Dropping self-criticism seems to help people drop pounds too

Most people don’t like getting harsh criticism from others. The reality is, though, many of us can be our own worst critics. This is particularly the case with regard to weight and body image. Some of us can consciously and unconsciously spend a lot of time feeling a range of negative emotions about our size and shape. For some, such self-judgements can lead to a tendency to eat poorly, which can compound any weight issues (and so the cycle repeats).

I was interested to read a study published recently in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity [1]. Conducted it Lisbon, Portugal, it took 239 overweight and obese women and enrolled them into a year-long programme. Half of the women were given information and support regarding healthy eating, stress management, and the importance of looking after oneself. The other group got all this, but attended regular group sessions too. A major focus of these sessions was dealing with body image issues. The women who attended the group sessions made progress in this regard, and also found it easier to regulate their eating.

They lost, on average, 7.3 per cent of their initial body weight, compared to just 1.7 per cent in the other group.

This study seems to show there is some value in making peace with one’s own body. In the study, the women coached regarding body image issues attended 30 groups sessions over the course of the year-long study. This sort of intervention will be unobtainable for most, I fear.

So, is there an easy-ish way to overcome a negative body image? My belief is that changing thoughts is generally hard. What works better, I think, is to replace negative thoughts with new, more positive ones. Here’s a quick three-step guide that individuals often find can get and keep them in the right mental space for sustaining healthy behaviours.

See It

It’s important to have a clear image in your mind of the benefits and improvements you’re looking to achieve through following the advice in this book. The idea here is to positively move towards your desired outcome. This could be, for example, a smaller waist, or increased fitness, or enhanced vitality.

The mental approach here is not the same, by the way, as not wanting to be fat, unfit and fatigued. There’s an old adage: ‘What you resist, persists.’ So, keep your focus on positive goals, and have a clear mental picture of what these look like.

Some who have a lot of weight to lose (say, several stones) can find they’re somewhat daunted by the apparent enormity of the task they face. A useful trick can be to focus on an intermediate goal, such as getting into the next dress size or trouser size down. Once this is achieved, a new goal can be set.

Feel It

After forming a positive image of the changes you desire, engage with this emotionally. Imagine what it would feel like to achieve these goals and get excited about it.

Be It

The final step is to act in accordance with the improved version of yourself you desire to be. Eat the health-giving foods the ‘new you’ eats. Engage in activities you believe the lighter, healthier version of you would take part in. Do anything and everything that is representative of the person you aspire to be.


1. Carraca EV, et al. Body image change and improved eating self-regulation in a weight management intervention in women. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2011,8:75 doi:10.1186/1479-5868-8-75

(click here for a pdf of this study)

5 Responses to Dropping self-criticism seems to help people drop pounds too

  1. zephyr haversack 20 July 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    There’s a wonderful book out, The Self Compassion Diet, by Jean Fain, who is a clinical psychologist and hypnotist, and I think teaches at the Harvard Medical School. What Dr. Briffa describes is visualizing a healthier, slimmer selfm, which is a useful action to take. However, Dr. Fain’s suggestions lean more towards treating oneself with compassion and acceptance, plus doing some inner work to determine why one wants to eat — as we all know, frequently, it’s due to boredom, stress, etc. — basically, paying real attention to one’s true needs. She offers many meditations and I think there’s some videos online where she does a guided light trance.

  2. Jane Collingwood 22 July 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    I think this is the best weight loss mindset, much more positive.
    Another great book is Eating Less by Gillian Riley. It also talks about being kind to yourself, and staying conscious of what you’re eating, e.g. thinking “I’ll have the cake, but I accept the negative consequences for my self-esteem”.
    Then you might think “Actually I won’t, and I’ll feel proud of myself instead”.

  3. ValerieH 22 July 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    Thank you very much for this article. I have struggled with this quite a bit. Mental habits are difficult to change. The silly thing is believing the negative thoughts!


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