ungraded] ↩
Patient education and counseling 2014: Self-efficacy for temptations is a better predictor of weight loss than motivation and global self-efficacy: evidence from two prospective studies among overweight and obese women at high risk of breast cancer. [prospective cohort study; weak evidence] ↩
Patient education and counseling 2014: Self-efficacy for temptations is a better predictor of weight loss than motivation and global self-efficacy: evidence from two prospective studies among overweight and obese women at high risk of breast cancer. [observational cohort study, very weak evidence] ↩
To help you find some traits you may not have thought about, you can Google “common character traits.” ↩
American Journal of Health Behavior 2014: Negative and positive beliefs related to mood and health [overview article; ungraded] Journal of General Psychology 2019: Self-doubt effects depend on beliefs about ability: Experimental evidence [non-controlled study; weak evidence] ↩
American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 2020: Using the SMART-EST goals in lifestyle medicine prescription [expert review article; ungraded] Patient education and counseling 2009: Goal-setting for behavior change in primary care: an exploration and status report [overview article; ungraded] Child and Adolescent Obesity 2019. Personalizing the Dietary Guidelines: Use of a feedback report to help adolescent students plan health behaviors using a SMART goal approach [overview article; ungraded] ↩
- Appetite 2016: Reduced reward-driven eating accounts for the impact of a mindfulness-based diet and exercise intervention on weight loss: Data from the SHINE randomized controlled trial [randomized trial; moderate evidence] ↩
Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2021: The Influence of Mindful Eating and/or Intuitive Eating Approaches on Dietary Intake: A Systematic Review [systematic review of randomized trials; strong evidence] ↩
- Frontiers of Psychology 2021: Friendship importance around the world: Links to cultural factors, health, and well-being [overview article; ungraded] ↩
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 1999: Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance [randomized trial; moderate evidence] Applied Psychology, Health and Well-being 2018: Group-based diet and physical activity weight-loss interventions: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials [systematic review of randomized trials; strong evidence] Frontiers of Psychology 2018: Overeaters Anonymous: a mutual-help fellowship for food addiction recovery [overview article; ungraded] ↩