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updated 10/8/2004 2:51:09 PM ET 2004-10-08T18:51:09

If you seem unable to lose weight, there may be a surprising reason: You may not be ready. A person's behavior changes in a series of distinct stages. Studies suggest that sometimes people may feel ready to lose weight, but they are unprepared to alter their behavior to do so.

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There are five stages of motivational readiness in a widely accepted model of behavioral change. In the "precontemplation" stage, a person has no intention of changing. At the next step, "contemplation," a person intends to change, but later. During the "preparation" phase, a person is ready to change within the next month. The "action" stage is reached when a person has recently changed a behavior. The final, "maintenance" level occurs only when a person has carried out the new behavior for at least six months to two years.

A recent study of women trying to manage their weight showed that these women were stuck in the precontemplation stage. There were two reasons for their passivity: The difficulties the women perceived outnumbered the advantages; and they lacked confidence in their ability to successfully make changes.

Pros must outweigh cons
An earlier study about what prevented young adults from eating more vegetables and fruit found that moving from precontemplation depended on how many benefits the young adults saw to changing. Yet moving from the next stage, contemplation, was more influenced by how many barriers they saw. A balance in favor of the benefits was the main indicator of a readiness to actually make the changes.

Find out how dietary advice has changedIn the more recent study of women, how they thought about the "pros" and "cons" of dieting was also significantly related to the stage they were in regarding weight loss behaviors, like decreasing fat consumption and increasing exercise.

If you want to move forward in living a healthy lifestyle, the "pros" have to outweigh the "cons" in your mind. Find ways to get around barriers that you think are inconvenient, expensive, boring or difficult. Be specific about what you are trying to overcome and creative about possible solutions. Research shows that the balance of pros and cons relates to each small behavioral change, not just to the goal, like losing weight. For example, you might see many more benefits to losing weight than to remaining overweight. But if you see more barriers than benefits to new habits like exercising more and decreasing food portion sizes, you are unlikely to change. However, if you are ready to change some behaviors, make at least these changes. Small successes can build your confidence in making more changes.

Believe you can succeed
The other key influence on women's readiness to make changes to lose weight was their belief in their ability to overcome barriers. Past studies have also shown that people pursue a goal more diligently if they believe they can succeed. When people think a task exceeds their abilities, most will avoid it or give up easily when obstacles arise. Like the study of young adults who were trying to eat more vegetables and fruits, personal confidence is a key factor in adopting new behaviors.

Fortunately, you can strengthen your confidence in your ability to change. By learning what you can do, training to do it and trying to experience it, you can build your confidence. Then when you successfully start new habits, be ready to deal with circumstances or unexpected problems. Once again, you will need to keep the "pros" of your healthy new lifestyle always ahead of the "cons" in your mind.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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