Successful weight loss may be more about psychology than dieting or willpower

Bella DePaulo
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

There's a problem with diets: They don't work. Sure, if you stick to your diet for a while, you may lose some weight, but that weight is highly unlikely to stay off in the long run. In fact, you may regain it all and then some.

Most diets are based on willpower. Our predominant way of thinking about weight loss is that it involves summoning our willpower. When other people look like they need to lose weight, we often think they are lacking in willpower or just plain lazy. That's just not so. The truth is, "hardly anybody has enough willpower to resist tempting foods if they are routinely confronted with them."

These aren't my opinions. I know nothing about dieting – never studied it, never practiced it. The conclusions are from a brilliant, wise, highly readable, and scientifically-based book by Traci Mann, Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again.

Genetics has a lot to do with our weight, and that means there's a limit to how much weight we are likely to lose or even gain. The other big part of the weight equation isn't personal, it's situational. If we want to get to our "leanest livable weight" and then stay there, we need to manage our environment and our ways of thinking, not our cravings.

9 strategies for controlling weight that do not rely on willpower

Here are 9 of the strategies that Professor Mann suggests using to reach “your leanest livable weight" without dieting or calling on that mythical willpower.

  1. Start every meal with a vegetable, such as a salad or some crudités. But – and this is important – make sure you have only a vegetable in front of you. If your salad is sitting alongside a bread basket, that's not a fair fight. Traci Mann puts it this way: "Be alone with a vegetable."
  2. Make your healthy foods easy to notice and grab and eat. For example, put them in the front of your refrigerator. Get some produce that requires no slicing or dicing or cooking, such as grapes. For the good stuff that is higher-maintenance, like many vegetables, get them all sliced and diced and ready to be cooked as soon as you get them home. Or just buy them already peeled and chopped.
  3. Make foods that are not so healthy harder to notice and grab and eat. Stick them in the back of the refrigerator or pantry. Put them in containers that are not see-through. (Have you heard of that great experiment at Google? When "M & M's were switched from clear containers to opaque ones…the 2,000 employees ate 3 million fewer calories" from the candies in the 7 weeks after the switch than they had during the 7 weeks before. Three million!)
  4. Make yourself work for your food – for example, by taking small amounts from the container and putting them in a small dish, then closing the container and putting it away. If you want some more, you have to repeat the whole process. This works in part because we are kind of lazy and even the smallest obstacle placed between us and our food can reduce the amount we eat. (For example, if you have to reach in farther to grab something from a salad bar, you will eat less of it than if it is right there in front of you.) It also works because when "you use a smaller plate and fill it up, you think you are eating more food [and that] tricks you into feeling fuller sooner." That trick is a compassionate one – it works even when you know about it.
  5. Don't think of healthy foods as healthy! That will just make you eat less of them. Think about them in other ways that you find appealing – how cold and refreshing that fresh fruit salad tastes straight from the refrigerator on a hot summer day; how tart and crispy that apple is; how awesome it is to be eating those tomatoes you planted yourself; or how discerning you were to have found the very best looking broccoli from all of the different offerings at the farmers market.
  6. You can't always control what's in front of you. When stuck in a situation with something tempting right in your line of sight, try to think about it abstractly rather than focusing on how good it looks and that wonderful fresh-baked scent wafting through the air. You know that famous study in which the kids could get two marshmallows if they could hold off a while on eating the one right in front of them? They did better if they thought of the marshmallow as, for example, "a puffy white cloud" rather than a yummy treat.
  7. If you know in advance that you are going to be walking right into a place of temptations (such as a party where delicious finger foods are going to be passed around, and around and around), have a plan. But don't base your plan on deprivation! So, do not say to yourself, "If they pass around several different kinds of hors d'oeuvres, I just won't have any." Remember, willpower is not part of the program. Instead, tell yourself you can have one of each.
  8. Know your weaknesses and create a plan to get around them. Do you always pick up a candy bar when you are in the check-out line of the supermarket? Go to an aisle without any candy – or a market without any candy in any of the check-out lines. Or order groceries online. Turn these avoidance strategies into habits that you do all the time without even thinking.
  9. Whatever you are eating, savor it. Pay attention to how wonderful it is. Don't be distracted by what's on your laptop or your phone. "Not only does savoring lead to more enjoyment of the food you eat, but there is some evidence that if you savor your food, you may be satisfied with a smaller portion of it."

The bottom line

The best way to achieve your "leanest livable weight" is to forsake dieting, give up on summoning that elusive willpower, and use the findings from social science to change your environments and your ways of thinking about food. The strategies are based on research, not some bogus fad.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA

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