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We’re getting close…  On December 2/3, a mere nine days from today, Weight Watchers will be launching its next major new program.  Not to be such a tease, but I’m not yet ready to reveal its awesomeness.  Not to be an even bigger tease, but I personally believe it is among the most important steps forward that Weight Watchers has taken in its nearly 50 years.  Bold talk and irritatingly short on detail.  Sorry about that!

The least I could do is perhaps provide a little context.  Let me start with a basic set of beliefs on what we need to be truly successful.

What are we trying to do?  The goal is not to lose weight.  The goal is to lose weight and keep it off.

What do we need to accomplish this?

  • A program that helps each of us find our healthier life by
    1. Giving us a program that helps us more consistently make smarter choices
    2. Giving us a program that makes these choices easier
    3. Giving us a program that makes these choices second nature
  • A rocking set of tools and support mechanisms that make following the program easier, more fun and more inspirational

There you have it.  All you really need to find your healthy lifestyle is to use an awesome program and the tools to stick with it so that it all becomes second nature.

OK, I’m a pretty ineffectual tease, because I am already revealing too much.  I never was one to wait three days to call a girl (if my very distant memory of such days serves).  I am going to blow it a little bit more by providing some more clues.

If you want to design the perfect program designed for a forever healthier life, you have to start at the beginning….

Why do we overeat?

Because we eat the wrong stuff and we don’t exercise. 

This seems pretty obvious, but it’s always worth reiterating.  Eating calorie dense foods (i.e., foods loaded with sugars and fats) served in ever-growing portion sizes got us into this obesity mess.  Continuing to eat those foods is what keeps us there.  The fact that we live in a pretty sedentary society with desk jobs, televisions, video games and the internet makes it all the worse.  Eating foods that are nutrient dense, satisfying and are a great calorie bargain puts us way ahead of the game.  This said, I would argue that a bit too much time is spent having endless debates about the virtues of different diet theories:  low carb, high protein, low-fat, etc.  Basically, we need to much more consistently choose from our friendly food groups:  vegetables, fruits, lean meats, whole grains, low-fat dairy.  We need to watch our portion size.  We need to cut out the junk.  We need to get active.  Every day.

Pretty simple stuff.  Yet, if it’s so simple, why do we have such a hard time living this way in our day-to-day life?  The answer is that there are other equally or possibly more powerful forces at work…

Because we loves us some dopamine

One of the more interesting new discoveries about overeating over the past few years has been the revealing of a new theory of overeating:  hedonic eating.  The discovery of this came from performing  functional MRI’s of people’s brains while showing them pictures of yummy foods.  Those who struggle with weight have brains that light up like Christmas trees when they see a treat.  The brains of naturally skinny people barely register (These are the same people who forget to eat.   Seriously.)  For most of us, we respond to our trigger foods by getting a shot of dopamine in our brains, which is the chemical compound that allows for reward-driven learning.  It’s powerful stuff that can really get a hold of us in a way that is hard to ignore.  The bad news is that even the anticipation of food can trigger a dopamine release causing us to act like crazed flesh-eating zombies.  Worse yet, this chemical reaction continues to happen even after we’ve lost the weight.  It never really goes away.

In the moment, the desire for a shot of dopamine can cause us to do some pretty dumb stuff.  It is what George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon calls a Hot State.  It’s what happens when we try to stare down temptation in the heat of the moment.  It usually turns out badly.

Because our eyes do deceive us

As I have referenced on many of my past posts, the impact of visual cues when it comes to eating can never be overstated.  All of us Weight Watchers types are avowed members of the clean plate club.  We were trained at a VERY early age to finish our food, and the need to do so is pretty deeply rooted in our neural pathways.  Cleaning your plate is not a problem if you are using the plate from the Little Princess Tea Set.  It is a problem if you are using a plate from the Viking feast in honor of vanquishing another sad little English village.  Many of us grew up with nine-inch plates, and we now eat off twelve-inch plates.  That a 78% increase in surface area.  Said differently, the environment matters to an extraordinary degree.

Because we are all fairly mindless

Allow me to quote from Brian Wansink of Cornell University for the 763rd time:  research shows that the average person makes more than 200 food decisions every day, but can only recall about 10 to 15 of them.  Most of us operate most of the time in a fairly subconscious daze that makes us pretty unaware of what is going on.  Every time our eyes glide over a muffin in the conference room while we listen to a too long PowerPoint presentation, we are making a decision whether we realize it or not.  Why is this is a very big problem?

