Most diets require you to change completely how you eat overnight, which puts phenomenal pressure on you psychologically. We’re not built to make dramatic changes suddenly. It’s not how our evolutionary psychology works. In this article, I’ll show you what simple features of our very complex psychology can help us with weight loss.
The first thing to understand is that we have two systems involved in learning and memory, which dictate what happens when we try to change how we eat, whether we realize it or not.
One system in the brain has a very small capacity. It takes very high levels of energy and deals with what is happening to us right now. It’s concerned with processing or digesting the information coming in, and attending to anything new we need to learn.
This is called Working Memory. The other system has enormous capacity. It’s like a filing system, which contains the information we already know – facts, faces, names and dates, our life story and the words to songs from the pop charts from our teenage years. This is long-term memory and it includes established habit sequences.
These two systems work co-operatively so that anything that we don’t need to be focusing on is transferred out of the small Working Memory to the long-term store. And if we need to access stored information, we can get hold of it, except stuff that we didn’t store properly in the first place, such as what we did with the house keys when we came in!
As we’ll see in this article, it’s essential to have enough space in your working memory to focus on developing new eating habits.
What is a habit?
A habit is a pattern that has become so familiar that you do it on autopilot – like brushing your teeth. Once upon a time, someone taught you how to brush your teeth. In the years since you will have given it little or no thought despite doing it a couple of times a day.
Habits save us huge amounts of mental effort for tasks that we do over and again. When we see our toothbrush by the sink, there’s no need to think about what to do with it.
A habit is formed when you follow the same sequence repeatedly. It’s thanks to the brain relegating a familiar pattern to the subconscious, automatic control, so a habit is an automated action sequence, where the whole sequence follows automatically when the start of it is triggered.
When you perform an action for the first time, you use conscious thought and deliberate intention. Your brain registers a memory trace. If you do the same thing again quite soon, the memory is re-traced and becomes stronger.
Keep practising the same thing and you need less and less Working Memory as the sequence is established in your long-term memory.
What characterizes a habit is that as soon as you see a trigger (the toothbrush by the sink), the whole sequence plays out without you even thinking about it. Except if something in the sequence is out of order like the toothpaste tube is empty. Then your brain reverts to using
Working memory to sort out the glitch, before setting you back on the habit sequence. This is a brilliant system. It helped us create the wonders of the world and walk on the moon. If NASA scientists had to re-think tooth-brushing every morning, there’s no way Apollo 11 would have made it off the launchpad.
There is a downside, of course, and that is what keeps you eating too much ice cream when you promised yourself faithfully yesterday that you wouldn’t.
How to change an established habit
In order to change a habit, you have to get it out of the automated sequence and bring it under conscious control, just until you’ve replaced it with a new habit. This means bringing it into Working Memory.
Working memory is the name for the workspace in our brain that deals with what’s happening right now. It has lots of feeds into it, but a very small capacity. It’s a high-energy operation with a narrow focus on what’s going on at the present time, but it can switch between different information inputs rapidly.
Different people have different working memory capacities, so some of us can hold more in mind or are better able to deal with complex problems.
As I said, to move from an existing to a new habit, we’ve got to bring the old habit into working memory in order to create a new action sequence by doing the new, desired habit repeatedly until it becomes automatic and is then itself a habit, relegated to automatic control.
Consider an example of how this relates to everyday life, not to do with eating. When something you do very regularly changes, such as how you travel to work or which school your child goes to, you’re so used to the old pattern that if you don’t consciously think about where you’re going (i.e. bringing the route into Working Memory), you’ll get the wrong bus, go to the old workplace or turn up at the wrong school.
Another example is if you are used to driving a British right-hand drive car on British roads and then hire a left-hand drive car and start driving on the continent. The controls are the wrong way round and you’re on the wrong side of the road, so you can no longer rely on your brain’s autopilot to drive safely.
You have to concentrate on each manoeuvre and think deliberately about what you’re doing. Roundabouts are a hazard, as are left turns. And woe betides anyone who tries to ask you a question when you set off from the car hire depot, with your brain in overload.
But after a fortnight you’ll be whizzing around like a local because your brain will have re-sequenced your driving skills. What has happened during the holiday is that you’ve used your working memory to perform the new driving actions, and each time you’ve repeated them,
you’ve strengthened the sequence more and more so that by the end you are no longer having to use any working memory to drive other than when you come upon something unexpected, just like you’ve always done on UK roads.
The same thing is true of unhelpful eating habits. To change a habit you need to get the automatic action sequence back into conscious awareness (Working Memory), and replace it with performing a different sequence.
To do this, you need to work out what that new sequence will be, step by step. You’ll need to keep repeating the new sequence over and again until it becomes the new habit, at which point you won’t need to think about it so much. It will have become what you automatically do,
and at that point, it will be easier to do the new thing than the old one. Let’s look at how this might work if you want to stop eating biscuits with your mid-morning coffee.
- put kettle on
- put coffee in the cup
- go to the biscuit tin
- take out biscuits
- add hot water to coffee
- go and sit down, eat and drink both together
To change this habit, you need to get this automatic sequence into conscious Working Memory. This requires a bit of advanced planning to nudge yourself into conscious thinking when the coffee time arrives.
You could put a note to yourself on the coffee jar or the kettle and move the biscuit tin somewhere else so that you’d have to think about where it is, which gives you time to remember that you’re not planning to have the biscuits.
