Okay, we enjoyed too much turkey and gravy this Christmas, and most of it somehow migrated to our waistlines. What do we do? Do we follow the Canada Food Guide and eat more fruits and vegetables? Oh, no. Of course not. We go on a diet.
And it doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t work. We’re going about it exactly backwards.
Face the Facts
We all need to recognize it: we can’t force ourselves to do something we don’t want to do. We have been raised on the mantra of, ‘If you just used enough willpower…” but we don’t. We can’t. Willpower just isn’t strong enough. Millions of dieters prove it every January.
How a Diet Works
You don’t eat enough. For hours every day, your body cries out for food. You hate this feeling, but you think your willpower is strong enough to overcome the natural demands of your body. It isn’t, so your diet fails. Then you feel depressed and eat more.
Willpower Doesn’t Work That Way
And it’s not because we’re all weaklings. Willpower is never more than a temporary solution to a problem. Willpower is for pushing that last kilometer of the marathon, for controlling a momentary flash of anger. You can’t keep your body and mind under control by effort of will alone. Willpower requires concentration. The moment you lose concentration, your willpower wanes. Willpower is not for dealing with hunger pangs, hour after hour, day after day. The only way willpower works in the long run is to keep you on the same pattern long enough that the behaviour becomes a habit. Then you can relax your will, and the habit takes over. this is called conditioning. But it is a very difficult thing to create a habit of something you don’t want to do. Why? Because of how psychology works.
The major psychological technique here uses reward and punishment. Do something good, you feel good, which reinforces the activity so you do it again. Do something that makes you feel bad, and you stop. Simple.
The Sooner, the Better
And everyone knows that the more instant the feedback, the more effective the stimulus. How many times do you have to touch a hot stove burner before you stop? On the other end of the continuum, your dog eats grass, and four hours later he throws up on your carpet. How can his little doggie mind make a connection between those two events, let alone act on the information? Which is why I’m having my bedroom carpet replaced with Astroturf.
Psychology tells us that to make a diet work you need an instant feedback system that tells you immediately in a positive way that your diet is working. After a while, your new eating habits become just that: habits.
Do you do that? No, you don’t. Instead, you punish yourself hour after hour with hunger pangs, for a reward that doesn’t come until the end of the week when you step on the scales. And thus Jenny Craig has another $60 million January, as usual. Or $600 million, for all I know. And then MacDonald’s has a $60 billion February.
The Instant Feedback System
So let’s create a positive feedback system that tells you immediately that your diet is being successful. It’s rather simple, really. What evidence do you have, immediately and regularly, that you are eating less food than you need? Your hunger pangs. So that’s the feedback. Use it; it’s all you have.
Instant feedback equals effective stimulus. But the way our systems are designed to work, you feel hungry, you eat, and you feel better. Lesson learned? You feel hungry, you eat. To diet, we have to turn that around.
Create Positive Feedback
When you’re on a diet, think of the hunger pang as a signal that the diet is working. Because it is. Every minute that you feel hungry, your body is feeling the effects of your diet and acting accordingly by digging into those yummy fat cells instead of the food you aren’t eating.
So when you feel hungry, don’t take the negative approach and cry, “I hate this, I have to fight it.” That’s a sure-fire plan to failure. Instead, take the positive approach and congratulate yourself. “Hey, I’m hungry. My diet is working. Yay, me!” And then go away and do something fun to take your mind off the whole thing.
No, it’s not going to work all the time the first time. (I said it was simple, not that it was easy.) But the nice thing about this system is that you never experience failure either. Think what happens to your diet when you suffer all week, then you step on the scales and haven’t lost much weight. There goes the reward out the window, and all you’re left with is your willpower. This re-conditioning is gradual, and you are completely in charge of it. The success will wax and wane, but it will continue. You can even use your willpower to remind yourself to do it. And after a while, it will become a habit.
So, for the next few months, whenever you feel hungry, tell yourself that it’s a good feeling, and you’re doing fine; you’re winning. Because it’s true. Use your willpower to make yourself believe it, if that’s how your psyche works. And soon you will believe it.
And it wouldn’t hurt to fill up on carrots once in a while, either.