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Can Fam Physician. 2008 April; 54(4): 543–547.
PMCID: PMC2294089

Language: English | French

Role for a sense of self-worth in weight-loss treatments

Helping patients develop self-efficacy
Gordon Cochrane, EdD R Psych



To recommend strategies for enhancing patients’ sense of self-worth and self-efficacy in order to give them sufficient faith in themselves to make healthier choices about their weight.


PubMed, PsycINFO, Google Scholar, and APA Journals Online were searched for original research articles on treatment models and outcome review articles from 1960 to the present. Key search terms were weight loss, weight-loss treatments, diets and weight loss, psychology and obesity, physiology and obesity, and exercise and weight loss. Most evidence was level I and level II.


In spite of extensive research, there is widespread belief that the medical system has failed to stem the tide of weight gain in North America. The focus has been on physiologic, behavioural, and cultural explanations for what is seen as a relatively recent phenomenon, while the self-perception of overweight individuals has been largely overlooked. Professional treatments have consisted mainly of cognitive-behavioural therapies and rest on the premise that overweight patients will effectively apply the cognitive-behavioural therapy principles. In the long run, professional and commercial programs are often ineffective. We need treatments that include strategies to repair ego damage, enhance the sense of self-worth, and develop self-efficacy so that overweight patients can become the agents of change in their pursuit of well-being.


Self-efficacy correlates positively with success in all realms of personal endeavour, and we can help our overweight patients become more self-reliant.



Suggérer au patient obèse des stratégies pour l’amener à développer la confiance en soi et en ses capacités afin de faire des choix plus sains concernant son poids.


À l’aide des mots-clés weight loss treatments, diet and weight loss, psychology and obesity, physiology and obesity et exercise and weight loss, on a cherché dans PubMed, PsyclINFO, Google Scholar et APA Journals Online entre 1960 et aujourd’hui les articles de recherche originaux sur des modèles de traitement ainsi que les articles de revue traitant des issues. La plupart des preuves étaient de niveau I et II.


Malgré d’intensives recherches, on considère dans beaucoup de milieux que le système médical n’a pas réussi à endiguer l’épidémie d’obésité en Amérique du Nord. On a mis l’accent surtout sur des explications d’ordre physiologique, comportemental et culturel pour ce qu’on considère comme un phénomène relativement récent alors qu’on a négligé la perception qu’ont d’elles-mêmes les personnes obèses. Les traitements professionnels consistaient surtout en thérapies cognitivo-comportementales et reposaient sur la prémisse que le patient obèse appliquera effectivement les principes de cette thérapie. À long terme, ces programmes professionnels et commerciaux s’avèrent souvent inefficaces. Nous avons besoin de traitements qui incluent des stratégies pour réparer les dommages à l’ego,augmenter la confiance en soi et développer la foi du patient en ses propres capacités afin qu’il devienne l’agent des changements qui assureront son bienêtre.


L’auto-efficacité est en corrélation positive avec le succès dans tous les domaines de l’entreprise humaine, et nous pouvons aider nos patients obèses à compter davantage sur eux-mêmes.

North Americans are increasingly overweight13 and the risks of excess weight for numerous health problems have been identified,4 as has the financial burden on our health system.5 Weight-loss treatment models ranging from the familiar cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) model (which consists of recommendations for a healthy diet and regular exercise) to commercial programs, books, and products all share frequently disappointing outcomes,13,6,7 and have remained fundamentally the same for the past 30 years.6 Research also shows that genetic, metabolic, and hormonal contributions to this relatively recent and culturally specific weight phenomenon are comparatively minimal,811 but overweight people continue to search for external solutions to a problem in which their own decision making often plays a primary role.8

In an American Dietetics Association poll in 2000, 40% of the overweight people polled said that they did not want to give up their unhealthy lifestyles in order to be healthy.12 Most overweight people, however, do want to lose weight. Unfortunately, their search for an external solution makes the dream marketed by commercial weight-loss programs very appealing.2,7 We can help our willing patients by giving them the tools and support to make the shift from an external to an internal locus of control. As far back as 1960, Feinstein13 found that personal initiative and a positive relationship with the physician are more important than the treatment model. Though it is not an easy undertaking, family physicians can help receptive overweight patients take appropriate steps to develop the attitudes and commitment to self-care that are evident among people who consistently take care of their physical and emotional well-being.1421

