Weight management: Using positive thinking

Introduction

It can be hard to get to and stay at a healthy weight. It takes healthy eating and regular exercise. These can be hard changes to make. But you can help yourself succeed just by thinking that you can succeed. If you tell yourself negative things—"I can't do this. Why bother?"—change will be harder. But if you encourage yourself with thoughts like "I can do this," you can raise your odds of success.

With time and practice, you can change what you say to yourself. You can learn to think in a positive way even when you make a mistake.

Key points

  • Negative thoughts can make it harder to reach and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that can help you replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
  • Changing your thinking will take some time. You need to practice healthy thinking every day. After a while, it will come naturally.
 

Positive thinking, or healthy thinking, is a way to help you stay well by changing how you think. It’s based on research that shows that you can change how you think. And how you think affects how you feel.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy , also called CBT, is a type of therapy that is often used to help people think in a healthy way. CBT can help you learn to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. These negative thoughts are sometimes called irrational or automatic thoughts.

Working on your own or with a counselor, you can practice these three steps:

  • Watch. Notice your thoughts, sometimes called "self-talk." Some people don't pay much attention to what they tell themselves. If they happen to notice that they've just told themselves they're lazy or have no will power, they just accept that discouraging thought as fact.
  • Check. Look at your thoughts, and ask if they are completely true. Ask yourself if these thoughts are untrue or exaggerated. Maybe you're ignoring something positive.
  • Correct. Replace the negative thoughts with positive, helpful thoughts. This is the step where you can change the way you feel.

The goal is to have positive thoughts come naturally. It may take some time to change the way you think. So you will need to practice positive thinking every day.

Test Your Knowledge

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that can help change how you think about yourself.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that can help change how you think about yourself.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that can help change how you think about yourself.

  •  

You need to see a counselor to do CBT.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    You don't need to see a counselor to do CBT. There are techniques you can learn and practice on your own.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    You don't need to see a counselor to do CBT. There are techniques you can learn and practice on your own.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Positive thinking—along with healthy eating and being active—helps people reach a healthy weight.1 It can help you stay on track when you have a slip-up. And it can keep you from getting discouraged.

Say you've been limiting your portions and eating more vegetables and fruit. But you go to a party one night and eat several slices of pizza and a big piece of cake. All the way home, you get angry at yourself for eating so much. "I don't know why I bother trying to lose weight. I have no will power. I might as well forget about it."

The more you talk in a negative way to yourself, the harder it is to stay focused on all the good changes you've made. The negative thinking makes you feel bad. And that can lead to having more slip-ups and more bad thoughts about yourself. It's a cycle that's hard to break.

But with practice, you can retrain your brain. After all, you weren't born telling yourself negative things. You learned how to do it. So there’s no reason you can't teach your brain to unlearn it and replace negative thinking with more helpful thoughts.

Positive thinking is good for your health in other ways. If you feel bad about yourself, you could feel anxious or depressed. Positive thinking also can help you handle stress better. Many people eat too much because they are stressed.

Too much stress can raise your blood pressure and make your heart work harder, which can increase your risk for a heart attack. Stress also can weaken your immune system, which can make you more open to infection and disease.

Test Your Knowledge

Positive thinking can keep you on track with healthy eating.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Positive thinking can keep you on track with healthy eating. If you slip up with your eating, positive thinking helps you to see it as a temporary stumble. It can help you get over the mistake and get back to your eating plan.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Positive thinking can keep you on track with healthy eating. If you slip up with your eating, positive thinking helps you to see it as a temporary stumble. It can help you get over the mistake and get back to your eating plan.

  •  

Positive thinking can help your health in other ways.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Positive thinking can help you prevent or cope with anxiety and depression. It also can lower stress. Lowering stress can lower your blood pressure and make your immune system stronger.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Positive thinking can help you prevent or cope with anxiety and depression. It also can lower stress. Lowering stress can lower your blood pressure and make your immune system stronger.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

Watch your thoughts

The first step is to notice your thoughts, or "self-talk." Self-talk is what you think and believe about yourself and your experiences. It's like a running commentary in your head. Your self-talk may be positive and helpful. Or it may be negative and not helpful.

