I spent decades struggling with my own weight. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, which, in all modesty, is saying something. But I also now know the blessed feeling of discovering how to stay lean without noticeable effort. I want you to have that experience. So right now, I need you to stop what you're doing. Imagine that I'm gently holding your face—your adorable, tortured, chubby, chocolate-smeared face—and staring into your eyes with the expression of a beagle who urgently wants a walk, and saying: "Listen! You can do this! You can be effortlessly thin! Just please, for the love of God, pay attention to the rest of this column!"
If I sound desperate, it's because I can't get most people to try what works. Why? Because it has little to do with food. Dieters are food addicts. "Lite" recipes, carb counting, fat gram logbooks—all of these strategies indulge an addict's obsessive focus on the drug. If the techniques worked, you'd be cheetah thin. If you aren't, they don't. Getting to a healthy weight requires something initially less gratifying: thinking in a way that changes your body by starting with your brain. Here's how to do it...
Step 1: Drop Those Nachos! Focus!
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
Train Your Brain and Body to Get Thin
If you've been struggling with fat for years, here's another safe bet: You spend far more time feeling anxious tension than total relaxation. To get and stay thin, you must reverse that balance.
If you've ever fallen in love, you probably did this by accident. In the throes of new romance, our beastie brain is focused on bonding and mating, not food. Emotional eating? Who needs it? Staying active? No problem! "The pounds just melted off," people say of their falling-in-love phase.
You cannot force this brain state into being. Doggedly thinking "loving thoughts" while beholding your own cellulite creates a rebound effect that will have you drinking chocolate syrup right from the bottle. The successful participants in the ACT study simply learned to observe their self-loathing thoughts—calmly. It's like hiring Cesar Millan to train your inner schnauzer: Peaceful presence triggers the calm brain state that allows permanent weight loss.
I use the mnemonic "so far" to remind me of my own technique for staying in my calm (read thin) zone. If you use it consistently, I believe you'll find yourself struggling less and less to eat right and stay lean.
Step 3: Practice the "So Far" Technique
Practice the "So Far" Technique
1. S is for Stop.
Whenever you're anxious, when you hate your thighs and you've just eaten dinner for four and your canary is sick and the obvious next step is to inhale a pie—freeze. Stop doing anything. If you're with other people, shout "Nature break!" and head to the bathroom. No one will ask why.
2. O is for Open.
The physiology of your fight-or-flight response is very tight: tight focus of the eyes, tightening of the muscles, short, tight breaths. Once you're alone and still, toggle over to your R & R nervous system by opening up. Widen your visual field by softening your eyes. Open your muscles by stretching. Open your lungs with deep breaths. Open your mouth in a luxurious yawn (no one yawns while fighting or fleeing).
3. F is for Forgive.
This is the most important step. Since you can't create a relaxation response while attacking and being attacked, you must forgive yourself, and your body, for all supposed imperfections. It helps to make lists of things you've done right (raising a healthy cat, posting on Facebook, not stealing many cars...) and ways your body has served you (letting you sing, laugh, hug, read...). Please, make such lists. Make them very long. You'll eventually reach self-forgiveness—however grudgingly—and the "calm observer" part of your brain will then be online.
4. A is for Accept.
If you've gotten to the point where you're able to forgive yourself, it's time to drop all resistance to things as they are right now. You don't have to love or sustain what's happening, you simply have to allow it to be as it is. You can live with that. Want proof? You are living with it. Breathe that in.
5. R is for Renew.
From a place of stillness, openness, forgiveness, and acceptance, you can renew your commitment to any eating plan you like. Go ahead, stay on the Key lime enema program—though I doubt you'll want to. Such diets are unnatural, like throwing that porpoise through a hoop. A relaxed porpoise often jumps for pure joy. A relaxed human eats healthy foods in healthy portions, and stays active because it's more fun than lethargy. The result? Healthy weight, with little effort. It's that simple.
Having written this, I feel a surge of fear. What if I fail myself and you? What if I start bingeing again and expand like an inflatable mattress? The anxiety tugs me toward the fresh brownies in the kitchen...but then I Stop. I Open up. I Forgive myself, Accept the moment, and Renew my commitment to my personal dietary rules (eat only what you truly enjoy, and truly enjoy whatever you eat). The appeal of brownies evaporates. Sure, I could eat the entire pile of them, though I'm not hungry. I could also pack my cheeks with 400 cotton balls. But why would I? It would be pointless, uncomfortable, and funny looking.
Anxiety diminished, I pick up a favorite book, stroke my dog's silky ears, and offer a small prayer of gratitude that peace talks are still prevailing over the war I once waged with my weight. So far, so good.
Please, join me.
Martha Beck is the author of six books, including The Joy Diet (Crown) and Expecting Adam (Berkley). Her most recent is Steering by Starlight (Rodale).