Drop Those Nachos! Focus!
When I tell people that thought exercises can keep them thin, their eyes narrow. "Is there any science behind that?" they demand. "Tons!" I say, and start describing the science, with which I once filled a 300-page book (The Four-Day Win). I also tell them about an exciting new study: Researchers from my favorite school of psychology—Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)—gave a day of purely psychological training to 43 people who'd repeatedly tried to lose weight. A control group received no instruction. The ACT-trained group lost significantly more weight, sustained weight loss more effectively over three months, and became happier overall than the control group. Let me thump that one home: These chronic dieters became far more successful at weight loss after a single day spent learning to think differently.
But the folks who ask me for the science behind thought-based weight loss always seem bored by these dramatic findings. "Oh, man, that's complicated," they say. "I think I'll go back on the Key lime enema cleanse. I lost eight pounds that way, and insurance covered most of the medical bills."
Please don't do that. Just mentally track the following four points, all of which, I assure you, are based on solid science:
1. The part of you that wants to be thin is the calculating, computer-like layer of your brain. Call it the cyberbrain. Beneath it lies a more primitive layer some people call the dog brain, and below that, an even more primitive structure known as the reptile brain.
Your brain's dog-and-reptile components (call this combo the beastie brain) couldn't care less about how your clothes fit. Your beastie brain wants you well fed. And—pay attention—in the war between the cyberbrain and beastie brain, the computer eventually loses. Always.
2. Your nervous system has two basic components that toggle: When one's on, the other's off. The first is your fight-or-flight (sympathetic) system; it activates all sorts of physical mechanisms that, among other things, stave off starvation. The other is your "rest and relaxation" (parasympathetic) nervous system. It kicks in when you feel safe from attack and deprivation.
3. When your cyberbrain takes control and restricts your food intake, your beastie brain assumes you're experiencing some sort of disaster. It switches on the fight-or-flight nervous system, flooding your body with stress hormones, which, among other things, make you more likely to crave calories and store them as fat.
4. Repeated dieting, especially when combined with hostile thoughts like "I'm Jabba the freaking Hutt!," convinces your beastie brain that it's locked in an endless war with an abusive monster who hates and deprives it. (It's right: The abusive monster is you.) That makes your beastie brain anxious and food obsessed. You brood about food, diet, and weight; you eat compulsively, then starve, then binge. And your body gets increasingly efficient at packing on the pounds.
This physiological starvation-avoidance system means that consciously controlling your weight is like throwing a 400-pound porpoise through a hoop ten feet in the air: Impossible. However, if you can earn the porpoise's loyalty, it'll jump through the hoop on its own. Similarly, working with your body's nature, not against it, facilitates a normal relationship with food.
In her delightful book The Well-Dressed Ape, science writer Hannah Holmes writes that human obesity "is freakish biology. Other animals don't eat themselves into the grave, unless they've been...forced into an unnatural situation." We are the only critters that can conjure, just by thinking, an "unnatural situation" in which we're chronically stressed or forced to go hungry. We create a vicious cycle: Overeating begets self-loathing begets self-deprivation begets continuous famine response begets epic fat storage begets more overeating. You get the picture.
The ACT weight loss study is revolutionary because it showed that interrupting this crazy loop in its mental phase is more effective than dieting. I believe it because (a) it's compelling research, and (b) I've lived my own version of it. While writing about the psychology of staying thin—and trying every trick in my own book—I watched my food addiction disappear. My brain produced less anxiety (I had it professionally mapped). My body fat dropped to the level of an elite athlete (which I'm not). Without effort, my weight stabilized 25 pounds below its average during my hard-dieting years.
The best weight loss coach I know has helped hundreds of clients by using ACT-like strategies. Let's call her Brooke Castillo, because that is her name. I once asked her how, after years of struggle, she permanently dropped 70 pounds. "I learned how to relax it off," she said. "It's the only thing that works, and it's easy once you learn it."
Step 2: Train Your Brain and Body to Get Thin
We Hear You!