Weight loss is back in the headlines as the UK government announces a new 12-point strategy to help people reduce weight.
The impetus has come from reports that weight is a factor in how badly we suffer with covid-19 if we fall ill with it. Personally I really dislike newspaper column inches that trot out a list of alarming possible outcomes of staying the weight you are. I think if you can say something helpful to people who struggle with eating, do. If you can’t, keep quiet. And if what you’re thinking of saying involves a string of figures intending to alarm, keep really quiet. Because the people who are looking for help may already be worried, and making them feel worse will not help them.
What we weigh is a result of a number of factors including genetic and environmental factors that are outside our individual control.
What is more under our control is our overall pattern of eating – our own unique combination of eating habits. Changing what we weigh can be achieved by changing those habits, but if we try to change lots of eating habits at a time, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. Unfortunately, that is what conventional diets ask you to do – they ask you to change the eating habits that you’ve developed over years or decades overnight. No wonder most people can’t keep this up for long!
How to be helpful (to yourself or someone else)
- Understand that the habit was established for good reasons
The first thing to say to anyone who isn’t happy with how they eat, is that you eat like you do now for good reasons. Those reasons may be causing you a side-order of stress, in which case you can look at changing how you eat. But our habits (eating habits included), developed in a particular context, when we repeated the same sequence of actions over and again.
We repeat things like this not because we are weak or stupid, but because the action sequence achieves something – probably a reduction of pain or an increase in pleasure. The positive feelings that result from the sequence of actions are stored with the memory, and produce a drive state (dopamine-related) to repeat the action again. The more repetitions, the more habitual the sequence becomes until it becomes automated. The great thing is that once a sequence becomes automated into being a habit, you don’t have to think about it – you just do it. This of course is also its downside… if you have unhelpful eating habits, you’ll find yourself doing them whether you intended to or not.
- Work out which particular eating habits you’re not happy with
Rather than overhauling the eating habits of a lifetime overnight, take the long view. For weight that you lose to stay off permanently, you need to change your unhelpful eating habits permanently. Habit change takes focus and effort, and scientists working on habit change recommend tackling just one or two habits at a time. You only move on to the next habit once the first unhelpful habit has been replaced with a more healthy habit.
By targeting one unhelpful habit at a time, you’ll have enough of a challenge, but that challenge is more likely to be do-able. You can work out which particular unhelpful habits you want to change using my “Unhelpful Eating Habit Checklist” which is freely available on my website.
- Check if this is a good time to try to make changes
In order to change an old habit into a new one, you’ll need some mental bandwidth. The term for this is “Working Memory” and I’ve written about that in an earlier blog. Because our working memory capacity is very limited, it’s a good idea to check in with yourself about whether this is a good time to try and change how you eat. If there’s too much going on in your life right now, this may not be a good time to embark on making changes. Instead, allow yourself to put the plan on hold and think again next month whether you have enough mental space.
- You can replace an unhelpful eating habit with a more helpful one
The key to forming a new habit is to keep repeating the same action sequence over and again in the same situation or setting. Researchers from University College London found that on average, the number of days taken for a new healthy behaviour to feel automatic (“automaticity”) was 66, but there was very wide variation (from 18 to 254 days). You can read more about how to form new healthy habits here.
Work out what new habit you would like to replace the old one. If you want to stop grazing when you’re tired in the evenings, think about exactly what you’ll do instead. Think about what reminders you’ll need and the support from a friend that might help. Get clear in your mind why you’re doing this – what will be better in your life six months from now if you successfully drop your evening grazing habit.
There is step-by-step guidance on how to make permanent changes to your eating habits in my #1 bestselling book How to Retrain Your Appetite.
The benefits of eating habit change
- Focusing in this way on changing one habit at a time is a slower approach to weight loss than many diets offer, but the extremely important point is that it is only by establishing new eating habits that the weight will stay off. If you’ve experienced yo-yo dieting you’ll know just what I mean, and you’ll know how soul-destroying it is to put effort into making changes only to discover that they are unsustainable.
- By just changing those habits that you want to, you can keep eating your favourite foods and eat in a way that fits your lifestyle (rather than trying to shoehorn your lifestyle into a diet).
- You save money if you eat what you already enjoy eating, but learn how to eat less.
- You discover strengths in yourself that you may not know you had, as you develop new habits that you have chosen to develop. Whether that’s learning to stop eating when you’re just full, or to overcome cravings for particular foods.
If your job involves helping people change how they eat – whether you’re a dietitian, nurse, nutritionist, health coach, doctor, psychotherapist or psychologist – you’re welcome to join one of my workshops for professionals. Details of upcoming events are on my website www.theappetitedoctor.co.uk.