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
Giving us a program that helps us more consistently make smarter choices
Giving us a program that makes these choices easier
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!!!!