Why diets don't work: Three things to know
Every year millions of people around the world go on a diet to lose weight. And every year millions of these dieters give up on their diet and put the weight back on, and often even more.
When you lose weight you lose muscle and fat, but when you put the weight back on it is just fat you are storing. So diets are arguably a greater health hazard than doing nothing at all about your weight - unless you can develop a diet that allows you to develop good, long-term eating habits.
Why is this goal so elusive?
Here are three of the barriers to success you need to understand if you want to lose weight and keep it off!
1. You have two minds...
Let's start with a simple exercise: close your eyes and then try to remember all the details of the place where you are and the people around you (if there are any).
Try to remember as many details as you can. Then open your eyes and look around.
Even if you are in a highly familiar environment you are likely to have missed some of the things you can see. The question is not how much you could remember. Rather, the point is that you did not decide to remember some things and forget other things.
There is a part of your mind that operates in your nonconscious - that simply stores some things in your memory and not others without you even being aware of it. But this mind does a lot more. To give you just one more example, it manages all your organs - your liver, digestive system, kidneys, heart, breathing and so forth - without you being aware of this happening.
While you don't know what's going on in your nonconscious mind you are aware of what you are thinking about when you make a plan - you wonder whether you should or shouldn't do something, try to make sense of something, or when you decide to lose weight.
This is an important point: we all have a mind that does a lot of things - in fact completes thousands of tasks concurrently without us being aware of it - and we have a mind that allows us to consciously think about things.
We could name these the 'Doing Mind' and the 'Thinking Mind'. Clearly, our 'Doing Mind' is much more powerful and faster than our 'Thinking Mind'.
Otherwise it could not carry out so many activities at the same time. There is a reason for this: our 'Doing Mind' has evolved over some 4 to 5 million years, while our 'Thinking Mind' developed only some 80,000 to 100,000 years back.
So nature had a lot of time to refine and improve the 'Doing Mind', while the 'Thinking Mind' is relatively new.
2. Making a decision to lose weight is not enough...
Now it gets interesting: when you decide to lose weight you are using your 'Thinking Mind'. And when you set yourself a specific goal (I plan to lose ... kg by...) you use your 'Thinking Mind'. But your 'Doing Mind' has no idea what you are thinking about.
It just goes on doing what it does best, namely helping you to survive in a hostile natural environment - a challenge it has been designed to address and the way it has served humankind for much of the last 4 to 5 million years.
Now imagine you are going on a diet. Your 'Doing Mind' interprets the lower intake of food as a sign of danger. After all, this mind is supposed to help you survive in a hostile environment and eating as much food as you can get is a key survival strategy. So the more you are trying to diet the more your 'Doing Mind' is pushing you to eat.
As your 'Doing Mind' is much more powerful and faster than your 'Thinking Mind' it should be quite obvious as to which mind will win this battle.
3. So, don't set a weight loss goal - just take small steps you can maintain
There is no point in setting an ambitious goal, pushing ahead and making progress quickly when you can't maintain your weight in the end.
The right approach is to think about your weight loss as a journey that takes place over a long period of time. You need to make steps - small enough for you to be able to maintain any weight loss you have achieved. You may want to lose 20 kilos or more, but you may only be able to maintain a weight loss of, say, a couple of kilos.
Once you are used to this new weight you can take the next small step. All the time your focus needs to be on maintenance, not any ultimate goal. This will take you longer but you are far more likely to succeed.
Here are some guidelines for how to approach your weight loss:
Take small steps towards success
- Don't set an ambitious weight loss goal.
- Start by making a small change to your eating habits (for example: 'I give up second helpings' or cut out the pastry you regularly eat for afternoon tea or start using a smaller plate).
- After you have maintained this small change for three to four weeks, you should be ready for the next small step forward.
- Never attempt a change you are not confident you can maintain - it is better to take many small steps forward you can maintain than one big step you can't!
Boost your willpower
- We used to believe that willpower is something we are born with. Research has shown that it is an ability that can be trained. Just do something you would normally not do for a week or so - pick something simple like use your non-dominant hand to open doors or do not cross your legs when you sit. Forcing yourself to do something you normally don't do strengthens your willpower.
- Sleep allows you to replenish your willpower so make sure you get plenty of it if you can.
- Alcohol depletes your willpower so take it easy on that front.
- Making decisions depletes your willpower, so try to develop routines and habits that eliminate the need to make decisions.
- When you are stressed you become more sensitive to what's happening around you - noise, light, traffic, etcetera. This makes you even more stressed. Break this stress spiral by thinking of something positive and calming whenever you feel stressed - it can be your children or grandchildren, partner, friends, a tranquil place, whatever works for you...
- But make sure you always call up the same image in your mind when you get stressed.
- To take it a step further learn a relaxation exercise that allows you to relax more deeply. Do the same relaxation exercise every time you get stressed.
- By repeating the same intervention every time you are 'training' your brain to respond.
Change bad habits
- Habits are driven by your nonconscious mind - you don't think about them, you just suddenly realise you have again fallen back into bad habits you wanted to leave behind.
- Try to become aware of your bad habits just before you engage - for example, if you habitually go to the fridge and eat something without even thinking, put a note on the fridge (ideally not just words, but also a positive picture!).
- This trigger will make you aware of the fact that you are just about falling back into a bad habit and allow you to consider what you are about to do and to make a positive decision not to let this happen.
- But be aware that you will get used to the trigger you have established (e.g. the warning on the fridge). After a while you won't become aware of it any longer because you are used to seeing it there. So you have to renew your trigger when it starts to lose impact!
- Dr Peter Steidl is a spokesperson for Live Well
Sydney Morning Herald