The perfect storm

It's worse than you think

The reason why 80% of diets fail is not because their nutritional advice is wrong.  Nor is it because the dieters don't follow them properly.  It's not even a question of willpower.  I'm sure there are lots of people out there with amazing willpower, and maybe they are the 20% that succeed, but if a diet has to depend on pure willpower alone then, for most of us, it is bound to fail.  We are only human.

No, the reason they fail, and the reason why we give up and blame our lack of willpower, is because the diet has only helped us with the foody bit of the diet; the WHAT to eat.  Let me explain the rest of the challege and you'll see why you need the HOW to eat answers aswell.

 Traybake Britain

Traybake Britain

Challenge one: TrayBake TIMES

We are living in Traybake Times.  We are tempted with delicious, beautifully presented food from morning to night.  From adverts on the streets and on TV, to the millions of cafes and coffee shops taking over the high street.  From the thoughtful, "I've brought breakfast" box of doughnuts from a colleague, to the late night rummage in the fridge by my wife, we are offered the chance to sink our teeth into mouthwatering food at virtually every moment of the day.   In 1955, Sainsbury’s sold just 700 rather bland products.  These days it’s more than 30 000, all beautifully designed and packaged.

Food looks more appetising, smells more appealing and springs up more frequently than ever before. Even drinks now look more like desserts: full of milk and syrups and topped with cream.  The sheer level of persuasion is overpowering.

 A cookie jar?  How could you resist?

A cookie jar?  How could you resist?

It is a feat of willpower already that we are not more obese than we are.  But this is the part we know about.  This is what the diets try to keep you away from.  And to some extent they work.  If you only eat cabbage soup then a double chocolate chip muffin is just not allowed, and if you can only eat what your palaeolithic ancestors ate then a salted caramel profiterole stack is right out of the question.  And they do offer up their best alternatives in return.  Glossy websites full of almost-edible photographs of the most delicious looking salmon filets in grapefruit salsa, or quinoa salad with mint and mango. They do look mouthwatering, and I'm sure you can make an alternative burger bun out of shredded carrots and coconut flour, but can we really stick to any of these diets without caving in?

 Lovely, lovely, lovely.  But how long can it hold off the call of the chips?

Lovely, lovely, lovely.  But how long can it hold off the call of the chips?

The sheer power of these Traybake Times is the reason why these diets fail.  No matter what rules they propose or what substitutes they offer, they eventually collapse under the sheer weight of temptation that we live with.

 Storing fat comes naturally to Polar Bears and to my cat (who's easier to photograph).

Storing fat comes naturally to Polar Bears and to my cat (who's easier to photograph).

Challenge Two: FAT MAGNET biology

The second part of our challenge makes dieting even more of a futile business.  Not only are we bound to give way to temptation because of the deliciousness of the double chocolate chip muffins themselves, but our bodies are designed to drop us in it too.  First, we're designed to crave the very things we're trying to avoid.  We instinctively delight in sweet flavours because they promise energy and nutrition.  Salt signals the availability of minerals.  And umami, the taste we adore in a spaghetti carbonara, is the promise of protein.

Then, when we do crack for the savoury-sweet hit of the salted caramel profiterole stack, our bodies store the bountiful goodies it provides like there is no tomorrow.  Or at least no food tomorrow, because that is what our body was designed to deal with in times when there wasn't a sustaining coffee shop every ten yards across the savannah.  In the natural kingdom we are actually advanced fat hoarders.  Humans have far more fat storing cells than most animals.  We’re up there with the Polar Bears.  

The more we diet the more the body will fight to fend off starvation and the more it will store the energy it desperately thinks it needs.  Our metabolism will drop to conserve energy and that muffin will never get burned off.  Research in America has shown that, just due to metabolic slow-down alone, people must eat 400 calories a day fewer after they’ve dieted than before it, just to maintain their new weight.

This is where most people give up.  The weight piles back on and we end up heavier than when we started.

