Research shows ditching your inner critic is the key to long-term weight loss

Date: 05 January 2016

  • 98% of slimmers will have a lapse at some point
  • 84% of slimmers said they gave themselves a hard time after a slip-up. Many saw themselves as weak, stupid or a failure
  • 78% of people who had been self-critical after a lapse were unsuccessful at losing weight and 47% gained weight 
  • After learning to be kinder to themselves, slimmers were much more successful - 81% of the most self-reassuring group lost weight and kept it off
  • Amy Dugan shares how she lost 10st after learning to be kinder to herself after lapses

On the most popular day of the year to start a new diet*, new research reveals that if people really want to lose weight for the long-term then they need to learn to be kinder to themselves when they go off-track.

The Slimming World survey of 1,722 slimmers found that 98% have experienced a slip-up when trying to lose weight, going off-track in a way that they worried would affect their weight loss journey. However, it’s how people feel about themselves after a lapse that’s most crucial to long-term slimming success, with the survey showing that while self-criticism often leads to comfort eating and giving up completely, when people learn to be kind to themselves they quickly get back to healthy eating and they lose weight and keep it off.  

After going off-track on a past diet, many respondents said they had felt that they were ‘weak’ (68%), ‘a failure’ (65%), ‘disgusting’ (42%) or ‘stupid’ (36%), with only a small proportion seeing themselves as ‘human’ (14%) or ‘determined’ (5%). While 84% said they had typically been critical of themselves in this way after a lapse, only nine per cent said they would have been similarly harsh with someone else in their position.

The survey showed that being self-critical after a lapse had an impact on people’s behaviour and weight. In response to negative feelings after going off-track on a past diet, many respondents turned to food for comfort (50%) or even gave up completely (34%) and only 6% got back on-track by the end of the next day. In the weeks following a lapse, 78% were unsuccessful at losing weight as a result of this behaviour, with at least 47% gaining weight. 

For the last two years, Slimming World has been working with the University of Derby and the Compassionate Mind Foundation, looking at how developing tools to help people be more reassuring to themselves, and to calm their inner critic, can help them to better manage their eating behaviour for the long term. The new survey shows that since attending weekly group support sessions, Slimming World members have typically learned to reduce how critical they are of themselves when things go wrong and have instead become more self-reassuring, leading to healthier behaviours after a lapse. 

After going off-track, more respondents now saw themselves as ‘human’ (46%) and ‘determined’ (45%), than ‘weak’ (36%) and like ‘a failure’ (27%).  As a result, rather than taking comfort in food, most now got straight back to making healthier choices (58%), even more got back to eating healthily by the end of the next day (64%) and the vast majority lost weight in the weeks following the lapse (84%).

And while slimmers in general had learned to become less self-critical as a result of group support, the survey found that those who had learned to be most self-reassuring achieved the best results. Far more likely to see themselves as human (64%) and determined (74%) after a lapse than as weak (5%) or a failure (2%), these ‘self-reassurers’ were found to be the least likely to comfort eat (two per cent), the most likely to get back to healthy eating before the end of the next day (82%) and the most likely to lose weight and keep it off (81%). This suggests that the more people are able to reassure themselves with positive thoughts rather than beating themselves up after going off-track, the more quickly they get back to eating healthily and the more likely they are to lose weight for the long-term.

Professor James Stubbs from Slimming World and the University of Derby, says: “When we’re trying to lose weight it’s inevitable that, on occasion, life will get in the way. It’s often how we respond emotionally to going off-track that dictates whether we recover quickly or whether the lapse leads to us giving up completely. 

“Our research shows that we’re often very hard on ourselves after a lapse and, far from being motivating, this can actually knock our confidence even further. We need to learn to treat ourselves as we would a best friend, in a way that’s encouraging, supportive and without blame – this is called self-kindness. Most of the survey respondents agreed that they would never be as critical of someone else who had gone off-track as they are of themselves and we need to help people learn from that.

