December 29, 2021/Weight Loss

Weight Loss: How to Reset Your Brain for Success

How a dieting mindset keeps the weight on

man on a diet eating salad

We’ve all been there — after a month of being “good” on your New Year’s diet, you attend a party (mask on, of course) for the big game that’s bursting with treats.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Suddenly, corn chips and chili dip are calling your name, and you can’t concentrate on the game because you’re spending all of your mental energy trying to avoid those tempting treats.

When you finally give in, you feel guilt, shame and lowered self-esteem.

Combine these feelings with the idea that since you’ve blown your diet, you might as well eat more before you go back to being “good” tomorrow, and you have weight gain.

So, how can you get rid of the guilt and reset your brain to make smart choices?

Dietitian Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDCES, and bariatric behavioral health expert Leslie Heinberg, PhD, talk about how to change your thinking around dieting.

What happens when we diet

Dieting may seem like a great New Year’s resolution, but when we limit how much we eat, it can affect our body in ways we didn’t predict.

“Several things happen in our bodies when we restrict our food intake,” says Taylor. “We know that our metabolism slows, and the hormones that regulate our feelings of hunger and fullness get out of whack. You end up overeating, not because you are bad or weak, but because your body is doing everything it can to get out of your self-imposed famine.”


Even when you’re not actively on a diet plan, your dieting mindset can cause you to eat more and gain weight. You may eat more than you normally would, anticipating that soon, you’ll be back on a restrictive diet.

“From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies are more tuned to survive in times of famine,” Taylor says. “The body of the yo-yo dieter is accustomed to having random times of food shortage or restriction. Therefore, the body strives to eat and store more overall. The human body does not like to lose weight, so it fights back.”

Shifting your dieting perspective

Several studies have shown that restrictive dieting ultimately leads to weight gain, not weight loss. But studies have also shown that self-esteem can predict dieting outcomes.

“When you work on reducing your guilt and shame around food and better body image acceptance, you tend to develop better eating habits over the long term,” says Dr. Heinberg.

A dieting mindset also tells you that your food decisions reflect on your worth as a person.

You are eating “bad” foods, so you must be a bad or weak or unworthy person. This can perpetuate a cycle of emotional eating that adds excess weight, reduces self-esteem and is tough to end.

How to reset your dieting mindset

Work on stopping the negative thoughts in your head and adopt these tips to encourage a better relationship with food and eating healthy.

  • Don’t tell yourself certain foods are “bad.” Focus on how a food makes your body feel, not on whether it fits in with the current diet fad. “Healthy foods give us more energy and tend to make us feel better,” Taylor says. “Even something like ice cream can fit into this framework. You know if you order a triple scoop you’re going to feel sluggish afterwards, so you stick to a junior scoop and enjoy every bite. Over time, that leads to better health.”
  • Don’t subtract from your eating — add to it. “Restriction has the opposite effect we want it to have, so if we focus on adding foods that make us feel good — vegetables and fruits that help digestion, whole grains and proteins that keep us fuller, longer — then we are not so obsessed with what we are not eating,” Dr. Heinberg says. “Restriction also leads us to feel overly hungry later and lose self-control. Don’t restrict as a way of making up for less-than-ideal eating. It will just set the stage for a future binge.”
  • Limit your negative self-talk. “When we tie our self-worth so directly to our food choices and combine that with a restrictive diet, we’re setting ourselves up to fail and feel guilty, which in turn produces overeating behaviors and then more guilt,” Dr. Heinberg says. Write down positive changes that you’re making each day (like drinking more water or taking walks) in a journal, and stop using the words “good” and “bad” to describe your food choices — and yourself.


Ultimately, what works for weight loss in the long-term is small, incremental changes to your overall eating patterns. And the less you focus on restricting and categorizing foods and the more you focus on creating healthy behaviors around food and exercise, the healthier your body — and mind — will be.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Juiced fruits and veggies dispensing from a juicer on counter in kitchen
April 24, 2024/Weight Loss
What You Need To Know About Juicing for Weight Loss

Juicing cleanses don’t target fat loss — and you’ll lose important nutrients in the process

Salmon over lentils and carrots
April 15, 2024/Nutrition
Psoriasis and Diet: How Foods Can Impact Inflammation

A well-balanced diet with anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce flare-ups and severity of psoriasis symptoms

Bowl of assorted fruit and bowls of nuts and seeds
The Best Foods To Eat When You Have Breast Cancer

Stay hydrated, opt for fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean protein — and try to eat snacks and smaller meals throughout your day instead of larger portions

Spoonful of apple cider vinegar
March 27, 2024/Weight Loss
Does Apple Cider Vinegar Help You Lose Weight?

The science on ACV isn’t very promising for weight loss or appetite suppression

Female struggling to push a large rock up a hill
March 21, 2024/Weight Loss
Why It Really Is Harder for Women To Lose Weight (and What To Do About It)

Genetics, metabolism and hormonal fluctuations can all make weight loss more difficult

female sitting meditating, eyes closed
March 19, 2024/Weight Loss
14 Ways To Lose Belly Fat

Losing belly fat can reduce your risk for chronic health conditions — try focusing on a diet high in lean protein, exercising regularly, reducing stress and getting quality ZZZs

Flaxseed sprinkled on a salad in a white bowl on a dark wooden table
January 31, 2024/Nutrition
Flaxseed: A Little Seed With Big Health Benefits

Ground flaxseed is full of heart-healthy omega-3s, antioxidants and fiber, and easy to add to just about any recipe

Person eating healthy bowl of noodles with fitness items floating around head
January 17, 2024/Weight Loss
How To Shed 10 Pounds — For Good!

Actively choose healthy habits not only when it comes to food and nutrition, but also physical activity and your mental health

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey