Weight loss is tricky business. Obviously what you eat has a huge impact on your health and body weight. But anyone who has ever tried to modify their diet for the sake of losing weight knows it isn’t so simple.
Most of us understand intuitively that broccoli is healthier than cookies. We can talk about sugar, fat, gluten and antioxidants all day, but that doesn’t change the fact that cookies taste good and you still want to eat them. Any weight loss plan that simply tells you what to eat and neglects why you make the choices you make is unlikely to help you in the long run.
Nutrition knowledge is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. The real secret is understanding your behaviors and motivations at their roots, and using this information to have a meaningful impact on your health. In this sense, good health starts in your brain, not on your plate.
The first thing you need to understand is that we don’t have as much control over our food decisions as most of us assume. We tend to believe that we can call on willpower anytime we wish and use it to order a salad instead of a burger, and if we fail to do so it is our own fault. However, self-control is not something we can simply turn on or off, and as a result the process of decision making––particularly when it comes to food––is much more complex.
Approximately 20 percent of the calories we expend daily are used by our brains. Because brain activity is so costly, things like self-control and decision making cannot be relied on indefinitely. As a result, willpower is a limited resource.
Like a muscle, willpower becomes fatigued when exercised too frequently. All the decisions you make throughout the day deplete your willpower, and when you start running out of steam your ability to choose healthy food over more convenient food rapidly diminishes.
Ironically, increasing your blood sugar can help restore willpower to some extent. But finding a healthy way to raise blood sugar in a state of depleted willpower can pose quite the dilemma. Tired brains find it much easier to just grab a cookie.
The way our brains cope with the willpower conundrum is to automate as much of our decision making as possible. It does this by creating habits. Habits are specific behaviors that occur in response to a trigger or cue. They are also always associated with some kind of reward, which in turn reinforces and strengthens the trigger.
For example, a buzz in your pocket is a cue to reach down, grab your phone, pull it out and glance at the screen. The information you see causes a bit of dopamine to be released in the reward center of your brain. We humans love novelty, which is why most of us have a reflexive response to checking our mobile devices when we receive a notification. This is how habits are born.
Once established, habits occur automatically without expending any willpower or mental effort. Scientists have estimated that up to 90 percent of our daily food decisions occur as a result of habits. This saves our brain energy for more difficult decisions where habits cannot be used.
How can this knowledge help us lose weight?
For one thing, it shows that willpower is not particularly reliable as a means to achieve lasting weight loss, and we’re better off spending our efforts creating healthy habits.
It also teaches us that any habit we wish to develop needs to impart a meaningful reward in order for it to stick. You can probably guess that some vague promise of future thinness is not sufficient––the reward for any habit needs to be immediate and tangible.
This means that in order to achieve long-term weight control you need to find healthy foods you actually enjoy eating, physical activities you like doing, and spend your time making these as convenient and accessible as possible.
Fabulous news, right?
Using willpower for restrictive dieting is difficult and incredibly unpleasant. We can all let out a collective sigh of relief that it doesn’t actually work. To achieve true success in health and weight loss, we’re better off quitting diets altogether and focusing on building healthy habits we enjoy.
Try starting with something as simple as breakfast. Warm muesli with a splash of almond milk and cinnamon only takes two minutes to prepare and is absolutely delicious. Invest in a pedometer and challenge yourself to reach 10,000 steps a day. Setting and achieving an attainable goal is a very powerful reward, and is one of the reasons so many people love videogames.
Since our brains are easily overwhelmed, don’t try to develop too many habits at once. Work on just two or three habits at a time, and build from there. Habits take anywhere from two weeks to six months to take root, but on average about two months. Start with the easiest ones and work your way up. Once you’ve built enough good habits, your health will take care of itself.
To learn how to stop dieting, build healthy habits, and make life awesome check out my new book Foodist.
Originally published May 6, 2013.