A diet that works is not about what you eat

Traybake Britain

Traybake Britain

Diets don’t work.  I learned that the hard way, putting on weight every time one failed (and they all did).   But how else are we supposed to lose weight?

Surgery is one answer, but even after dramatic early results many people report that it’s still a battle to keep the weight off.

But there might be another way.  In 2011 the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman published a revolutionary discovery about how our minds work in his best-selling book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.  As a behavioural researcher, (and a medically obese one at that!) I realised that his findings have huge implications for how we lose weight. 

In 2012 I put the thinking into practice, and have monitored my results for the past three years.  I lost three stone in six months and four and a half in total, and I’ve kept it off.  But so far I am a test case of one and so I really want to know if this works for other people too. 

Fancy being a guinea pig?  Here’s how:

We know that our bodies that were evolved to deal with food scarcity – when it comes to storing fat we’re up there with polar bears.   But it turns out that our brains were made that way too.  And despite scarcity hardly being a problem these days our brain hasn’t kept up.  All our decisions related to food are still made by our instinctive ‘Amy’ brain (Amy as in amygdala, System One thinking as Kahneman describes it).  It’s just that now our brain is almost permanently bombarded by a hyper-stimulating food culture, ‘Will there be anything else with that?’

This means that all our good intensions are hi-jacked.  So knowing what to eat (any new diet thinking) is never enough.   No matter how good the nutritional advice, we will always fail.  Our willpower can’t cope.  What’s needed is a behavioural solution, something that will help us stick to a diet and give it the chance to be successful.  Behavioural thinking shows how physical ‘nudges’ can help us achieve all sorts of results without making them a conscious struggle.  So, in this case, they might be easy-to-stick-to patterns of eating, physical barriers, rewards that work, and routines we can establish, so that we’re not dependent on weak (make that non-existent in my case) willpower.

Kahneman’s thinking shows how easily fooled we are.  Our Amy Brain uses shortcuts, hunches and instant, intuitive judgements – just to allow us to get through the scores of tiny decisions we make all the time.  But that leaves us vulnerable to irrational ‘biases’: we value short term, instant gratification over long term reward, we judge things according to what we are given to compare them with (without questioning the basis of the comparison), we listen to the latest story not the most relevant, we repeat mistakes more happily than changing our minds, etc. etc.

Just to quote one example (and there are hundreds), in a psychology experiment, students were shown a set of words associated with the elderly – e.g. wrinkled, forgetful, bald, grey, Florida (it was American research).  These students were then asked to move to another room.  They were timed getting there and their speeds were compared with another set of students who’d been shown just random words.  It was found that even just the suggestion of old age caused people to walk slower!

Because of Amy Brain’s short cuts we don’t always act in our own best interests, and when it comes to trying to lose weight we are well and truly scuppered.

We’re still wired to eat as much as we can whenever we can and we respond instantly to the promise of any vital energy, nutrients and minerals – that means protein, carbs and fat, the sweeter, or saltier, the better.

So how can we possibly cope with the onslaught of food marketing, or food porn (as the advertising industry happily describes it)?  Traybake Britain fluffs our appetites all day long with pimped up calories and our Amy Brain impulses just can’t cope.  People who tell us to listen to our bodies have a nice idea, but we can’t hear them above the siren call of tasty, tempting, available food.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that all those diets fail and we all end up heavier than when we started.  It’s not that the diet’s nutritional advice was wrong; it’s just that we’re not facing a nutritional problem.  It’s behavioural problem.  We all know what to eat to lose weight.  We just can’t stick to it with so many muffins on the high street.

The answer is to adopt behaviours that help our Amy Brain to tackle the temptations of Tray-bake Britain.  I call them the grooves:

·       Be Dramatic – against all the sensible advice – gentle, moderate behaviour is just hard work.  It’s one way to make sure we crack.  Instead don’t do things by halves.

·       Love The Yo-Yo – there’s nothing wrong with putting weight on – as long as you can easily take it off again (and you can).  Expecting constant progress and never to fall off the wagon is madness.  In fact, it actually helps to fall of the wagon regularly and often.

·       Keep Score – lots of feedback keeps you on track.  Ignorance is not bliss, it’s torture.

·       Be Mindless – getting Amy Brain into ‘mindless’ routines helps stop her being hi-jacked

·       Eat – never go hungry, and don’t make it a struggle.  There are simple ways how without putting on pounds.

·       Chocolate – use a reward that works.

These are the main ones, but there are lots more smaller grooves that just help us along too.

To find out more it’s all there on www.thedietgroove.com.

Please let me know how you get on.

Will x