Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

It’s sure not easy to lose weight. And once you lose it, it’s not easy to keep it off. Both are pretty difficult tasks.

If you struggle with your weight at all, then you are in good company. A whole lot of us do. And if you have tried various approaches to losing weight, maybe with some wins and losses—or more likely, losses and gains—along the way, you’re also in good company.

Let’s start here: we eat because we’re hungry. But if you have struggled with overeating, you also know it’s not that simple. The experience of being hungry is both physical and emotional. Food can be a way to cope with difficult emotions. Food can give us a sense of calm and well-being. But at a cost.

I have been reading about behavioral weight loss treatments that seem really promising. In fact, a recent study showed just how promising they are. Behavioral therapy has to do with replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy and helpful ones. The method used in this study is referred to as acceptance-based, and teaches various techniques including “self-regulation.” The techniques described are adapted from dialectical behavior therapy as well as acceptance and commitment therapy, both widely used treatment methods.

Controlling your food intake with a behavioral approach

Interested? Here is my personal take on some behavioral techniques that you can use to help you manage your eating.

First, have a goal. Not just a small goal, such as 20 pounds before beach weather. No, a much greater, more personally meaningful goal. Something like:

  • I want to be a vibrant, super-fun grandparent.
  • I want to be a self-confident, high-energy professional who looks great.
  • I want to be the role model of someone living a healthy, happy life.

Notice that these goals are visionary in their own way. They are not about meeting a short-term goal but, instead, are about how you want to live your life as well as how you want to be viewed by others.

Define your own meaningful goal. Keep it at the front of your mind. Store it on your smartphone. Tape it to the refrigerator. Stay focused on your vision!

Accept that you’re going to have cravings and you aren’t going to like them. Nobody likes to feel discomfort. And when we do, we want to do something about it as soon as possible. Of course, the quick fix for hunger pangs is to take a quick trip to the refrigerator. Acceptance can help you to see hunger as something natural, and tolerable, and not something you have to make go away as soon as possible. Even your choice of words makes a difference—for example, “unpleasant” but not “torture.” Acceptance means giving up the fight. It might even mean telling yourself, “Yup, I’m hungry. I may get even hungrier before it’s time to eat again.”

The experience of being hungry is both physical and emotional.

Be willing to deny yourself immediate pleasure. Humans are all about what they want and when they want it, especially when something pleasurable is involved. Like when you are at a social event and someone plops a plate of brownies down in front of you. Everybody figures out their own approach here. For example, you might give yourself a pep talk on how you just know that, no matter how hard it seems, you have what it takes to say no: “I feel like I’m starving right now. But I promised myself I wouldn’t snack between meals.” Or you could remind yourself that the immediate pleasure of that mouthful of rich chocolate would lead to disappointment with yourself, along with weight gain. Go ahead and feel a little self-righteous. You’ve earned it.

Learn how to soothe yourself without eating. When you’re aware of cravings, do something to help yourself. This might mean getting up and taking a walk. Calling a friend and having a chat. Listening to some music or watching a movie. Making a cup of herbal tea and enjoying it in a quiet place. The point is to do something pleasant to help yourself to “be with” your hunger, to tolerate the distress of being hungry.

What you accomplish when you use these techniques is self-regulation. That means being able to meet your own emotional needs. To calm yourself down when you feel stressed. And to pick yourself up when you are feeling down. When you apply these techniques to managing your food intake, you are truly on your way to mastering “mind over matter”: loosening the grip that food has on your life by finding ways other than eating to meet your emotional needs.

You, your emotions, and food. You and you alone have the power to better manage your emotions instead of letting them manage you. The behavioral approach gives you the tools. And when you use them, you can shift your perspective and give yourself more control over your food intake. So in other words: behave yourself!

Have you used behavioral techniques like these to help with weight issues? We’d love to hear whether they worked for you. Add a comment and tell us what happened.