“We also need to remember that lots of people struggle with their weight and go off-track, it’s human nature. Realising that you’re not alone in this can help you to be kinder to yourself when things go wrong. That’s one reason that group support is so effective, as by sharing problems and solutions with other people, you realise you’re really not alone and you have a network of people like you who really understand and care, to help pick you back up when things go wrong. After all, things will often go wrong, and learning to cope with lapses is key to successful weight loss in the long-term.”

Case study - "I lost 10st after learning to draw a line under it after going off-track"

Amy Dugan, aged 26 from Norfolk

Starting weight - 21st 13lbs 

Current weight - 11st 8.5lbs 

Weight loss: 10st 4.5lbs

Amy says that learning to be kinder to herself when things go wrong has been a key factor in her success.

She says: “I’d struggled with my weight from the age of 10, when I began comfort eating after losing my two brothers in a house fire. From that point, whenever something was troubling me in my life I would turn to food to make me feel better. It became a vicious cycle that I didn’t seem able to break, and I was desperately unhappy.

“By the time I left university I weighed more than 19st. I wore size 28-30 trousers at my graduation and was so ashamed of how I looked in the official photo that I refused to let my grandparents have a copy.

“In the end I just didn’t like the person staring back at me in the mirror. I was fed up of being too scared to go out with my friends, sick of not being able to fit in the cinema seats, making excuses not to go to theme parks for fear I'd get on a ride and they would ask me to get off again because of my weight. I wanted all those things my friends were doing - careers, families, finding love...but thought how could I expect someone to love me when I didn't love myself?

“I tried losing weight on my own lots of times. I’d have periods of eating healthily or going to the gym and it would work at first, I’d lose a stone or so and I’d start to think that maybe this time I’d be able to stick with it. However, eventually I’d have a slip up, as everyone does from time-to-time when trying to make healthier choices. Without someone there to help me gain perspective, I just felt like I’d completely blown it and so I may as well finish that family packet of crisps or get a takeaway instead of cooking. It made me feel guilty and so my emotional eating would continue and I’d regain all the weight I’d lost.

“I joined Slimming World in July 2014 after being inspired by a work colleague who lost 6st. I received such a warm welcome and was delighted to find that I could lose weight while still enjoying my favourite meals, like curry or spaghetti bolognaise, just by making a few small changes to the way I prepared and cooked them.

“As someone who struggled with comfort eating and feeling guilty about it, it was a revelation for me to be able to share experiences with other people who understood what I was going through. Through fantastic support, I’ve learned to recognise that everyone goes off-track sometimes when trying to lose weight, so it’s not something to feel guilty about. As my Slimming World Consultant, Kirsti, said, you wouldn’t throw away a whole bunch of flowers just because one of them died, so why should a bad day lead to you giving up on your weight loss journey completely?

“Since losing weight my confidence has improved ten-fold and I’ve managed to change the way I respond if ever things going wrong – and they still do occasionally. Like anyone, I’ll sometimes make an unhealthy choice, for example if I get home at the end of a long day and don’t have anything prepared or if I’m particularly stressed or upset, I might still reach for the takeaway menu occasionally. The difference now though is that rather than dwelling on it and allowing it to be the catalyst for something bigger, I draw a line under it and move on. I’ll just think ‘well that was silly, but it’s done now’. I don’t ever feel guilty as I know it’s just one of those things, it happens to all of us.

“I’m so much happier and healthier now, I’m much more confident and sociable, I love life and I’m happy with the person I am. I know I’ll keep the weight off for good and I’ve no doubt that getting the support to stop being so self-critical and to learn to be kinder to myself has played a big part in my success. I opened my first group as a Slimming World Consultant in New Buckenham in Norfolk a week ago and I’m so excited to be helping other people to learn to be kinder to themselves just like I have.” 

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* Based on Slimming World data showing new members joining in January between 2011 and 2015. The figures show that 12% of people who join a Slimming World group in January attend for the first time on the Tuesday of the second week which, this year, falls on January 5th.

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