Behavior Modifications for People With Obesity

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Weight loss can be a challenging journey, especially for those living with obesity. There is no 1-size-fits-all approach. But by adopting certain behavior changes and creating healthy habits, steady and sustainable weight loss is possible.1

Create healthy habits

Weight gain does not happen overnight, and the same goes for weight loss. It all starts with adopting healthy habits that you can keep up over the long term. Start slow. You do not have to adopt all of these habits at once. Pick 1 or 2 habits or changes, and slowly integrate them into your life. Then, build from there.1

There are many ways to change your behavior that can have a positive impact on your weight and overall health. They include:1

  • Intuitive eating
  • Preparing your own meals
  • Choosing healthy foods and snacks
  • Adopting mindful eating practices
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Staying hydrated

Embrace intuitive eating

Intuitive eating focuses on listening to your body's hunger and fullness cues. Rather than following strict diets or counting calories, intuitive eating encourages a healthy relationship with food. It promotes self-awareness and mindfulness.2

When you listen to what your body needs, it allows you to:2

  • Make intentional food choices
  • Have better control over portion sizes
  • Eat when you feel hungry and stop when you feel full

Intuitive eating also means enjoying the act of eating. One way to do this is to eat slowly. Savoring and enjoying each bite of food helps to prevent overeating. And it allows your stomach time to send signals to your brain when you are full. This signaling process which can take up to 20 minutes.2

Prepare your own meals

Restaurants and takeout meals are notorious for high-calorie ingredients, ultra-processed foods, and large portion sizes. Preparing your meals at home gives you control over the ingredients you use and your portion sizes.1

Meal prepping also saves time and money. When meal prepping, plan your meals ahead of time. Create a shopping list with nutritious ingredients, and set aside time to cook them.1

If possible, cook larger batches of food so that you have plenty of leftovers to eat throughout the week. If you are cooking from a recipe, double it. You can freeze the extra. Having healthy meals available helps you avoid impulsive food choices and rely less on convenience foods.1

Choose healthier foods and snacks

What you eat is very important to how well you can manage your weight. If you are aiming to lose weight, opt for healthier food alternatives.1

Swap processed or packaged foods with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins. These whole foods are rich in essential nutrients, fiber, and protein, helping you feel satisfied and energized. Replace sugary beverages with water, herbal tea, or seltzer.1

At the grocery store, stick to your list. Focus on the outside perimeter of the store. This is where fresh produce, lean meats, and dairy products are typically located. Building a well-balanced plate with a variety of colorful foods will nourish your body with the nutrients it needs.1

Avoid eating at your desk or in your car

Mindless eating, particularly while multitasking or on the go, can lead to overeating and poor food choices. Choose specific areas of your home for having meals and snacks, such as a dining table or kitchen counter.1

Take the time to sit down, focus on your meal, and enjoy it without distractions. Avoid watching TV or scrolling on your phone. Engage your senses by appreciating the flavors, textures, and aromas of the food. Listen to your body when it tells you it is full. Eating mindfully can prevent overeating and help you build a healthier relationship with food.1,2

Incorporate movement throughout the day

Regular physical activity is another vital part of weight loss. Physical activity burns calories, builds muscle, and boosts metabolism. If you are able, try to find ways to incorporate more movement into your day. Here are some ideas:1

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Go for a walk during lunch breaks.
  • Try active hobbies such as gardening or dancing.
  • Get up from your desk to stretch every half hour.
  • Do periodic leg lifts, squats, and lunges.
  • Lift some dumbbells while at your desk.
  • Take a walk while talking on the phone.

These small lifestyle changes build over time. They also add to your daily calorie burn. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. Add some strength training exercises to build muscle tone and increase strength.3

Drink more water

Drinking enough water throughout the day is essential for weight loss and overall health. Water helps your body function well. Staying hydrated also:1,4

  • Aids digestion
  • Promotes a feeling of fullness
  • Reduces the likelihood of overeating

Aim to drink at least 8 glasses (64 ounces) of water per day. You may need to drink more depending on how physically active you are. A helpful way to make sure you are getting enough water is to carry a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go. If you find plain water boring, add some slices of lemon, lime, cucumber, or herbs for a refreshing twist.4

Consider counseling

For those starting a weight loss journey, counseling (also called therapy) can help in significant ways. Negative thoughts, emotions, and self-sabotaging behaviors can contribute to weight gain and hinder weight loss. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of behavioral therapy, focuses on reframing those thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.5,6

By targeting negative beliefs and patterns, CBT helps people develop healthier thinking patterns related to food, body image, and exercise. It encourages people to identify and challenge irrational beliefs. Then, they can develop more realistic and positive thoughts about their bodies.5,6

Counseling sessions can either be done 1-on-1 with a therapist or as part of a group. How often you go depends on your specific needs and goals. Work with your therapist to find a treatment plan that works for you.5

Other healthy behavior changes to consider

There are so many ways to change up your routine to make it more healthy. A few more habits to consider are:1

  • Keep unhealthy foods and snacks out of the house.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol contains a lot of empty calories.
  • Do not go grocery shopping when hungry. It can lead to impulse buying.
  • Aim to eat at least 1 serving of vegetables with each meal. Veggies help you feel fuller longer.
  • Before a meal, drink a full glass of water.
  • Use smaller plates, bowls, and glasses. This can keep portion sizes smaller.

Set realistic goals

Losing weight takes time. But by making intentional changes, you can increase your chances of success. Research shows that people who lose weight at a slow and steady pace are more likely to keep the weight off in the long run.7

And remember, you do not have to do this alone. Consult with your doctor, who can give you a referral to other healthcare providers who can help. These may include a registered dietitian, nutritionist, or bariatrician (a doctor who specializes in treating obesity). All of these professionals can give you personalized guidance and support.7

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