So it's not just the challenge of avoiding high-calorie foods that a diet has got to tackle, but the very damage of dieting itself.

  Looks a bit like a brain.  But nicer to look at.

Looks a bit like a brain.  But nicer to look at.


It's not just our biology that stands in our way when we try to lose weight, but our brains don't help much either.  Recent research into behaviour and making choices has shown up a huge gap between the decision making process that we like to think we take - thoughtful, considered and rational - and the process that actually happens - impulsive, rough, shortcuts.  Or 'Thinking Fast and Slow', as the Nobel winning researcher Kahneman, put it in his groundbreaking book.  

You can think of it as having two kinds of brain.  In control for the big, considered decisions is your Thoughtful Brain.  Thoughtful Brain knows the importance of eating healthily and losing weight.  Thoughtful Brain even decides to go on a diet, works out the best one, and commits to doing it.  But Thoughtful Brain is sabotaged by Amy Brain.  

Amy Brian (the Amygdala to give it it's full name) is a much older, more instinctive part of our brains.  It plays a key role in our emotions and our instinctive decision making processes.  It is the fight or flight decider.  Amy Brain makes decisions quickly, based on instinct.  I'm going to call Amy a 'she' (just because of the name).  And she is brilliant, we couldn't function without her.

Amy Brain gets things done and stops us wasting time going over and over the same information to make decisions.  She saves lives.  When you stop a child from running across the road you don't think, you just act. That's your Amy Brain.  Amy's instincts have kept humans alive for thousands of years.  But when we're trying to lose weight the game changes.  All of a sudden we start working against our instinctive behaviours.  And then, Amy Brain becomes a liability.

Amy influences our actions in so many ways I can't list them all here: she prefers a small benefit today rather than something better tomorrow, she holds on something just because she has it not because she values it and she compares things to the nearest alternative whether it's related or not.

With Amy the instant pleasure of a donut will beat the idea of losing weight.  The idea of losing weight is distant and vague.  So Amy Brain responds automatically to that offer of donuts before the Thoughtful Brain has had a chance to respond.  And because she's plugged into our instinctive needs she says yes to all that useful energy.

And just to add a double whammy, Amy Brain will trigger our expectation of the donut by kick starting our digestion and firing off the pleasure centres.  So if we don't then actually have the donut we're left feeling frustrated, hungry and bitter.

So we it's nothing to do with just a lack of will-power, we've each got an Amy Brain to contend with.


An experiment

 A number.

A number.

There are hundreds of experiments to show how Amy affects our decisions but here's just one.  

People in a test were asked to memorise a number and then go and tell it to a person in a room down the hall.  Some people had to remember a longish seven-digit number.  The others just a two-digit number.  On the way down the hall, everyone was offered a snack: chocolate cake or fruit. Those tasked with remembering the easy two-digit number were more likely to go for fruit.  They still had enough mental capacity to remind themselves that the fruit was probably the better option, and about sixty per cent of them went for fruit.  Those trying to remember the big number, however, were a bit more stressed.  They let Amy take control of the snack situation and, lo and behold, she went for cake.  Over sixty per cent of them.  So don’t chose your food while you’re trying to remember a phone number. 



So what does it take to stick to a diet?  Resisting temptation?  A bit of will-power?  No, it's much harder than that. 

For a start, temptation is not an isolated event, it's a 24/7 assault.  Then, we are biologically programmed to give in to it.  Dieting only makes the effects worse.  And to top it all, our brain rewards us for every wrong step we make, it punishes us for every temptation we try to deny and sabotages any good intentions we ever had.

The combination of Traybake Britain, our Anti-Starve biology and our Amy Brains conspire with each other to create the perfect diet destroying storm.  Amy Brain responds joyfully to the food-porn seduction of Traybake Britain.  Traybake Britain completely overwhelms our Anti-Starve biology and our Anti-Starve Biology supports Amy Brain in every donut she reaches for.

A bit of willpower and some sensible nutritional advice will do nothing against this lot.