Because we all break down eventually

One of the more fun pieces of research that I stumbled across recently is the notion that we do not have infinite reservoirs of willpower.  In fact, we get a gas tank full that we deplete over the course of the day.  In a related bit of research, there is the theory of decision fatigue which shows that we start making bad decisions after we’ve made too many decisions.  There is a reason why torture works.  It seems that abundant junk food has quite a bit more power than boring old water boarding.  The prefrontal lobe of our brain, which controls impulsive beahvior, is about the only thing that keeps all havoc from breaking loose, and quite frankly it gets tired.  It is a muscle that can get stronger, but that takes time and training.  Further, if we completely rely on it every moment of every day, eventually it will go down in a fantastic burst of flames.

Because we often do things for no real reason at all

Credit the voices of people like B.J. Fogg, Charles Duhigg and many others for calling attention to the power of the habit.  Habits can be forces of tremendous good or forces of horrific evil.  How many of us drink a glass of wine at a certain time of day because it is just what we do?  How many of us feel the need to have a snack on our lap when we watch TV at night even when we’re not hungry?  These forces are deeply rooted in our neural pathways (the basal ganglia to be exact).  However, if habits can get us into trouble, they can also be the one force that can make healthier life permanent.

That’s a big list of very powerful forces.  Are we doomed?  Is there any way to create a healthier life in the face of these?

Abso-freaking-lutely.  You just have to wait a measly 9 days to find out how.

In the mean time, consider the following post-Thanksgiving thought…  All of those leftovers that you don’t want to throw away because you don’t want them to go to waste?  Consider this fact:  they will end up as waste one way or the other.  One of those two paths does not result in any accumulation to our fat cells.  Actually, this is really more of a note to self.  There is a lot of frightening temptation lurking in my refrigerator right now.  Better to vanquish it into the trash can than to try to stare it down.

Talk to you again on December 3rd!!!!

Cheers,

Dave

It’s been about a month since Weight Loss Boss hit the bookstores.  I’ve spent the last month (and the month before that) shamelessly seeking my own shallow glory by promoting it.  My only hope is that those who have  read the book have found some use in it despite my nefarious, personal goals of self-aggrandizement.  There is a little more book promotion coming up, but at this point, it’s mostly about word-of-mouth buzz for future sales.  On a more serious note, I am hopeful that it ultimately sells enough copies so that the proceeds can give the designated beneficiary, Share Our Strength, a nice shot in the arm.

Having spent SO MUCH time talking about my book, it occurs that it might now be time to talk about someone else’s book.  What follows is less of a review and more of a display of a man crush on another  much more capable writer.  Just as I had put the finishing touches on Weight Loss Boss and sent it off to the printer, an interesting book hit the bookstores like a minor thunderstorm.  The book was “The Power of Habit”, by Charles Duhigg, a NY Times reporter.  I first learned about it by reading an excerpt of it in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, and I found myself completely taken in.  The book then came out, and I completely devoured it.  It was one of the first books I familiary with that fully explains the concept of a habit in an accessible and useful way.  In fact, my only regret about Duhigg’s book is that it didn’t come out sooner, which would have allowed me to plagerize the crap out of it.  Such are the cruel twists of fate.

It is impossible to think about a successful weight loss journey without spending most of it thinking about habits and routines.  The simple truth of our daily lives is that despite our flurry of activity, most of us are not carefully thinking through every single little thing we do with each passing minute.  That’s a good thing, because if we did, we would surely spiral into complete insanity.  In fact most of decisions throughout the day really aren’t decisions at all.  We are on auto-pilot.  If we are all in fact on auto-pilot, it’s only reasonable to ask who programmed the auto-pilot software and where exactly is it taking us?

The science of habits and what they actually are is a relatively more recent phenomena.  There has been a ton of fascinating research taking place over the past 10 to 15 years by some really smart folks at universities that never would have accepted me (Stanford, MIT, etc.).  Many of you know that I am a huge fan of the work of Stanford researcher B.J. Fogg and his work with technology and the process of establishing what he calls “Tiny Habits”.  While Charles Duhigg is not a scientist, he is a pretty thorough researcher (the best journalists are), and he dove into this nascent research sector with reckless abandon.  What I found particularly powerful and useful about his book was the manner in which he illuminated and simplified a lot of complex science into some pretty easily grasped constructs.

