Focus More on Your Brain and Less on Your Diet if You’re Serious About Losing Weight

by | Mar 31, 2014

Photo by Humphrey King

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.

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42 Responses to “Focus More on Your Brain and Less on Your Diet if You’re Serious About Losing Weight”

  1. Ira S says:

    My cat’s breath smells like cat food.

  2. Ira S says:

    (Just wanted to help with comments. No comments probably because you are dead on with this, and people are shaing). All the best withe new book! Cheers, Ira

  3. Emma says:

    This is a damn good article! Love your thinking Darya :)

  4. Absolutely true and very nicely put. Depriving yourself rarely works, but doing the little things each day over time does. It’s not as sexy as the latest weight loss miracle, but “move more, eat better” is the most (only?) effective plan in the long run. Great post!

  5. This is what the good folks over at Precision Nutrition preach and it what I’ve told my clients for years. I put it to them like this:

    “In every other avenue of life we choose the path of least resistance to reach our goal…the path that will get us where we need to go without too many bumps. But when it comes to diet and exercise, for some reason we choose the most difficult, arduous, painful path and beat ourselves up when we don’t follow through on a nearly impossible plan.

    Pick the low-hanging fruit until it stops working. Pick the next lowest fruit and so on.”

    Of course as a coach we have to help them find their low hanging fruit but it all comes down to everything you wrote above.

  6. Angie says:

    I feel like this is where I am right now, and I’ve been beating myself up quite a bit. When I really think about the progress I HAVE made then it helps a little.

    I just feel like I’ve been trying to stop eating sugar for the past 6 months and failing somewhat miserably. I’ve at least learned new ways to dress up healthier “desserts” (thanks to your balsamic glaze and roasted pear recipe and others for cookies made with bananas) but the biggest issue has been controlling myself “out in the wild” where bad food is always in your face.

    I’ve never had too much of an issue with exercising, and have been doing well there, but I still haven’t met my goals despite trying for months and I have to assume it’s the sugar addiction since it’s the main thing that hasn’t changed much. It’s hard to keep believing it’s possible, but I think I just need to keep learning new recipes.

    Thanks for making me feel like I’m normal! Hopefully I’ll get to where I want to be.

  7. Todd H says:

    So looking forward to the new book. I’m tired of dieting. Tired of being fat. I know what eating properly is supposed to be, but instead I am either balls to the wall 100 percent on target (starving) or completely failing. Tired of this roller coaster and ready for a little sanity with my weight loss efforts. Time to stop slowly killing myself and time to start living.

  8. Luca Samson says:

    Great post as always and some really useful tips in there. Keep up the great work!

  9. fanny says:

    Awesome! I needed to read this today. Thanks!

  10. Jamie Bunkley says:

    Your a genius :). I am on a long journey of yo yo dieting and am so excited to find you! Love your website and look forward to buying your book!!!

  11. Healthy Soldier says:

    I have not ever, ever commented on anything on the internet before, but this begs the effort. Your article was revelatory. Just so clearly and positively articulated to boot, and it absolutely resonated with me. Well written and good job. Thanks for the knowledge!

  12. Robin Adams` says:

    Very good article. There is not enough emphasis placed on the importance of using your brain in weight loss – and the ‘power of habit’. I think it was yourself Darya that recommended/reviewed the book by that name which is an excellent text on this subject, as was your own blog which talked about home court habits. I eagerly await the arrival of your new book in the UK which I have on pre-order. Keep up the good work!

  13. Lesley says:

    I used this to stop smoking many years ago. Rather than stop, I cut down by increasing the time between cigarettes, in effect, changing the habits of:lighting up after a meal, with a drink, when relaxing etc. Habit can be hard, but slowly and surely it worked – apply to food as above!!! Good article, thank you.

  14. julie says:

    Absolutely great advice. When I have friends who are trying to lose weight, I attempt to warn them against depending on will power, though it usually falls on deaf ears. I know it didn’t work for me, though I’ve had to employ it from time to time, for example, with quitting smoking. I couldn’t see a non-white-knuckle way around that. But food is a whole ‘nother animal. I’ve had to make my little changes habits and build on them, to the point where it’s natural for me to go to the gym a few times a week, and it’s habit for me to go to farmers market and eat tons of veggies. Of course, if life gets crazy stressful, some of those things slip, but that feels really weird and unnatural, and I get right back as soon as I can. If I had to rely on willpower, rather than habit (aka lifestyle change), I’d still be 200+ lbs.

  15. Jennifer says:

    Congratulations on your book release. That is a huge accomplishment and I comment you. I also believe that your mental state is such a huge component with…everything we do! Including weightless and overcoming addictive habits and life styles. Will power is a force to be reckoned with but stress inhibits good decisions, like you said. Thanks for the informative article. Keep up the good work!