Check your thoughts

The next step is to check your thoughts to see if they are true. Look at what you're saying to yourself. Does the evidence support your negative thought? Some of your self-talk may be true. Or it may be partly true but exaggerated. There are several kinds of irrational thoughts. Here are a few types:

  • Focusing on the negative: This is sometimes called filtering. You filter out the good and focus only on the bad. You don't give yourself credit for the positive things you do. Example: "I ruined my eating plan this week by having so much pizza tonight." Reality: Did you stick to your eating plan most of the week? If you did, then you're not giving yourself credit for all the positive things you did that week.
  • Should: People sometimes have set ideas about how they "should" act. If you hear yourself saying that you or other people "should," "ought to," or "have to" do something, then you might be setting yourself up to feel bad. Example: "I should never have pizza or dessert." Reality: If you really don't ever want to have pizza or dessert again, that's fine. But many people find a way to work those foods into their eating plan and stay at a healthy weight. They try to have a flexible eating plan.
  • Overgeneralizing: This is taking one example and saying it's true for everything. Look for words such as "never" and "always." Example: "I can never stick with an exercise plan." Reality: Have you ever made a vow to exercise and stuck to it? If you did it before, you can do it again. And even if you weren't able to do it in the past that doesn't mean you can't stick to a plan in the future.
  • All-or-nothing thinking: This is also called black-or-white thinking. Example: "If I can't stay on my eating plan all the time, I'll just give up." Reality: Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. One slip-up doesn't mean you can't get back to your plan the next day.

Correct your thoughts

After you check the truth of the thought, the next step is to correct it. Replace the unhelpful thought with a more positive, helpful one.

Keeping a journal of your thoughts is one of the best ways to practice watching, checking, and correcting your thoughts. It makes you aware of your self-talk. Write down any negative or unhelpful thoughts you had during the day. If you think you might not remember them at the end of your day, keep a notepad with you so that you can write down thoughts as they occur. Then write down helpful messages to correct the negative thoughts.

If you do this every day, helpful thoughts will soon come naturally.

But there may be some truth in some of your negative thoughts. You may have some things you want to work on. If you didn't perform as well as you would like on something, write that down. You can work on a plan to correct or improve that area.

If you want, you also can write down what kind of irrational thought you had. Your journal entries might look something like this:

Thought diary

Watch for a negative thought

Check for a type of thought

Correct with a positive thought

"I should never have pizza or dessert."

Should

"Having dessert or pizza now and then is okay if it's part of my eating plan."

"I ruined my eating plan by having so much pizza tonight."

Focusing on negative

"I wish I didn't eat so much pizza. But it's only one meal. I stuck to my eating plan really well the rest of the week."

"I can never stick with an exercise plan."

Overgeneralizing

"I've had some problems sticking with an exercise plan in the past. But that doesn't mean I can't do it in the future. I've made other changes in my life."

"If I can't lose 10 pounds this month, then I'm going to give up this eating plan."

All or nothing

"I'm going to try to set a realistic goal. It may be a smaller goal than before, but I'm still working toward a healthy weight."

Test Your Knowledge

Which of these thoughts is an example of positive thinking?

How can a daily journal help you have more positive thoughts?

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to practice positive thinking to help you manage your weight.

If you would like more information on how to stop negative thoughts, see the topic:

Click here to view an Actionset. Positive thinking: Stopping unwanted thoughts.

Return to topic:

Related Information

References

Citations

  1. Shaw K, et al. (2005). Psychological interventions for overweight or obesity. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2).

Other Works Consulted

  • Burns DD (1999). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: Avon.
  • Ellis A (2001). Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
  • McKay M, et al. (2007). Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Last Updated: August 27, 2008

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