What Is Weight Loss Therapy and Do You Need It?

We go to physical therapy when we're recovering from an injury or surgery. We might go to couples or family therapy when we're having issues with our personal relationships. So what about weight loss therapy for those of us who are trying to shed pounds and get healthier? Is it a legitimately helpful tool, or just another trendy (and expensive) fad?

Generally speaking, pretty much anyone can benefit from therapy. Studies have shown that verbalizing our worries, anxieties and struggles can have a positive effect on the brain. And let's face it: Even though weight loss might involve some number-crunching in terms of calories, portion sizes and exercise intervals, it's also very much a mental and emotional process. While personal trainers can create effective workouts and nutritionists can design healthy eating plans, a weight loss therapist could help you embrace the right thought patterns to incorporate all of those changes in a sustainable way.

What Is Weight Loss Therapy?

While what you do and what you eat are certainly important parts of the weight loss equation, talking through your thoughts and feelings could be the missing piece of what often feels like a complicated puzzle. As U.S. News reported, a growing number of psychologists are using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help patients overcome afflictions like emotional eating, binge eating, depression and body image issues – all common among people who are overweight or obese.

In many cases, it appears to be working: A study published in the International Journal of Women's Health found that middle-aged women who engaged in individual sessions of CBT experienced an increase in weight loss as well as quality of life. And in another study by Frontiers in Nutrition in 2018, it was found that CBT "may be an effective method to facilitate weight reduction in obese and overweight individuals, prevent patient dropout and promote the weight maintenance."

Dr. Candice Seti, Psy.D., CPT, CNC, is a weight loss therapist who helps clients achieve their goals by addressing the psychology behind weight loss and weight gain. "I work with chronic yo-yo dieters to help them break their dependence on diets and learn how to manage their weight through lifestyle and behavioral changes, and by gaining awareness and control over how their thinking can sabotage their efforts," she explains.

Who Can Benefit from Weight Loss Therapy?

The most obvious candidates for this approach are those who have been unsuccessful in reaching their goals, despite doing everything they are "supposed" to do. "I work with those who have had a really hard time losing weight through conventional methods, such as working out more or consistently eating healthier," says Adrian Fournier, a weight loss consultant at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic.

Dr. Seti, too, works with people who have been on and off the diet train for years, and are struggling to break that frustrating cycle. "Once someone realizes diets don't work long-term, it can seem like there's no other option," she says. "After all, we are taught that when you want to lose weight, you go on a diet, and that's that."

There is another solution, Dr. Seti says—but it requires taking on a completely different perspective: "It's about learning that you don't need restriction and a temporary mindset, but true, sustainable, lifelong change."

What to Expect from Weight Loss Therapy

Weight loss therapy is not a once-size-fits-all approach. As Dr. Seti points out, the strategies used during each session are specifically catered to the needs, goals and challenges of each individual person. She creates unique programs that complement each client's strengths and helps identify areas in need of change, whether that includes situations, people or thoughts. They then work together to develop and practice ways to make those changes using baby steps, allowing the client to master each step along the way before progressing to the next.

Fournier creates fitness and nutrition programs for each client that meet their health and fitness needs, designed to create the most improvement for the desired results. He also focuses on the psychological mindset around eating. "We explore thoughts, feelings and hunger patterns related to food," he says. "Behavior change strategies are usually the major aspects to a weight loss therapy program."

How long does weight loss therapy typically last? Fournier notes there usually isn't a fixed time associated with therapy, as it depends on the individual's particular goal. That said, when trying to achieve a weight loss-related goal, he points out that a reasonable amount of time is needed to assess change in weight, habits and psychological stability—and, typically, the larger the goal, the greater the amount of time. "Someone wanting to lose 50 pounds will want to stick with a weight loss therapy program for six months, and someone wanting to lose 100 pounds will want to stick with a weight loss therapy program for 12 months," Fournier says.

Dr. Seti agrees there is no specific time period for weight loss therapy—it can be six weeks, six years or anywhere in between. "The idea is that we move at the pace that's right for the client and the speed they need," she says. "If it's done correctly, there is no need for it to be repeated, because everything that's implemented is sustainable and should be continued."

However, on occasion, Dr. Seti does see previous clients for what she calls "booster sessions." She uses these as opportunities to refocus and re-emphasize areas that may have lost attention recently.

A Real Member's Experience With Weight Loss Therapy

SparkPeople member Joanne Murray's foray into weight loss therapy began after trying what felt like an endless and futile series of diets. She was at a low point—struggling with severe obesity and anxiety, she was hard-pressed to even leave the house. As a single working mother, she was desperate to feel better and live a healthier life.

After being injured in a car accident, Joanne was referred to a therapist who also happened to specialize in eating disorders. They began using EMT tapping therapy, which helped bring down her anxiety levels.

"The therapist also taught me to ignore all diet plans and just look at food as fuel for my body, and exercise as peace for my mind," she says.

Joanne began walking at least 20 miles a week and eating more mindfully. So far, she has gone from 378 pounds to 308 pounds. In addition to gaining more health and happiness for herself, she notes that her change has also had an amazing impact on her 10-year-old daughter, who now also enjoys exercise and makes better food choices for herself. And both of them have joined a local netball team, which is something they never would have done in the past.

"I would absolutely recommend therapy to anyone," Joanne says. "It was the first time I was able to lose weight and sustain that weight loss. I'm a happier person and a better parent, because I'm no longer stressed about having to leave the house or binge-eating in secret."

Looking Beyond Weight Loss

All of the experts we spoke with agree that while weight loss therapy can be a helpful tool for some, an effective program should focus on far more than just driving down the number on the scale.

Karen R. Koenig, M.ED, LCSW, an expert on eating psychology, warns that focusing just on weight loss, rather than on eating, can decrease motivation and deny clients the opportunity to permanently change their relationship with food.

"Studies tell us that only about 5 percent of people who lose weight through dieting keep it off, and many regain more weight," she says. "I think of eating as the locomotive of a train and weight loss as the caboose. Where the locomotive goes, so does the caboose."

There is nothing wrong with weight loss, Dr. Koenig says, as long as it is not the focus of counseling. "With a weight loss focus, people grow upset and disappointed if they don't lose weight or if they gain more," she says. "They get anxious and deal with it by returning to unhealthy eating. Alternately, if the scale says they've lost weight, they're likely to feel they can now go back to unhealthy eating."

A far better approach, Dr. Koenig says, is for clients to focus on health rather than on weight goals and markers. "Weight matters much less than health for well-being and longevity, for there are higher-weight people who are healthy and lower or ‘normal'-weight people who are not," she points out. "Moreover, weight loss is an external motivator, whereas eating ‘normally' and growing healthier are internal motivators, which work better in the long run than external motivators."

How to Get Started

With so many different professionals going by so many different titles—weight loss therapists, weight loss consultants, behavioral specialists—how do you know you're making the right choice? One good place to start is the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website, where you can filter by area of expertise (weight management) and location. Psychology Today also offers an online search tool where you can find weight loss therapists in your area.

For anyone interested in trying weight loss therapy, Joanne stresses the importance of being open-minded and patient, as it is far from an overnight process. "I went for a year and it's been the best year of my life," she says. "I'm now finding beautiful places to go walking and watching my daughter benefit from our healthy choices."