Why some people want to lose weight, but don't try

Sherry Pagoto PhD's picture
Weight Loss Help

Why do we sometimes say we want to achieve a goal like weight loss and then don’t act on it? I have worked with more patients that I can count who have looked me in the eye and said how much they want to lose weight, but then put in seemingly very little effort. Truth is we all do this on one thing or another.

Are we liars? Are we lazy?

Neither is the case. Life is more complicated than that. It’s easy to want, it’s much harder to do. Here are 10 reasons why we want but don’t do:

I Don't Know How To Lose Weight

Sometimes it is as simple as this. You may just not know how to effectively lose weight. You might try a few things, none of them work, and then get confused and discouraged. Feel like you don’t know where to begin with weight loss? Check out this post. I also recommend that you find an experienced counselor. You might be surprised to know that many clinical psychologists (like yours truly!) have this expertise and can dig a little deeper into the emotional issues with you. Find a clinical psychologist with training in behavior therapy for weight loss—it may be covered under your mental health insurance too.

Something/someone is punishing your effort

This is the scenario where you feel like every time you try, you get hit over the head. This can come in many forms. I remember one person I worked with talked about how every time she tried to lose weight her mother would make infuriating comments, like “Are you going to eat that? I thought you were trying to lose weight!” or “I can’t even tell you lost 10 pounds, isn’t that strange?” Kindly ask the person to stop once, but after that I recommend distancing yourself from the offending person–not entirely, but to the extent that you can tolerate them without losing your enthusiasm. Maybe seeing them once a week is too much, but you can handle an interaction once a month. Find the comfortable distance and stick to it.


Fear is the number 1 thing that holds us back from our wants. If you are stuck, try to imagine what would happen if you achieved your goal exactly as planned. Does it terrify you? In one fear scenario, we are afraid of bad things that might happen if we achieve the goal. I have had patients who worried a lot about the discomfort they would feel with attention they might attract if they were leaner. And others have said that being leaner might take away their longstanding excuse to not have sex, which would bring a deeper relationship problem to light - one they aren’t ready to deal with. Success can come with new problems, or unearth old ones that have been buried for a long time. As a first step, try to understand what problem you might be fearful of, what is at the root of that problem? Keep in mind that successful weight loss may hinge upon your progress with that problem.

Another fear is fear of the process. I’ve heard someone say, “I’m afraid I’ll feel deprived all the time.” “I’m dreading being exhausted from the exercise.” “I’m afraid I won’t have time to do the other things I love.” If these sound like you, the very best thing to do is to talk someone who has been through it (Maybe a Real Life Biggest Loser). Ask them, did you feel deprived? Exhausted? Did you still have time for your hobbies? People who have been through it probably have lots of ideas on how to navigate through these challenges and will show you that the process may not be as bad as you think.


The third fear is the fear of failure. Victorious weight losses are sometimes followed by devastating regains. This feels REALLY bad, sometimes worse than you felt before you lost the weight in the first place. Taking the plunge means taking the chance that a failure will happen again. However, not going for it guarantees you won’t achieve anything. Before starting though, think very hard about what went wrong last time so you don’t relive the cycle all over again. I have a post about how to do a post-mortem on a regain that you may find helpful.

Unrealistic Weight Loss Expectations

Sometimes our idea (or hope) of what it takes to achieve a weight loss goal is a bit unrealistic. If your efforts are repeatedly resulting in little to no progress, you may need to reassess whether those efforts are intense enough. You may feel like you are doing a lot, but it still might not be enough to be really moving that scale.


Have you ever wanted something so badly that you found yourself feeling negatively about or even angry at someone who has it? We’ve all been there at one point in life or another and while we know it’s unreasonable, you can’t help but feel it’s not fair that it’s easy for some people, but not so easy for you. This can lead to an “us” versus “them” mentality and consequently, self-defeating behavior. If you have found yourself thinking that you don’t want to exercise or make a healthier diet choice because it feels like “giving in” to the skinny people, you might be stuck in this type of thinking. Remind yourself that making healthy choices is not about living up to a skinny ideal, but very simply to be the healthiest person you can be.

Genetic Destiny

Your efforts may be lacking because of an underlying belief that your genetic destiny is in more control than you are. Just because several or all of your family members are overweight does not necessarily mean it is genetic. Families share more than genes in common—households, neighborhoods, and learned habits. Even if your weight was genetically driven, it is a misconception that it isn’t malleable by your efforts. When it comes to genetic destiny You are in more control than you think.

Hierarchy of Needs Imbalance

Sometimes people who genuinely would like to lose weight have bigger fish to fry in more basic areas of life. If you are worried about whether you can pay your mortgage, put food on the table, or keep your marriage together, losing weight will easily fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, some people live in a constant state of stress about basic needs that they can hardly get to a point where they can really focus energy on self-improvement. If you are feeling like this is the case, put all your focus on taking care of those basic needs because doing so will eventually free you up to really focus on this. If you can’t resolve your basic needs issues, get help or time may run out on you. Getting your life on solid ground will be good for your health.

I say I want to lose weight because other people think I should, but secretly—I don’t. Maybe you don’t really want to do this now, or ever. If you are overweight you might feel like you should want to lose weight, but if you aren’t ready, you aren’t ready. Be sure that when you try, you do it for you and not because people in your life, or society says you should. You will never be successful at a thing if your motivation is to satisfy someone else’s expectations. Your attempts will always come off half-hearted. It’s ok to say, “Not now.” Wait until your heart says, NOW. You’ll know when you are ready and when you are, blast off.

By Dr. Sherry Pagoto, a licensed clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Pagoto blogs at FU Diet If you are battling or have overcome a food addiction, I would love to hear your story.



Fantastic article! I used to be very small, and then after several years of drinking I managed to get bigger than I ever was - even when I was 9 months pregnant! I always feel guilty when I eat sweet things (which isn't often, as I'm not a sweet food person) and I did start eating healthy and using the ab circle pro for a few months, but then stopped when we moved house and I haven't got back to it. My main reason is tiredness, but I also have that fear of failure. I feel like such a loser when things don't work. As well as that, I sometimes feel like it's my own fault and I'm just being punished for drinking so much back when I drank. I kick myself all the time for letting myself try to drink my problems away... it only made more! This article was a great read and I'm really glad I'm not alone in the fear of failure department. I used to have unrealistic expectations but that has changed. I'm not so hard on myself anymore. Just have to lose the fear and put my foot down and just DO IT!!
Thanks for your comment Chemi. Losing weight is a lot like quitting smoking in that the average person needs 5-10 tries to finally nail it. It involves many more behavior changes though so it could take quite a few tries to get it right. No attempt isn't worthwhile even if you don't reach your goal or gain it all back. The important thing is that you learn something from each attempt, so that going forward you aren't making the same mistakes over and over. Good luck!