"I've yo-yoed more times than I want to remember," says Lisa Romeo. "I'm always positive I won't rebound, but then life gets busy and the weight comes back." For her part, Lisa Kogan says: "Staying thin is just another source of stress for me."
I empathize completely. These women are combining motherhood and professional life, caring for elderly relatives, juggling infinite responsibilities. Adding a fitness program to such a schedule is like packing a piano on a mountain-climbing expedition. On the other hand…
Not having time or energy for weight loss makes no sense. Does it take more time or energy to eat fish than prime rib? No. Do the Lisas lack access to healthy food? No. Are they short on information? Lord, no—like most dieters, they're walking weight loss encyclopedias. The problem they and the rest of us weight watchers have isn't that we don't know what to do; it's that we don't do what we know. Why not? The most fundamental answer isn't in our fast food restaurants or overstocked refrigerators. It's in our heads.
The way we eat reflects the way we think, and the way the Lisas think keeps making them fat. The same is true for other failed dieters. Every time we drop weight without changing our psychology, we may be changing our brains so that we become more prone to overeating. The only way to beat the relapse syndrome is to both eat and think differently.
I've been studying this topic for years, doing endless reading and consuming entire cheesecakes to…um…subjectively observe the dynamics of binge eating. The thing about research is that it often leads you to a solution. That's why I'm now coaching the Lisas, and why, after spending years in the diet trenches, I'm confident I can teach them to lose weight permanently. As I talk to both Lisas about their struggle with weight relapse, I recognize two thought patterns typical of dieters, which are two sides of the same coin: the "I Need More Nurturing" syndrome and the mind-set that says, "I Need No Nurturing."
During our first conversation, it's clear that Lisa Romeo wants a lot of help and guidance in many areas. Her previous diet counselor, she tells me, gave her a few suggestions about diet and exercise but didn't provide the kind of structure she needed. Her academic adviser has provided less attention than she promised. Lisa's father is ill, and doctors have been appallingly uninterested in arranging his care. Lisa is also worried that she's not providing enough high-quality mothering to her two children.
These complaints include an implicit core assumption: People's lives depend on nurturing guidance from authority figures, and if those advisers don't measure up, their underlings are out of luck. This is true—for infants. But Lisa is an adult. In fact she's more competent and intelligent than several of the authority figures in her life. That's why she's so frustrated when they don't perform adequately. I'm a little worried that I'll end up on Lisa's list of failed advisers. I also realize that she doesn't exempt herself from judgment: She's trying to be the ideal mother who protects her own children from all suffering—and she's not meeting her own expectations.
Lisa Kogan, on the other hand, seems averse to accepting nurturing from anyone. In the past year, she's had two beloved friends die back-to-back of cancer, but when I ask if she's been able to grieve, she brushes off the question with a joke. She's hilarious, kind, sensitive, engaging, and her life is as busy as Lisa Romeo's. She's a caretaker for her young daughter, long-distance boyfriend, coworkers and friends. Her energy pours into every life she touches—except her own. As a result, she's starving for everything but food.
We spend a little time talking about the role food has played in her life, the times she's used it for comfort or distraction, and how she remembers her father coming home from his high-stress job and nibbling compulsively all night. Eating is the one way Lisa K. takes in nourishment, so it isn't surprising that she often goes overboard. Weight loss will be permanent for her only if she can acknowledge her own vulnerability, take some of the effort she puts into helping others and direct it toward herself, and allow other people to reciprocate.
Like many dieters, both Lisas have extreme mind-sets when it comes to nourishment. The blunt way to put it is that the Lisas need to mind their own business—that is, pay close attention to their own needs. It's the old serenity prayer solution: The Lisas must find the serenity to accept what they can't change (other people and their problems), the courage to change what they can (their own lives), and the wisdom to know the difference.
