What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and How Does it Help With Weight Loss?

What are your initial thoughts when you hear the phrase “weight loss?” Cutting calories through diets? Eating more vegetables? Committing to daily exercise? You’re not alone—those are all very common first thoughts.

But one thing that doesn’t often come to mind is how we literally think about losing weight. How we approach our thoughts on weight loss plays a significant role in our successes.

We chatted with Kevin DeBruyn, LMSW at Adaptive Counseling and Case Management LLC in Traverse City, about the topic of cognitive behavioral therapy and how it directly relates to weight loss.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy and how does it relate to weight loss?

“Cognitive behavioral therapy is a way of looking at how we interact with the world around us through the perspective of our thoughts, behavior, and feelings—and how those things interact with each other. Some of the ways in which our brains take in and process information is not always accurate, so cognitive behavioral therapy tries to look at some of the errors in our thinking as well. These things affect every aspect of our life from our emotions and relationships, to our thinking about health, exercise, and, of course, food. Looking at how we think about and approach food can have a big impact on our ability to lose weight through uncovering some of the ways that we approach food and physical activity that are not helpful to our long-term goals.

“There are two key words in that last sentence: long-term. When we look at the difficulty that many people have with making lifestyle changes—such as eating healthier or increasing our physical activity—are tied up in those two words. Lifestyle change is a long-term game and most of the time we are much more focused on short-term decisions: What do I want to eat for dinner? Do I feel like going to the gym today? Whether or not we eat something is more and more a decision that we make in the moment. Our meals are less planned and more spur-of-the-moment which means we are more focused on factors such as time, cost, and convenience than long-term health.”

What are some strategies you’d recommend for people to meet their weight-loss goals?

“There are three important changes you can make in your thinking to help you meet your goals. First, avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Many times we fall into the trap of being ‘on’ or ‘off’ a diet—we are doing great or failing miserably! Instead, try to think of your approach to nutrition as a continuum. Some days you may be closer to where you want to be and some days not as much. But if you can keep working to move the needle in the right direction you can keep making progress.

“Second, build an awareness of the criteria you are using to make decisions about health. Elevating our awareness about how we make a decision gives us the power to make different decisions more in line with our values and goals. If you are always choosing your lunch plans based on convenience and cost, you likely end up making the same choices over and over that may not take into account concerns about your health. Taking into account the quality of the food and making that the more important part of the decision can lead you to a different outcome.

“Finally, move toward making decisions based on your long-term goals. Now that you have built an awareness into how and why you are making the decisions that you are making, start shifting those decisions to be more in-line with your long-term goals instead of your short-term goals. Looking at the language you use with yourself can often help you move in this direction. If you ask yourself, ‘What sounds good to eat tonight?’ you are going to make one decision. Instead, if you ask yourself, ‘What food is going to nourish my body and taste good?’ you might make a very different decision.”

Is there anything else you want people to know about?

“The final note I want to make is that our relationship with food is a very complicated one. Food plays an important role in our social relationships and our emotional lives. As such, there is a lot of room for complicating factors to come in to play. Many times we are given messages about food and our relationship with our bodies that make our journeys just that much more difficult. For instance, we associate food with comfort, love, and acceptance. When we eat food (or sometimes certain foods) we evoke specific thoughts or feelings that are reinforcing in and of themselves. That is when we need a little more of an objective eye (through the help of a therapist or someone who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy) to help us sort things out. These individuals can help us identify areas that get us stuck and work with us to develop a plan to help get us where we need to go.”