Study Looks At How Self-Compassion Helps People Achieve Weight Loss Goals Regardless Of Setbacks


Losing weight proves challenging due to the widespread availability of tempting, high-calorie foods. Despite our best efforts, it’s common to succumb to overeating, leading to frustration and discouragement, often resulting in the abandonment of our weight loss goals.

A study involving 140 overweight or obese adults participating in a weight loss program discovered that higher levels of self-compassion, particularly self-kindness, were associated with reduced negative emotions following a dietary slip-up.

Those who practiced self-kindness tended to experience less guilt and greater self-esteem despite setbacks. Subsequently, they reported a heightened sense of control over their eating habits, suggesting that self-compassion aids in reclaiming agency after a lapse.

Published in Appetite, research from the Center for Weight, Eating, and Lifestyle Sciences (WELL Center) at Drexel University revealed that participants who responded to their lapse with more self-compassion reported improved mood and enhanced self-discipline in their eating and exercise routines in the aftermath.

An assistant research professor in the College and the lead author of the study, Charlotte Hagerman, PhD, said, “Many people worry that self-compassion will cause complacency and lead them to settle for inadequacy, but this study is a great example of how self-compassion can help people be more successful in meeting their goals.”

“The road to achieving difficult goals—especially weight loss—is paved with setbacks. Practicing self-compassion helps people cope with self-defeating thoughts and feelings in response to setbacks, so that they are less debilitated by them. In turn, they can more quickly resume pursuing their goals,” she added.

The 140 participants, engaged in a group-based lifestyle modification program for weight loss, completed surveys on their smartphones several times daily. These surveys aimed to track instances of dietary lapses – such as overeating, consuming unintended foods, or eating at unplanned times – and assess their responses to these lapses in terms of self-compassion.

Additionally, researchers inquired about participants’ moods and the efficacy of their self-control regarding eating and exercise behaviors since their last survey response.

Dr. Hagerman noted that individuals often attribute a lack of willpower to themselves.

“In reality, we live in a food environment that has set everyone up to fail. Practicing self-compassion rather than self-criticism is a key strategy for fostering resilience during the difficult process of weight loss,” said Dr. Hagerman.

“The next time you feel the urge to criticize yourself for your eating behavior, instead try speaking to yourself with the kindness that you would speak to a friend or loved one,” she added.

For example, instead of a person saying to his or herself, “You have no willpower,” reframe it to a kinder – and truer – statement: “You’re trying your best in a world that makes it very difficult to lose weight.” Hagerman added that this isn’t letting yourself “off the hook” but giving yourself grace to move forward in a highly challenging process.

The research team aims for these findings to inform more impactful interventions and optimal strategies for mitigating self-blame and criticism. Simultaneously, they week to uphold personal standards and goals by remaining accountable.

“It can be easy for the message of self-compassion to get muddied, such that people practice total self-forgiveness and dismiss the goals they set for themselves. But we’ve shown that self-compassion and accountability can work together,” said Dr. Hagerman.