Case description

Ms R., a 43-year-old married woman with sons who are 7 and 9 years old, works full-time as a nurse in a hospital. She is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 212 pounds. She tearfully describes to her family physician the distress and frustration that she feels about her perceived inability to lose weight. She says that she feels defeated and ashamed. Ms R. has tried many diets and diet products over the years and now feels that nothing works. It is evident that she has a persistent desire to lose weight. It is equally evident that she is expressing her version of the must-but-cannot dilemma familiar to millions of overweight people. This dilemma is evident when sincere, intelligent people express an enduring desire to achieve an achievable goal but repeatedly undermine their own efforts to do so. The internal struggle between the patient’s desire to be healthy and her lack of faith in herself to do what it takes is reflected in the well-documented pattern of short-term weight loss followed by relapse that is independent of treatment models. The must-but-cannot dilemma is recognized and treated in endeavours such as sports and education, as well as in business and personal relationships,13,21 but has been overlooked in the weight-reduction realm. Ms R. is an educated woman and might be receptive to an approach that gives her tools to improve her self-efficacy. Diet, discipline, and exercise are 3 pillars of the extensively studied CBT model and are clearly necessary for success, but they are not sufficient by themselves.6 The fourth pillar is the self-efficacy that patients need in order to consistently apply the diet, discipline, and exercise principles.

Sources of information

PubMed, PsycINFO, and Google Scholar were searched for original weight-loss research articles and treatment reviews. Key search terms were weight loss, weight-loss treatments, diets and weight loss, psychology and obesity, physiology and obesity, and exercise and weight loss. The American Psychological Association Journals Online and the International Journal of Obesity were also extensively reviewed. Over the past 20 years, I have built an extensive dossier of level I and level II research on treatment models, the search for genetic causes, and the role played by psychoemotional issues. The 2007 review paper on the role of self in life by Swann et al14 provides a wealth of research on the value of programs for the enhancement of the sense of self-worth and self-efficacy.

Basic information for patients

Family physicians know that some overweight patients have little or no interest in losing weight and some who want help are reluctant to accept the primary role in their own weight loss. Many, however, are willing to learn how they can take control of their own health and they will value accurate weight-reduction information, tools for personal change, and supportive encouragement from their physicians. A trust-based relationship with the patient gives the family physician an opportunity to respectfully challenge the patient’s weight-loss misconceptions and avoidance strategies through information, analogies, and friendly humour.12,21 Most overweight patients have tried many diets and are therefore reasonably knowledgeable about nutrition, though they do not apply their knowledge with consistency. These patients can be given a 1-page summary of nutrition guidelines from the work by Drs Frank Hu and Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health.22 They recommend a Mediterranean type of diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, unsaturated vegetable oils, and protein derived from fish, beans, and chicken, but not red meat. They also recommend that consumption of animal fats be minimal and trans fats be reduced to near zero. This will be sufficient for most as extensive information about diet and nutrition is not a predictor of positive outcome.2


Whereas these nutrition guidelines are familiar to most patients, the nature and frequency of exercise required for lasting weight loss2,23,24 will initially be an unacceptable shock to many. Overweight patients often insist that they would like to exercise but do not have time. This is a self-efficacy issue and represents a critical moment in patient care. If the family physician is too forceful about the realities of exercise, the patient might withdraw. If, on the other hand, the physician softens the message, the patient might revert to little or no meaningful exercise.*

Disease model

Overweight patients should be informed of the inaccuracies in media articles that suggest that biological causes are largely to blame for weight gain. This model, the disease model, is described by D.F. Klein of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute8 as a model wherein an individual suffers from an affliction that exempts him or her from personal responsibility. The person cannot help being ill and cannot get well by taking any form of action. This model validates the beliefs of those overweight patients who see themselves as victims of their biology. It might also be helpful to mention that Goel et al9 found that 8% of immigrants arriving in the United States were overweight and, 15 years later, 38% of them were overweight.

Clinicians and researchers who work from the disease model focus on obesity while minimizing the role of the patients in becoming obese. This perspective restricts the range of research questions and excludes consideration of other potentially mediating variables, such as the decision making of overweight people. For example, Geenland et al25 studied the lifestyles and heart problems of 400 000 people over a 30-year period and found that unhealthy choices, including excessive food consumption and insufficient physical activity, were evident in 90% of the participants.

