The Psychology of Weight Loss


I’m sure you’ll all recognize this common tidbit of weight loss advice: “Eat less, move more.” I hate it. It may be true, but it’s also pretty useless. Eat how much less? If I’m hungry after I eat my reduced, pre-planned portion size, should I or should I not eat again? How often can I have dessert? If I have dessert once a week, should it be today or tomorrow? How do I decide? And that doesn’t even begin to cover exercise: how much should I exercise? Is there such a thing as too much? What kind of exercise is best? How many days per week, and how much time per session?

Basically, how do I structure my lifestyle, food rules, exercise schedule, and habits so that they stick? How can I keep from giving up and throwing myself on the couch with a pint of Half Baked and the new season of Daredevil? (Aside: DO NOT spoil Daredevil for me, I’m saving it for my maternity leave!)

There’s this construct that healthy eating and exercise – and ultimately, the outcome of “being in shape” – come from making good choices – “being good,” as many of us say (i.e., “I’m trying to be good”). How and why to make good choices, increase willpower, and motivate oneself every day are the subjects of memes, mantras, articles, books, and posters. It also translates to this fascinating paradigm of “virtuous foods” and “bad foods” that always makes me feel bad for pizza. While everyone seems to have a different idea of what specific foods are virtuous (gluten, anyone?), society implicitly agrees that you can tell if a person has “self-control” or “good judgement” – virtue, essentially – by their visible fitness.

But regardless of who you are, the majority of the actions we as humans take every day are actually not conscious choices. Our brains prefer to run on automatic. In the back of our minds, we’re constantly filtering and interpreting stimuli and running automatic scripts that make those decisions for us. (I’m reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which goes into great detail about the successes, biases, and errors in judgement that result from our automatic thinking. Highly recommend.) This morning, I didn’t decide whether or not to drop my son off at daycare and start working – it’s Wednesday, so that’s what we do. Have you ever set out to go to the bank and found yourself turning into your favorite coffee shop, which just happens to be on the way? You make that turn so routinely that it’s an automatic thought pattern.

If you’ve ever tried to change a habit – whether to break an old one or create a new one – you know how deeply ingrained those automatic scripts become. As it turns out, the best predictor of someone’s weight, happiness levels, or economic class is her current weight, happiness level, or economic class. People often overestimate future happiness and are not very good at anticipating what they will want in the future.

It’s tempting to feel defeatist, faced with this aspect of human nature. But in reality, this keeps happening because we keep trying to override the unconscious, automatic cognitive processes that have taken root over years with “willpower.”

Willpower – passing up a cookie at the office, for instance, or eating only one slice of bread from the bread basket, or somehow eating one serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream – is driven by the executive function of inhibitory control. The award for most entertaining study on inhibitory control goes to Walter Mischel’s classic and cruel Marshmallow Test, in which poor unfortunate four-year-olds are told that they may eat the marshmallow in front of them, but if they wait, they can have two. (The video shows an example of the test being run more recently; the original experiment is over 40 years old.)

I won’t get too far into inhibitory control in this post, but it does appear to be correlated with success in academics and other life skills down the line, and it seems that it may be improved with training. Mind In the Making, by Ellen Galinsky, includes exercises and strategies that can improve inhibitory control and other executive function in children. Perhaps worth a try for adults, if you’re concerned with your inhibitory control.

But ultimately, the bulk of our decisions, especially in connection with our goals, cannot be made as an override to established automatic patterns of thought and habit, because inhibitory control – willpower – is a limited resource, even if it can be improved over time. The answer, then, is to invest the time upfront to automate our choices. Align automatic thought patterns and behaviors with the goals we want to achieve, and we won’t have to suffer ego depletion or “decision fatigue” by the end of the first week.

So, for example, I wanted to journal each night, but as soon as I would get into bed, I always immediately popped open the browser on my phone and would lie in bed for 45-60 minutes on Facebook, until I was exhausted and ready to fall asleep. “OK, after this last article I’ll put my phone down. Ah, one more scroll through the old news feed. How cute is that video! Oh, that article looks interesting, too…is that true about superdelegates? Gotta check Wikipedia…” Finally, I moved my phone charger to the living room and began turning my phone off each night before lying down to start journaling. At first, I tried turning it off and leaving it on my nightstand, but then a question would occur to me, and I would turn it back on to start Googling…with, perhaps, a quick stop by Facebook – you know, while the browser is open. It’s incredible how much resistance I felt to making that change! “I can just put my phone down,” I told myself. “Really, I can. It’s not that hard! It’s just Facebook. That’s too far away! Anyway, how will I know what time it is when I wake up?” This is actually a more ridiculous reason than it even sounds like, because we have a clock in our room.

Reading on my phone was such an ingrained habit that I required the physical inconvenience of actually moving the phone into another room in order to break it. I also had to overcome the internal, psychological barrier that I should be able to just put the phone down myself without requiring such drastic measures. I had to shift my self-talk to get past this: instead of, “I should be able to do this,” I had to ask myself, “What will make me most likely to do this?” I had to recognize that a quirk of pride and shame were getting in the way of my success. Now, my undesired habit is broken, freeing up my time to read and journal when I set out to do so. As an added bonus, I also no longer read Facebook in the morning while I’m lying in bed – if I get up before my son, I have a bit of time to make a cup of coffee and write, instead.

So when it comes to weight loss, the question that I’m asking myself is, “What habits do I need to automate that will set me up for success? And what is my current self-talk that could get in my way?” I have two weeks before the baby comes to really start to work through that question and come up with a strategy…so here we go!

For background on this experiment, see my introduction and ground rules posts where I explain what I’m up to.

Image credit: poppet with a camera


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