More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese; it is a spreading epidemic that can lead to potentially fatal medical conditions like heart disease. But even though we know we need to exercise and eat healthy to combat the condition, many people stay obese or overweight—stuck in their unhealthy lifestyle and unable to break the bad habits.

Emotional Side of Obesity

Many people are obese or overweight because they treat food as an emotional outlet. For such individuals, food is often used as a coping mechanism to deal with feelings of anxiety, sadness, stress, loneliness, and frustration, among others. A cyclical pattern often forms consisting of emotional disturbance, overeating, and weight gain.

“The resulting guilt may reactivate the cycle, leading to a continuous pattern of using food to cope with emotions,” Lancaster General Hospital neuropsychology specialists wrote in an article “Behavioral and Psychological Factors in Obesity.” “This pattern is particularly applicable if there is a genetic predisposition for obesity or a ‘toxic’ environment in which calorically dense foods are readily available and physical activity is limited.”

However, those who struggle with obesity don’t necessarily have more emotional problems than those at a regular weight. And negative feelings are not always the driving reason—many obese people overeat during times of celebration and happiness like the holidays or birthday parties. It all depends on where an individual turns to express and cope with emotion.

Counseling Needed for Weight Loss

Since there often is a profound psychological level to overeating and obesity, counseling may be needed for successful weight loss. Paired with personalized diet and exercising regimens, counseling provides a way for individuals to retrain their brains to think about food, health, and all the stuff in between in a new and wholesome light.

Recent research confirms this. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association performed a meta-analysis on 12 trials and found that of the participants in these trials, the ones who had the most progress in weight loss had a plan that combined diet, exercise and counseling. The study suggests that counseling is as essential to the weight loss approach as diet and exercise and should be implemented in primary patient care.

“Overweight and obese adults should feel very encouraged that if they participate in a high-quality behavioral treatment program that they’re likely to lose enough weight to have a meaningful impact on their health,” said co-author Meghan Butryn, a psychologist.

According to the study, the professionals providing the counseling vary in title. “The current findings suggest that a range of trained interventionists, who deliver counseling in person or by telephone, could be considered for treating overweight or obese patients encountered in primary care settings,” the scientists said. These interventionists include registered dietitians, health counselors, medical assistants, exercise specialists, and even lay people who all followed a “structured protocol to deliver counseling,” according to Diabetes in Control.

However, none of the analyzed trials included primary care doctors as the professional who gave counseling to patients.

The counseling sessions helped individuals re-educate their minds to allow them to change their habits and better adhere to diet and exercise regimens. By implementing counseling, patients are able to collaborate with healthcare professionals to focus on the very source of the obesity problem: the psychological coping.

To learn more about weight loss:

Is Your Diet Not Working? This May Be Why
3 Reasons You're Not Losing Weight
10 Healthy Ways to Drop a Few Pounds with Diabetes