Some weight-loss researchers have overlooked the decision makers who overeat unhealthy food, who exercise rarely, insufficiently, and inconsistently,23,24 and who enmesh their emotions with food.2628 When some do lose weight but regain it after 1 or 2 years, biology is often blamed. The research on treatment models has given insufficient attention to the decision makers who must apply the directives from the CBT model.6

Cognitive-behavioural model

Most patients have read that diets usually do not work, but they tend to find this message in commercials for new weight-loss products. They should, therefore, be given a brief factual summary of diets, all or most of which are based on the CBT model. This model has dominated the weight-loss literature for decades, even though it repeatedly shows a pattern of moderate short-term success followed by relapse.6,13,29 In its most basic form, it provides detailed nutrition guidelines along with cognitive and behavioural changes that will bring about weight loss if applied consistently over time. The model is easy to understand, it can be readily taught, it is compatible with the available research, and it lends itself to standardization of treatment. Unfortunately, however, it has not provided meaningful benefit to the vast majority of overweight people.6,30

Self-worth and self-efficacy

We are creative, active beings and each of us has our own reality. Our sense of self, which is part of our reality, is a subjective, emotion-laden, ongoing self-evaluation of worthiness, competence, and social acceptability. It functions as the perceptual screen through which we experience life. Our self-evaluations begin in childhood and are solidified over time through our selective “attending” and “meaning” attributions.

Ego damage is harm to one’s sense of self-worth, and many overweight patients come from ego-damaging families28,3335 in which they developed a sense of inadequacy. Many learned to put the needs of others ahead of their own, leaving little time to attend to their own health. Their subsequent weight gain is then perceived as confirmation of their inadequacy.28

Self-efficacy arises from a sense of self-worth. It is the faith in self that gives rise to personal initiative, persistence, self-confidence, and optimism.14,20,36,37 Positive changes in thinking and behaviour are fundamental to all psychotherapy treatments, but a sense of self-worth, which is a perceived and felt sense of self, cannot be meaningfully altered with CBT alone. When people perceive themselves as attractive or unattractive, intelligent or unintelligent, or adequate or inadequate, they live accordingly.1417,3639 Perception of self is experienced as reality and a negative self-perception robs many overweight patients of the faith in self to do what it takes to be healthy.

Enhancement of self

In their recent review paper, Swann and colleagues14 confirm that self-perceptions do influence our decision making, our resolve, and our actions. They therefore recommend the development of programs to improve these self-perceptions. Family physicians can teach willing patients, such as Ms R., how to identify and therapeutically respond to their problematic perceptions of self.26,36,37

Step 1

Reframe the task from weight loss to self-care. People with a healthy sense of self-worth consistently and conscientiously take care of their own health. Making this crucial change of perspective will generate resistance in some patients, but will be recognized as an empowering perspective by others.

Step 2

Teach patients how to self-monitor so they can identify the specifics of their emotional relationship with food.2628,33,37,39,4042 They can be shown how to use simple imagery activities28,36,42 in which they close their eyes, relax, picture their health goal, and, using a simple device such as an imagined photo album containing photos of the most influential experiences of their lives, allow into awareness the circumstances and situations in which they learned to devalue themselves.14,19,2628,36 Present-day anticipations of similar criticisms and rejections have been shown2628 to generate the ego-threatening anxiety that results in overeating for many overweight people. This strategy for enhanced self-awareness supplements the cognitive tools. However, self-awareness is necessary but not sufficient for personal change.

Step 3

Develop appropriate therapeutic responses to the negative self-perceptions formulated by the younger and less experienced person the patient was when the ego damage took place. Patients should be encouraged to view themselves now as the compassionate, wiser, and supportive providers of therapeutic guidance for the very different people they were when their sense of self was damaged. This is the committed relationship with self that constitutes the cornerstone of self-worth enhancement.14,36,42

Step 4

Building upon the patient’s growing sense of worthiness and faith in self, provide information about the attitudes and behaviour common to people who are physically and emotionally fit.14,1820,28,39,42 They are self-motivated and do not rely on what others do or do not do, whereas many overweight people accept the weight norms of their overweight friends and family.43 This information will help overweight patients understand and accept what it takes to maintain good health.

