Today, I'd like to talk about something called "false hope syndrome." As a dietitian, I have learned a lot about human nature and the way the mind works. Losing weight is as much mental and emotional as it is physical...so much so that sometimes I feel more like a therapist than a dietitian! That’s why when I read an article entitled, “Does ‘false hope syndrome’ make it hard to lose weight?” I was instantly intrigued.
First thing’s first, what is “false hope syndrome?”
False hope syndrome is a phenomenon wherein someone is overly confident in his/her ability to achieve a certain goal. As a result, he/she sets unrealistic goals, ultimately resulting in failure and disappointment. Someone with false hope often has unrealistic expectations when it comes to:
1. how much change is anticipated,
2. how quickly goals will be achieved,
3. how easy it will be to reach those goals, and
4. how much other aspects of life will change when those goals are met
So how does false hope relate to losing weight?
1. Someone with false hope syndrome may expect to lose an unrealistic amount of weight.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, setting a weight loss goal that is too large can actually be detrimental to success. This is because setting an unrealistic weight loss goal can cause frustration, negative self-talk, and ultimately an “all or nothing” mentality. The result? Totally giving up on trying to lose any weight at all, which can potentially lead to further weight gain and a lifetime of yo-yo dieting. The answer?
Obviously having lofty goals is admirable, but sometimes those goals need to be managed. Instead of creating one large weight loss goal, I try to have clients break that down into several mini-goals. For example, if a client tells me they want to lose 40 pounds, I will try and get them to envision that as 8, individual 5-pound goals. I explain that in order to lose 40 pounds, we first have to lose 5, so why not just focus on that first?
Now, instead of painfully watching the scale inch towards that 40-pound finish line, the client feels the positive reinforcement of success when each smaller goal is met. This not only motivates further success, but it also keeps them happier throughout the process!
If the initial goal was truly unrealistic, clients will likely realize this along the way. They will see the changes in their bodies with each incremental step and if satisfied, the original number that they had in their head will become irrelevant. In fact, the number on the scale is only one indicator for reaching health and fitness goals — waist circumference, dress size, cholesterol levels, blood glucose, blood pressure, etc. can all serve as barometers for improvement.
Note: What is a realistic weight loss goal for one person may not be realistic for someone else. It depends on many different factors including the client's current weight, height, and build. A woman who is 5 feet tall with a small frame weighing 140 pounds could realistically lose 40 pounds. On the other hand, a woman who is 5 foot 7 with a medium frame weighing 140 pounds does not have the same 40 pounds to lose.
2. Someone with false hope syndrome may want to lose weight in an unrealistic amount of time.
The desire for a quick fix is always tempting. Unfortunately, dropping a clothing size and getting washboard abs doesn’t happen overnight. (If only!) In fact, losing weight at a slow and steady pace is actually better for you. Slower weight loss helps to preserve more muscle while getting rid of more fat. So, if a lean, toned body is what you’re after, that’s your best bet! Slow weight loss has also been shown to improve metabolism, which makes reaching final weight loss goals and maintaining that final weight much more realistic. So how do we deal with this?
If clients wants to lose weight for an upcoming event, I will always promise to help them lose as much weight as realistically possible within that timeframe. However, I will ask them to give me other reasons for wanting to lose weight as well. Suddenly the focus has shifted and it is no longer just about the upcoming event. This allows the client to feel less pressure to meet their short-term deadline because their desire for weight loss goes beyond that.
The outcome? They’ll likely end up losing more weight in the long-run than if they had tried to crash diet for the short-term. This is because crash diets are simply not sustainable. They result in binge-eating and weight gain, and further reinforce the cycle of the yo-yo diet.
Note: “Slow weight loss” is different for different people. The rule of thumb is to expect to lose 1-2% of body weight per week. If you're patient, that adds up!
3. Someone with false hope syndrome may want to lose weight without putting in the necessary work.
This one is a biggy! No one said losing weight was easy. If it were, I wouldn’t have a job. Passing on the bread basket, not touching that plate of fries — it's a challenge! We live in a world with constant temptation, and the fact of the matter is, losing weight requires discipline, sacrifice, and hard work. Underestimating this is deceiving and can undermine success in reaching weight loss goals. However, it is my job to make it as easy as possible. Here’s how:
Soliciting client input is key when coming up with a meal plan for weight loss. The diet should be tailored to individual food preferences and aversions. For example, if a client hates yogurt, providing them with 5 different yogurt options for breakfast is useless. On the flip side, if a client loves Mexican food, giving them a variety of healthy Mexican dinner options will help them get their fix without compromising their success.
Accounting for potential obstacles keeps clients ahead of the game. If a client never has enough time to sit down for breakfast (read: most of mine!) coming up with healthy on-the-go breakfast options is important. If a client is constantly traveling for work (read: most of mine!) coming up with healthy TSA-approved meals/snacks and tips for finding healthy airport food is crucial. If a client is constantly eating out or ordering in (read: most of mine!) looking at the menus in advance and identifying the healthy options becomes protocol.
I will always encourage my clients to have 1-2 treats a week. Allowing reasonable indulgences along the way helps clients stay on track because perfection 100% of the time is unrealistic and unsustainable. Knowing that weight loss goals can be achieved without totally giving up favorite foods is important for clients to succeed.
Finally, continued positive reinforcement always helps! Focusing on small achievements along the way – such as moving a belt one notch smaller – makes the sacrifice of choosing sautéed spinach over fries seem worth it. A big part of being a dietitian is simply being a cheerleader.
4. Someone with false hope syndrome may think that losing weight will automatically improve their career, personal life, or make them intrinsically happy.
Don’t get me wrong, being at a healthy weight and eating foods that nourish your body can definitely improve your mood and mental clarity; give you energy to work harder; and may help boost self-confidence. But it will not magically get you promoted, fix the fight you had with your friend, or make you love yourself if you don’t already.
Having said that, achieving health and well-being is a journey that often entails patience, self-reflection, discipline, and the ability to harness positive energy. So while the number on the scale may not make a difference to your personal life, the practices you used to get there may.
The verdict: Those with “false hope syndrome” are not destined for failure. In my opinion, nobody is. To achieve success, we simply need to shift the focus and find a new perspective.