To understand and appreciate a habit, examples are pretty helpful.  Duhigg references the familiar research of a mouse being put into a maze where it has to figure out where to find the cheese.  Apparently, researchers found some way of attaching a brain scanning contraption to the little mouse’s head (the visual of this alone is almost worth the price of admission).  The first X times coursing through the maze, the little mouse brain is firing on all circuits while it tries to problem solve it’s way through the maze to get its reward du fromage.  After Y times, the mouse fully gets the hang of the course.  After a buzzer cues him to to start, he then blazes through the maze, and quickly captures his prize.  What is fascinating is that when he gets to this point of maze-skill, his brain is barely registering anything in his brain measuring helmet.  The mouse is exerting literally no mental activity.  The complex set of commands and decisions necessary to navigate the maze have literally become a single executable command.  Navigating the maze becomes an automatic routine that allows his brain to think about other more interesting things, such as “Where can I find a girl mouse in this big crazy maze?”.  For you fellow nerds, it’s almost as though a habit is our brain’s version of obect oriented programming.  The habit becomes an easily accessed programming routine that then sits in our library of other habits.

Duhigg goes on to describe experiments with people suffering brain damage in their cerberal cortext (i.e., the top of the brain) who can still perform basic skills like brushing their teeth, talking, and doing their routine 1 mile walk despite the fact that they have lost virtually all of their short term memory.  Apparently, our habits get pushed down to the stem of our brain in the basil ganglia.  The important point is that habits literally live in a different part of our brain, separated from the rest of our mental decision making apparatus.

All of this is very fine and interesting, but of more use is his description of the process of creating a new habit as well as the possibility of dispelling an undesirable habit.  What I found incredibly helpful was his simple diagram of showing how a habit gets formed:

  1. There needs to be some sort of Cue
  2. The Cue is followed by a series of steps that constitute a Routine
  3. There is a Reward at the end of the Routine

All three elements are necessary for a new habit to be created.  All three elements can be recognized to identify a crummy habit.  For example, Duhigg argues that the first key in getting rid of a bad habit is to identify it’s cue.  He uses the example of a mid-afternoon desire to go to the office cafeteria and grab a cookie.  It’s an automatic response that happens at the same time each day.  He then spends time trying to figure out exactly what kind of reward his brain is seeking the causes him to follow this cookie eating routine.  He came to the conclusion that the reward was a desire he had to get away from his desk and spend some time BS’ing with colleagues.  Through his diagnosis, he was able to replace the routine of eating a cookie with a different routine that allowed him to get the same reward thereby allowing him to kick his afternoon cookie problem.

Another useful example is the very familiar process of brushing our teeth.  Duhigg gives a fascinating history of how a very smart marketer created the habit of brushing our teeth as a way of peddling a lot of toothpaste.  In this example, the cue can be “it’s nightime”.  The routine is all of the steps associated with brushing our teeth.  The reward is having minty fresh breath that does not cause us to peel the paint off of walls or force our spouse to vomit after we kiss them.  The reward of minty fresh breath was apparently strong enough that our brains decided it was worth it to adopt the routine and create a baked habit.

One of my most familiar personal examples of this is my morning workout.  What I realized in reading Duhigg’s book was that I followed his habit path chapter and verse:

  • My cue:  the 5 AM alarm clock (that’s an easy one)
  • My routine:  all gym clothes and diet Red Bull put out the night before.  When I wake up, I quickly blast through email, check headlines, etc.  I then jump into the car, and hit the gym.  Somewhere in there I almost always put my gym clothes on.
  • My reward:  started with getting to listen to my cheesey music as loud as a I could through my headphones.  Now it’s the reward of vaguely looking like someone who goes to the gym every day.  Don’t knock the power of vanity!

As I always tell people, working out every day is not a function of discipline for me.  It’s just a routine.  It’s a habit.

When I think about where I am today in navigating my daily life, my most important support system has been the inventory of helpful habits I have built up over the past 10 years.  I would have had absolutely no chance at keeping my weight off where it not for those habits and routines.  I would argue that habits and routines are simply the only chance we have to consistently making healthy decisions in a food environment that wants us to make crummy decisions.  The reason for this is simple:  a habit is not a decision at all.  It’s autopilot, and that is a powerful and mighty tool.

Given the central role that habits play in any successful long term weight loss effort, how can I not recommend a book that dedicates itself to that very topic.  As an added perk, Duhigg is also a great writer and story teller, so its entertaining/fascinating to boot.

