Why Visualizing Yourself Thin Could Be Sabotaging Your Weight Loss Efforts

Over the last 40 years, a large number of self-help book authors, fitness trainers and the like have offered advice on how to achieve your goals.

Furthermore, there is no lack of advice on mental strategies for getting that ideal body.

In fact, I have heard so many different strategies that I decided to look at the research in order to separate fact from fiction and found out some information that I think will surprise you.

The Visualization Myth, and How It Can Hurt You

If you are like me, I am sure you have heard that if you visualize yourself thin that you will be more likely to achieve the body of your dreams.

But it turns out that this might be the last thing you want to do!

Now the study I am about to review with you is not about weight loss, but still very relevant.

In a study done at the University of California, researchers asked a group of students to spend a few moments each day visualizing themselves getting a high grade on an important midterm exam1.

They were asked to, “Form a clear image in your mind’s eye and imagine how great it would feel to make a high grade.”

The study also involved a control group of students, who were not asked to visualize doing well on the exam.

The researchers then asked the students in both groups to record the number of hours they studied each day.

The Shocking, Paradoxical Results of Visualization

It turns out that visualization did have a significant impact on the students’ results…

It caused them to make LOWER grades on the midterm, and caused them to study less than the control group!

So what does this have to do with weight loss?

In another research project at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers followed a group of obese women taking part in a weight loss program2.

Fantasizing could not get you thin.

The women were asked to imagine how they might act in various eating-related scenarios, such as going to a friend’s house and being tempted with tasty pasta.

Each response was then categorized on a scale ranging from highly positive (with, for example, someone stating, “I would stay well away from the cakes and ice cream”) to highly negative (“I would pig out and eat my portion and my friend’s”).

One year later, the researchers looked at the differences between the women. The results revealed that the women with more positive fantasies had lost, on average, twenty-six pounds less than those with negative fantasies.

So what is the reason for this? Why is it so counter-productive for you to imagine yourself achieving your goals?

Researchers believe that people fantasizing about how great life could be aren’t prepared for the inevitable setbacks that life delivers… that they might be indulging in escapism and become hesitant to put in the effort required for achieving their goals.

Regardless, the research is clear: fantasizing about your perfect world can make you feel better, but is probably not going to help you achieve your goals or help you get thin.

What REALLY Works for Weight Loss

There is a lot on this topic, but I am just going to review three concepts for now. Please use the comment section below to ask questions or to add more techniques validated by research.

Be successful by planning ahead.

Probably the most important aspect of success is a simple thing called “having a plan.” More specifically, people who chunk their goals into a step-by-step process have a much greater chance of success.

And each step in your fat loss plan needs to be concrete, measurable, and time-based. There are hundreds of studies across multiple contexts that demonstrate this beyond a shadow of a doubt. We will go through some great weight loss plans in future articles.

Another powerful strategy is to share your weight loss goal with everyone you know (family, friends, social media contacts, etc..).

This helps with motivation, as we tend to not want to let other people down or fail in front of them – even though we do not mind internal failure so much. Plus the support from friends doesn’t hurt at all!

The third proven technique is a little tricky based on how I started this article. And that is to remind yourself of the benefits of losing the weight (not to visualize yourself thin.) So you imagine how good you will feel 20 pounds down, or how good you are going to look, or what friends will say.

And in this case, research shows that thinking about the positive consequences of losing weight is far more powerful than thinking about the negative ones. Just remember this is very different from imagining yourself thin… this is thinking about the positive consequences.

More Proven Weight Loss Mental Strategies… Coming Soon!

Well, this post is getting long although I have so much else to share… for future posts!

One thing I will cover later (for example) is how the size of your plate can directly affect your weight loss goals!

If you have a moment, in the comments below, please let me know…

1) Your experience with visualization in the past…

2) Your current weight loss plan, and why it’s been hard/easy to stick to it…and…

3) What you’d like to know more about the “mental” side of weight loss.

Of course, you’re also free to post any other thoughts or questions you might have…I just want to make sure these articles and future content help you as much as possible.

Until Next Time!

Dr. Steven Sisskind, M.D.
Dr. Steven Sisskind, M.D.

Steve Sisskind, M.D.

Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.

As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.

Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the power of nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should I eat? Which supplements should I take? What does the science say?

I have dedicated my life to answering these questions... And I share this knowledge with you every day here at RealDose Nutrition.

I invite you to connect with me by joining my free private community. I've helped thousands of people and I know I can help you too!

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1. L. B., & Taylor, S. E. (1999). From thought to action: Effects of process- versus outcome-based mental simulations on performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 250–260.

2. Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15, 167–175.

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  1. HI Dr Steve,

    I have been overweight the majority of my life.(I am currently 52) Instead of “Dieting” I decided to do a “Lifestyle Change”. This way when I am hanging out with friends and I am not eating fried foods, and other self-sabotaging fare, they are not tempting me with them.

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Suzie,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your experience with us! I agree with your decision to embark on a major lifestyle change instead of adapting a strict diet outright. While a “diet” will help you lose weight right away, without a permanent healthy lifestyle change, the weight is sure to return. Making small permanent changes to your eating habits and adapting an exercise you are comfortable of doing, will not only make you lose weight in the long run but also improve your overall quality of life. You will not only start to see the size difference, but more importantly, your confidence! Not many speak of it, but one of the biggest fears when embarking on a fad diet is the rebound factor. If you are able to stick to your lifestyle change, you will long term results such as improved range of movements, better body toning and the confidence of knowing that these are here to stay. I wish you great success and hope to hear of your progress! Make it a healthy day!

  2. In my opinion the biggest sabotage is the phrase ” weight loss” . Our subconscious is firmly entrenched with the urge to find what is lost. So when weight is lost, the subconscious, without informing the conscious mind eagerly searched for the lost weight and sooner or later it turns up again and people wonder why they can’t keep their excess weight off. Words do have an effect. We should talk of weight reduction, or of getting rid of excess weight, but never about weight loss which is a lost cause.

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Ilse,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your thoughts with us! Very well said! I have not really though about it that way but you do have a point. Weight reduction seems far more clearer indeed. Have a healthy day!

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