That wisdom comes from "clear seeing," achieving the viewpoint of wisemen and wisewomen, sages, mystics. Amazingly, science is showing that this mental perspective changes our brains and bodies in precisely the ways necessary to stop unsuccessful dieting and become permanently slender.
I challenge both Lisas to make this weight loss effort different by focusing first on self-observation. I want them to pay as much attention to themselves as they do to their children—especially the way they react to all forms of physical and emotional nurturing, from food to kisses.
I tell Lisa Romeo that we will have daily contact—but instead of me checking on her, she has to e-mail me. I'm not the authority on her life: She is. So I ask her to send daily reports of her own eating, feelings and thoughts. That pushes her into the role of self-observer, while making her the leader in our interactions.
Lisa Kogan's job is quite different. I want her to ask less of herself, and view me as a soft place to land, not someone who wants more from her. Though she's wary, she eventually allows me to cajole her into observing herself as she would a friend. For example, to help Lisa K. forgive herself for rebound weight gain, I describe a 1940s diet in which healthy young men volunteered to participate. Many of the subjects became binge eaters. Their self-esteem plummeted, they became hostile and angry, and a couple of them began to steal things. When the study ended, the bingeing got worse, not better. That's what starvation—even a voluntary diet—does to the human psyche. When Lisa K. finally agrees that she deserves the same forgiveness, her energy changes. It's like ice melting.
After both Lisas promise to observe themselves in general terms, I teach them a specific self-observation technique, one I've humbly named the Most Important Weight Management Skill in the History of the Universe.
I call this mental exercise "Becoming the Watcher." When I first learned it, I never suspected that one unprepossessing visualization would free me, and many of my clients, from the hellish roller coaster of rebound dieting. Going on the fad diet du jour may—temporarily—change you from a caterpillar into a thinner caterpillar. This exercise can turn you into a butterfly: a different body, no going back.
Hold out your right hand, palm up. Imagine that standing there is an inch-tall version of yourself—the part that insists on losing weight. We'll call her (or him) the Dictator. The Dictator wears a uniform, carries a whip, screams insults and orders—the things you tell yourself when you're feeling fat: "You'd better stop eating now, you disgusting blob of &*%$!" Let these words, and the Dictator's hostile energy, fill your consciousness.
Now notice: Do you want to eat more, or less?
Both Lisas, along with everyone else I've ever guided through this exercise, respond, "More."
Now hold up your left palm. Standing on it is another tiny version of you; the animal part that isn't verbal or logical, and doesn't understand what the Dictator wants. I call this the Wild Child, because it's like a kid who's continually assaulted by the Dictator's attacks and privations. The Wild Child is tired, afraid, and frightened. Notice: Is she planning to obey the Dictator in its effort to starve her? No?
Now hold out both hands. See the Dictator in your right, Wild Child in your left. This next part's tricky: Notice that both mini-yous are essentially good. The Dictator gets frantic when you gain weight just as you would if you saw a toddler wandering into traffic. It screams and yells, pushes and forces, because it's trying to save you from a terrible, fat fate. And your Wild Child isn't remotely malicious, just devastated, confused and afraid. Consider both perspectives until you can empathize with them.
At this point, it's time to realize that the Wild Child and the Dictator deserve compassion. Offer it to them. Say this: "May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering." Repeat it to both Dictator and Wild Child, until you mean it. Take your time.
All right, now answer the following question: Where are you in this picture?
The only reason you can "see" both the Dictator and the Wild Child is that you're not either of them. You've moved into a third realm of consciousness, in a different part of your brain. I call it the Watcher.
The wisdom traditions of every culture teach techniques (meditation, prayer) for aligning with this compassionate, observing self. Monks who do this regularly have unusually abundant neural activity in brain regions associated with happiness. The OCD patients Schwartz treated used similar techniques to change their brains. In short, the unassuming visualization you've just done is a portal leading away from futile conflict—including the diet wars—to a place of peace.
Notice: When you feel genuine kindness toward your Wild Child and Dictator selves, do you feel more compulsive about eating, or less?
