Why Losing Weight Is Hard

I have very few people that I consider “mentors” in my life. My parents are obvious, but outside of my family there is one man that stands above the rest: Ted Spiker. I say this with as much gratitude possible; if it wasn’t for Ted Spiker, I don’t know if I would have ever made it in the health and fitness industry. In fact, writing about Spiker deserves it’s own post, but right now I want to focus on Spiker’s latest contribution to the health industry, Down Size. In this excerpt from his new book, Spiker keys in on the real reason why so many goal driven plans (for weight loss, exercise, diet…really anything) oftentimes fail. Grab a cup of coffee and get ready to learn. This one’s on the house and it’s worth your time. -AB

Weight Loss Effectiveness: Expectations vs. Goals

I once watched a video by sports psychology expert Patrick Cohn, PhD, about how athletes become frustrated with their performance in youth sports. He broke it down this way: For an athlete who’s experiencing frustration, there are two important concepts, the trigger and the emotions.

The trigger is some kind of action on the field: a poor play, a missed shot, a mental mistake, or a cheating opponent.

And the emotion is the consequence of that trigger: anger, frustration, or helplessness. One leads to directly to the other, except—and this is a big except—that there’s a whole chasm between the trigger and emotion.

Cohn argues that this chasm is filled with beliefs. For the athlete, what is the belief? That others will think you’re bad if you make a mistake, that you have to be perfect?

Sounds exactly the way dieters think. “What will the world think of me when I need to buy two airplane seats?” “What if I order the burger and fries and eat the whole thing?” “Will my spouse think I’m a slob if I keep gaining weight?” “What is the consequence of slamming down a football- size burrito?”

To change the emotions, it takes shifting beliefs. For youth sports, it may be convincing kids that mistakes are okay—everyone makes them; that’s the nature of sports, since there’s no such thing as perfection, except maybe in bowling. But how do we do it as adults?

The Weight Loss Mindset: Shifting Expectations

How do we take something as embedded in our minds as our beliefs about body and weight and flip them upside down?

How do we tell ourselves that mistakes are okay when we know full well that mac-and-cheese omelets are not a health food?

How do we tell ourselves that the goal isn’t perfection, but rather the blander “being good most of the time”?

The argument would go that you’re not going to be able to limit your triggers. (There will always be 4,000-calorie doughnut concoctions, just as there will always be pressure to make free throws at the end of the game.) But you can change your response to those triggers, if you can change what you believe to be true about weight loss and dieting.

While not a weight-loss expert, Cohn makes a good point that can be applied to this subject: the way to improve composure, he told me, is that you have to differentiate between expectations and goals.

People get frustrated when they don’t meet their expectation that they have to eat perfectly at every meal.

While it’s good to have goals, he said, it’s more important to manage your expectations of how you should perform. By focusing on the process instead of the final number, you’re more likely to get to the outcome you want.

“If you do the process well,” he said, “that will eventually lead to the desired outcomes. Focus on the execution—in athletics, it’s shot‑to‑shot or pitch‑to‑pitch execution— knowing that if you focus on doing the action well, the result will take care of itself.

But if you’re so obsessed with reaching a weight-loss goal, does that help you do the process? That’s backward. It doesn’t help you get to the outcome.”

In practice, this means you keep the desired weight or that pair of skinny jeans as the goal, but you stop focusing on them.

Instead, shift your attention to whatever process you’re going to use to get there. And when things don’t go right, you also have to manage your mistakes, not beat yourself up about them.

That, of course, takes some practice and the ability to work through the frustrations of scale numbers not moving or body shapes not changing.

Goals Gone Wild?

Here’s an interesting side note about the development of those goals: In the mainstream media, we’ve been pounded with the message that we need to set reasonable goals; if you have a better shot at attaining a goal, the argument goes, you’re more likely to succeed.

However, a recent paper examining obesity myths, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, challenged this notion.

The authors pointed to several studies, including one in the journal Obesity, showing that those who articulated a dream weight were positively correlated to weight loss over the long term—and that there was no significant correlation between realistic weight goals and actual weight loss.

Matthew Herper, who wrote about the NEJM paper for Forbes, made a good point: “I’m a great believer in clinical trials, but it’s always important to remember that just because a clinical trial does not show an effect doesn’t mean that effect doesn’t exist.”

That means that those of us who are challenged with these struggles have to gather evidence in all forms (studies, stories, experimentation) to figure out the recipe not that will work with a doubt, but that will give us the best chance for succeeding, for breaking through plateaus, for working facing the inevitable frustration we encounter.

Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book SmartChange, studies such things as decision making, goals, and motivation. He said that part of the reason weight loss is so difficult and frustrating is because our brains are not wired to handle the absence of action.

“When you’re trying to lose weight, you’re trying to eat less, avoid certain tempting foods,” he told me. “If you succeed, if you achieve that negative goal, what you’ve done is not doing something.

The problem with not doing something is that your brain basically doesn’t learn not to do something.

When every time you’ve successfully resisted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, you’ve achieved something significant, but your brain really hasn’t changed.

What you have to do in order to be really successful is turn all these negative goals into positive ones—actions that you’re going to take in particular circumstances, actions and things you can learn to do.”

That made a lot of sense: most of our struggles come from the fact that we’re deleting content from our brains, rather than trying to upload new files for our brains to work on.

It also makes sense when combined with Cohn’s take on process: that is, laser-beaming our attention on the process, whether it’s writing down what you eat, or logging the miles you walk, or aiming to eat nine fruits or vegetables a day.

But if your tactic is just to deny yourself x, y, and z, then your brain will soon enter a sort of emergency state.

An empty mind, after all, will go back to what it knows, a. k. a. meatball subs.

In a way, to shift out of bad eating habits, it’s not as much about denying ourselves or resisting or having the mental grit to fight the aroma of fresh cookies. It’s much more about keeping our brains fat and happy.

The post was an excerpt from Down Size. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Random House (USA) Inc., from Down Size by Ted Spiker. Copyright © 2014 by Ted Spiker.

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