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Behavioral Weight Loss Programs Help the Whole Family

Posted by Jennifer Lovejoy on Nov 10, 2011 10:48:00 PM

A new Italian research study has made news with the finding that cognitive-behavioral programs for weight loss not only help those going through the program, but help participants’ families as well. Family members of people who went through a weight loss program based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) ended up cutting their calories by about 200 per day, eating less fat and refined sugar, and losing roughly 2 pounds.  Family members who were themselves obese did even better, losing around 6 pounds.

These findings make a lot of sense. Many of the behaviors taught in evidence-based weight loss programs – such as getting unhealthy food out of the house, avoiding fast food, and getting involved in daily physical activity – could easily impact the whole family. And, if the person participating in the weight loss program is the one who does the family cooking, the impact could be even bigger – energy-dense, low-fat meals emphasizing vegetables, whole grains, and fruits are healthy for the whole family. Given that social research shows that even our friends and neighborhoods have a strong influence on our body weight, it shouldn’t be surprising that healthy changes in one family member impact others.

But in addition to the environmental and behavioral components, the cognitive piece is probably also important. The difference between CBT and simple behavioral therapy is its emphasis on unproductive, or unhelpful, thought patterns. We all have unhelpful thoughts so learning how to recognize and “restructure” them (to use the CBT lingo) is important for all of us.

Some common unhelpful thought patterns include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking – This type of thinking pattern looks at everything in extreme; the world is black or white, with no shades of gray. One way this plays out in weight loss is in thoughts like “Well, I just blew it and ate a cookie. Might as well eat the rest of the cookies in the box.” All-or-nothing thinking can turn a simple slip up into a much bigger problem.
  • “Mind-reading” or “fortune telling” – Often we believe we know what others are thinking, or why they are acting in a certain way, but our assumptions are off-base.   For example, thinking “I’m sure my coworkers didn’t invite me to join them for lunch because they think I’m too fat” may not reflect the real reason for your coworkers behavior and could lead to snacking or other self-sabotaging behaviors.  Being aware of our assumptions about other people’s actions and then checking them out directly can help us avoid this kind of problem.
  • Catastrophizing – Sometimes it’s easy to blow small problems out of proportion, or assume the worst about every situation.  When you miss a planned workout and think “I’ll never get the hang of regular exercise – I might as well just quit,” that’s an example of catastrophizing.

Learning to recognize and change our thoughts can have an impact on our families, too. For example, in marriages it’s not uncommon for spouses to “mind read." Recognizing that tendency in ourselves may help in our relationships with our partners. And it’s easy to observe all-or-nothing thinking in our kids – especially teenagers!  I’ve found that when I model “catching myself” in an unhelpful thought pattern in front of my teenager, it helps her identify her own unhelpful thought patterns later on. So, participants in our new Weight Talk® Program (which is based on cognitive-behavioral approaches) may be happy to learn that not only are they helping themselves live healthier lives, but they are also likely helping those around them.

Topics: Weight Management, Health News, Personal Stories

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