Most patients like Ms R. can do this therapeutic work at home if they supplement it with regular visits to their family physicians. The pace of change will vary with the nature of the ego damage experienced by each patient. Some patients will decline this opportunity, but many will welcome it. Those with more severe psychological damage32 might, if it seems necessary, be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Repairing ego damage, dealing with ongoing emotions, and building a sense of self-worth are challenging tasks but, when they lie at the heart of a patient’s weight problem, treatment models that do not include them will be ineffective.13,5,13,14,30

Areas of controversy

There are 3 primary areas of controversy in the weight-loss realm. The first can be illustrated by a quote by Will Rogers: “Often it’s not what we don’t know that causes problems, it’s what we know that isn’t so.” When we view the culturally specific and relatively recent pattern of weight gain among North Americans as a disease, we research it as a disease and we treat it as a disease. This approach has not been effective. When we view it as a predictable result of the self-perception, attitudes, decision making, and behaviour of the decision makers, we can focus on programs for the enhancement of their self-worth and self-efficacy so our patients make healthier decisions.

The second area of controversy has focused on the uncertain value and practicality of self-worth enhancement. After thoroughly reviewing this controversy in their recent paper, Swann et al14 endorse self-worth enhancement for improved functioning in a range of personal endeavours.

The third area of controversy is the concern that patients will not participate in programs for self-worth enhancement. This is an unfamiliar approach to weight loss and some will not participate. Many others will not at first, but most smokers were also initially reluctant to exchange their addiction for their health, yet many have done so.

Case conclusion

Ms R. accepted, with some initial reluctance, personal responsibility for the care of her own health. Over time she adopted a Mediterranean style of eating, weighed herself regularly,44 joined a fitness centre, hired a trainer for 6 sessions, and committed to working out a minimum of 4 times per week. She scheduled appointments with her family physician every other week where she received support, guidance, and clarification of her imagery-facilitated work on self-worth enhancement. After 2 years of dedicated effort, including setbacks and frustrations, Ms R. brought her weight down to 148 pounds, while greatly improving her fitness level. When asked how she accomplished this, she said that she learned to think of herself as a competitive swimmer with a good coach and a clear understanding that it was her body in the water doing the swimming.


Weight reduction is a daunting endeavour for our overweight patients but it is achievable for those who will accept support, guidance, and tools for self-worth enhancement from their family physicians. A patient with an internal locus of control is more likely to be pro-active about his or her health than a patient who seeks an external solution.

Levels of evidence

Level I: At least one properly conducted randomized controlled trial, systematic review, or meta-analysis

Level II: Other comparison trials, non-randomized, cohort, case-control, or epidemiologic studies, and preferably more than one study

Level III: Expert opinion or consensus statements


I thank Jackie Loucks for her valuable insights into the role of self-efficacy and motivation in the management of obesity.



  • Although a study by the American Dietetics Association in 2000 showed that 40% of those polled who were overweight were unwilling to give up their unhealthy lifestyles to be healthy, most overweight persons want to lose weight.
  • While there are many diet, exercise, psychotherapy, and medication options available, interest is turning to the role of self-efficacy in weight-loss management.
  • This paper reviews the literature on self-efficacy in obesity and offers practical suggestions for family physicians on how to work with patients on the development of self-efficacy.


  • En 2000, une étude de l’American Dietetics Association révélait que 40% des sujets obèses interrogés ne voulaient pas adopter un mode de vie plus favorable à la santé et pourtant, la plupart des obèses désirent maigrir.
  • Alors qu’il existe plusieurs choix de régimes, exercices, psychothérapies et médicaments disponibles, on se tourne maintenant vers le rôle de l’auto-efficacité pour la prise en charge de la perte de poids.
  • Cet article est une revue des publications sur le rôle de l’auto-efficacité dans l’obésité; il suggère des façons pratiques d’aider le patient à développer l’auto-efficacité.


Competing interests

Gordon Cochrane is the author of the book The Self-Worth Odyssey ( and conducts seminars on self-worth enhancement accredited by the Canadian Psychological Association.

This article has been peer reviewed.


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