Here is the link to Amazon.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Power-Habit-What-Business/dp/1400069289

Cheers,

Dave

 

Following up on last week’s post, I ponder the question:  so I wrote a book, but why???

Reason #2:  I’m pretty sick of hearing about will power

I wrote this book for every person who has ever had to listen to the sanctimonious admonition:  “Get some discipline, eat less and move more.  It’s simple!”

My response to this admonition:  put a sock in it.

It makes me more than a little crazy the way obesity is over-simplified.  Let’s start with some basic logic:  very few people struggling with obesity are particularly happy about that fact.  I know I wasn’t.  The notion that it’s easy if we were all just a little bit less lazy is a bad combination of being 1) wrong and 2) incredibly harmful.  If it was easy and straight forward, I think we can all reasonably expect that we would not have an obesity epidemic on our hands.

Fact #1:  obesity levels are much higher today than they were 30 years ago.
Fact #2:  the availability to food anywhere, anytime has expanded just as fast as our waistlines.
Fact #3:  We live in an environment that conspires to encourage us over-eat.
Fact #4:  our brains aren’t really helping the matter.

So if the answer is complicated, what can we do about it?

Most of what is written about dealing with weight is in the form of nutritional theory, usually in the form of regimented meal plans that are frankly hard to live with.  There is no shortage of diet books constantly streaming into the marketplace focusing on the finer points of nutritional theory.  Cut out fat.  No wait, cut out carbs.  Eat nuts.

Don’t fight the Tractor Beam.  Find your
inner Obi Wan and shut the bad boy down.

This begs the question of why I bothered to write a book on the topic of weight.  My answer is that it’s not a diet book.  It’s a change your lifestyle/habits/brain book.  I would argue that the most interesting research happening in the field of weight management is much more in the territory of behavior and neurological science than it is in nutritional science.  Said differently, we eat for a thousand reasons that have nothing to do with actually being hungry.  We eat because we want a reward.  We eat because it’s an ingrained habit.  We eat, and we aren’t even fully aware that we’re eating.  When we get in the tractor beam of a trigger food, we find ourselves being yanked into the Death Star of eating mistakes.  What all of this research points to is a simple truth:  if we try to rely on willpower to stare down temptation, we will almost certainly fail.

Over the past few years, I’ve been pretty heavily influenced by a lot of different writers and researchers in this topic.  Some of them are the writers:  Tara Parker Pope, Mark Bittman, Michael Polan, and more recently, Charles Duhigg.  Many of them are behavioral economists and psychologists such as Brian Wansink, Richard Thaler, Kevin Volpp, B.J. Fogg and many others.

When it comes to what we really need to know about nutrition, I would argue that much of what we need to know is pretty uncomplicated.  The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans (aka MyPlate) got it pretty right:  fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables and the rest with lean proteins and whole grains.  Have low-fat dairy.  Minimize junk food.  Watch portion size.  Exercise daily.  Repeat.

If knowing what we should ultimately eat is straight forward, knowing how to make it happen in life is a lot trickier.  It’s not easy to make those noble decisions when we are staring down our most dreaded food temptation.

This brings me back to the book.  I started writing the blog when I became a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers (i.e., reached my goal weight).  Everything I’ve talked about or thought about over the past three years has had to do with learning to live with my new lifestyle.  It wasn’t until I got to maintenance that I really began to understand what was necessary to try to change my life patterns for good (and better).  In fact, if I knew what I’ve learned in the last three years of maintenance when I started Weight Watchers, it would not have taken me nine years to reach my goal weight.

Therefore, in this book, expect to hear a lot more about changing habits, managing our personal environments and establishing new healthy routines.  The promise is to make healthy decisions easier, and ideally automatic.

Important announcement redux

As noted in the last post, all author proceeds of the book go to Share Our Strength (www.strength.org) to benefit their No Kid Hungry campaign.

Here are the Amazon and Barnes & Noble have links active for pre-order.  I’m told there will be electronic versions as of the on-sale date (I’m still confirming this…)

Here are the pre-order links…

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Weight-Loss-Boss-Losing—-Control/dp/1609619013/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1332511698&sr=1-1

Barnes & Noble:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/weight-loss-boss-david-kirchhoff/1108642892?ean=9781609619015&itm=1&usri=weight+loss+boss

Books a Million:  http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Weight-Loss-Boss/David-Kirchhoff/9781609619015?id=5325115807116

Cheers,
dk