When I asked successful weight losers what finally enabled them to slim down, I kept hearing the phrase "four days." Something—illness, travel, business—put many of these folks off their feed for about four days. At that point, they noticed a slight but highly motivating weight loss. After that, continuing to lose was much easier.
I wasn't expecting this, but it made sense. Adult development theorists know that significant change requires an "early win," evidence that our efforts are yielding success. It takes about four days of virtuous living to create a little weight loss. That also happens to be the time required to get used to eating less. In other words, if you can get past day three of a fitness regimen, things improve. I began to think about weight loss as a series of four-day wins.
Once you've started healing your brain with gentle, kind self-observation, you can lose weight by "sneaking up" your exercise and "sneaking down" your food intake in four-day increments. Sneaking is another way to prevent famine responses. If you're totally sedentary and eat 2,500 calories a day, don't instantly go to 1,200 calories and hours of aerobics—your weight loss will be sudden and violent, but also fleeting. Try dropping your intake by 100 to 300 calories and taking 500 more steps each day for four days. Then cut out another 100 to 300 calories, and add another 500 steps. Sustain for four days. Repeat until you see a weight loss. It will feel strangely easy to stay the course.
Because this takes patience at first (it soon becomes highly motivating), it's essential to reward yourself for meeting the four-day goals. I suggest Substituting Inedible Nurturance, or SIN. Don't replace overeating with virtuous work or exercise; instead, make a list of things you love, from watching TV to hanging out with favorite people. Nurturing touch (a pedicure, a massage, sex) is especially effective, since it triggers production of the same opioid hormones as eating. SIN isn't sinful, but it should feel wickedly good.
Lisa Romeo follows the instructions, albeit with low hopes. I half-expect her to bail on the program. But she blows me away with her persistence, constancy, and courage. In her daily e-mails from the front, Lisa articulates that in many relationships where she's been longing for nourishment, she actually needs to assume leadership. She ultimately gets a new faculty mentor more in sync with her goals. She stops taking undue responsibility for her children's feelings and becomes a calmer mother.
"It's going so well, I'm scared," she confesses. "I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."
"So become the Watcher," I say. "Be kind toward your anxious self."
Several weeks into our program, Lisa's ailing father passes away. Under this massive stress, any dieter could be forgiven for falling off the wagon. Instead, after her father's funeral, she writes, "I've discovered it's impossible to overeat while you're having a good cry." She's able to observe herself so kindly that hurricanes can blow through her life without driving her to compulsive eating. I'm awestruck.
Lisa Kogan, funny, brave and tough, writes me an e-mail saying she has new empathy for members of the cannibalistic Donner party, and another confessing, "I have just eaten my own arm." As much fun as she is, I'm worried: There's a germ of truth in every joke, and Lisa K. is still trying to live on energy she alone produces. I'm concerned that she's too hungry and almost cruelly indifferent to her own needs.
Then something good happens: Lisa K. contracts a virus that usually affects only children. Why is that good? I'm not glad she's ill, but I suspect being physically sick enough to absolutely need rest and TLC could be a great gift, teaching Lisa to receive more nurturing. When she gets that right, her craving brain can heal, and she'll be able to lead her innocent animal self in dropping excess weight—forever. The body is a persistent teacher, and though many of us greet its lessons with anger and resistance, the thing it's always trying to teach us is acceptance: of our bodies, our emotions, our situations.
Getting past rebound dieting means choosing kind perceptiveness when our reflexive responses—and those taught by most diet advisers—are to resist and control. Paradoxically, effective change begins with acceptance of everything that makes up our lives at any present moment. It's really true: Love, in the form of kindness to ourselves, is what never fails. It's working for the Lisas—to the extent that they're allowing it—and it will work for you. Persist in compassionately observing any scared, crazy, overeating vestige of yourself, and the miserable feeding frenzies that may have dominated your life, as they did the Lisas, really will give way to peace.