  16. Tricia says:

    You hit the nail on the head with the suggestion to try to change one or two habits at a time instead of dieting. I can testify that it works. I’ve been on a journey to change my life for several years but when I started focusing on changing my habits instead of focusing on deprivation things fell into place and as a result I’ve dropped about 100 pounds.

    My significant other can’t believe it when I tell him that an evening snack of popcorn (homemade, not the microwave kind) is as much a treat to me as a bowl of ice cream is to him. I do still enjoy an occasional ice cream treat but it’s usually on a weekend after a very active day and homemade from a local shop. I have to work for it!

    I only recently discovered you and I look forward to reading your book.

  17. Sydney says:

    It would be nice if you included citations to the research you reference in the article. It just so happens that today, I pulled up your blog trying to find the research on the finite quantity of daily willpower.

  18. What you eat is what you are.

  19. Lesley says:

    Great article. Makes perfect sense, as that’s how I quit smoking many years ago; slowly learned new habits and integrated them to cut down until I quit entirely.

  20. Bo says:

    I can agree that willpower offers diminishing returns the more you rely on it. My experience with willpower is that it works for awhile, especially when it’s new and you’re just starting, but the longer you go, the weaker it gets.

  21. Evelyn says:

    It takes me about 30 days to develop a habit. I discovered this when I first decided to do morning walking. The first bunch of days, when the alarm clock went off, I really didn’t want to get up and walk.
    After a month of ‘just doing it’, I found that when I had to miss a day the whole day just didn’t feel quite right, like something was missing.
    Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to last a whole month yet eating ‘properly’ to see if it works for that as well.

  22. The brain is so important for everything and many people don’t even realize. When you’re dieting it’s so important to do everything you can and this article is very helpful too. It’s truly amazing what willpower can do.

  23. This is a fantastic article. Thanks for the perspective – it makes so much intuitive sense. Looking forward to sharing!

  24. Cah Berry says:

    Good information Darya..thanks for your sharing :-)

  25. Ang says:

    Hi Darya, another great post!!
    I’ve been following you for a few months now and absolutely love your page. It’s helped me A LOT. But I’m in desperate need of your help! I’m 15 years old and have been eating healthily for 6 months now, lost 5kg & have achieved my dream body. The only thing is, I haven’t had my period since October…
    I know this happens when people have eating disorders or lose a lot of weight rapidly, but I’m neither anorexic or have lost too much weight (in my opinion, I’m around 55kg, 172cm tall) & I’m an absolute foodist, I mean I LOOOVE food! I’ve built a really happy and healthy relationship with food (still love the odd bowl of ben & jerry’s or piece of carrot cake every now and then – I’m a HUGE fan of baking), I mostly eat vegan (breakfast & lunch, dinner more difficult because of the fam) & I’d like to stay the way I am. But in order to get my period back, I apparently need gain some weight, eat more fat, exercise less (I exercise everyday because I’d go insane if I didn’t, looove to exercise – kundalini yoga almost daily, 30-40 minute walks with the dog, & toning exercises for abs, butt, etc..).
    I don’t want to go back, I love the way I look & feel NOW. I don’t know what to do! And btw is it normal that I feel hungry more and more often now? I don’t starve myself, although sometimes my tummy acts up & don’t know why. Any advice? Please help anyone, thanks xxxxx

  26. This article is so on point! Trying to change your eating won’t work unless you change the underlying processes that don’t serve your higher health. Good habits are the key to a healthy and happy life. Feel free to check out this article that I wrote on healthier habits :) [link removed]

  27. Anni says:

    Hi Darya,

    Thanks for your article. Do you have a suggestion how to find habits that can easily be changed? I am familiar with all your concepts but whatever I pick, even when I think it is a good change, never lasts long… have I depleted my willpower for too long or am I still picking the wrong things?? Is there a good technique to figure out which habits could be the easiest to get going on the new concept?

  28. Spedrick says:

    Taking care of your brain is the MOST CRITICAL thing you can do to be healthy and happy. I take a great supplement that is designed specifically for your brain.

  29. Great article! It is amazing how many things we do in one day just by habit.

  30. Wicked article Darya. Can you recommend any good foods for general brain health and things like neurogenesis? I know about omega 3 and such, but are there any other goodies? Thanks :)

  31. Dyane Rech says:

    It was everything I needed to read and understand. Time to practice! Congratulations for your posts, it really makes the difference to swim against the tide of all these crazy diets – and the word “diet” itself. Greetings from Brazil!

  32. Mindy says:

    An incredible ah-ha moment for me. I’ve now read the book (loved it!) and my elephant and I are working together, probably for the first time ever! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

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