You could sit somewhere different to have your coffee. And you’d be wise to put something new and nice instead of the biscuits into the sequence such as having a book or magazine to read. If you are hungry you could have a favourite piece of fruit ready and waiting where the biscuits used to be, or a note to remind you that your favourite snack is in the fridge. So the sequence becomes:
- put the kettle on and notice the reminder
- put coffee in the cup
- get your magazine/book/fruit out
- add hot water to coffee
- go and sit in a new place and enjoy your coffee with something to
- read or the new type of snack
Why is it hard to change an existing habit?
There are very good reasons why habit change isn’t easy and by knowing what these are, you can find ways to work around them.
1. You don’t know what you’re trying to change
Put simply, habit change is hard when you’re shooting in the dark and don’t really know what you’re meant to be doing. So having a clear step-by-step plan for your new eating habit is a must.
2. You don’t really know why you’re doing it
You are doing it to achieve a goal, but if your goal is vague or woolly, it’s more likely that you’ll lose your way.
3. You haven’t got enough available bandwidth in your Working Memory
If your Working Memory is already overloaded, trying to add something to its workload is going to fail. Just like your phone when its storage is full and whatever you do, it refuses to take a photo of that cute kitten you desperately want to post on Instagram.
Remember that your Working Memory capacity is very limited, so to change an established habit you’ll need some spare bandwidth to be able to succeed.
What this means in practice is that if you’re going through a tough time and have a lot on your mind, by all means, read on and learn about what you can do when the time is right, but don’t start trying to make changes now. It will only add to your feelings of failure.
4. You haven’t got the energy needed
As well as sufficient bandwidth, you need your Working Memory to have enough energy to function. When you don’t charge your phone, however much space it has free, it’s not going to send that text.
And if you’re low on energy, because you haven’t slept or are continually drained by the demands on you, your Working Memory is going to be like a phone with a flat battery. Not able to do much.
Now we are going to look at which habits you need to change, and how to do that. I’ll talk you through how to give your Working Memory a fighting chance of forming new habits, dealing with likely hurdles as you go.
‘Eating isn’t like smoking or biting your nails. It’s essential to life, so you can’t simply quit.’
Work out if and why you want to lose weight
Your first task is to ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ To answer this, ask yourself the following four questions:
1. What will my best benefit be?
For example, you might benefit most by improving your health, appearance or self-confidence. This is a really valuable thing to get straight at the outset because this is what you’re going to be relying on to get you through any hiccups and any temptation to give up. Which might well happen at some point.
The following three short visualization exercises will help you work out your best benefit.
Best benefit 1: Looking good
Bring to mind how you will look when you have reached your goal weight. Think of a particular outfit you have that would look better at that weight.
Alternatively, imagine yourself in something you would buy if you were slimmer. Picture yourself in front of a full-length mirror wearing these clothes. Set the lighting in your imagination to show this outfit off to its best effect. If it is an evening outfit, have warm lighting as if it is dark outside.
If it is a daytime outfit, imagine how much sunshine you would like to be flooding into the room and how you would like it to fall on you so that you look your best. Really tune in to how nice that feels.
Notice where the feelings are in your body and focus on them. Turn around in front of the mirror and see how you look from all angles. Choose the feature you will most look forward to focusing on.
Best benefit 2: Feeling fit and healthy
Bring to mind how you will feel physically when you have reached your goal weight. Think of a particular activity that will be easier or feel better at that weight – perhaps walking, cycling or dancing.
We’ll use the example of walking for this illustration. Imagine yourself walking in your favourite place. Notice your surroundings and choose a time of day and weather you like best. Tune in to how it feels for your body to be moving freely and easily. Notice the contact of your feet with the earth on each step.
Be aware of feeling alive in your body. Really tune in to how good that feels. Notice where the feelings of health and fitness are in your body and focus on them.
Best benefit 3: Feeling confident
Bring to mind how you will feel in yourself when you have reached your goal weight. Think of a particular situation in which you’ll feel more confident at that weight. It might be with a particular person, or in a group.
Notice how it feels to be in your body at this new weight. Notice your confident posture and your confident expression – smiling, calm or serious – whatever will feel best to you. Tune in to what this feels like in your body – grounded and calm.
Notice the thoughts that are in your mind – positive and focused on the situation at hand. Really tune in to how nice that feels. Notice where the feelings of confidence are in your body and focus on them.
Now you’ve tried all three, choose the visualization that gives you the strongest positive feeling. There are two uses for this: one is to do this visualization daily to strengthen your connection to your goal, and the other is to bring your best benefit to mind whenever you feel your motivation flagging.
2. What will life really be like when I lose weight?
Alongside being clear about what you’ll gain, it’s useful to recognize what you’ll lose. Change involves both gaining something and losing something else. The first part of change involves loss.
You will probably have got used to being the weight you are now, even if you don’t like it, so the next questions to get clear in your mind are:
Does it feel safe for me to lose weight permanently? You might be concerned that people will envy you, that important relationships will be negatively affected or that you might have to deal with attractiveness and intimacy.
Do I deserve to lose weight permanently?
Will I still feel like me if I lose weight permanently?
As you can see, these questions all relate to what you might lose apart from the inches. You might lose the ability to avoid envy or hide from intimacy. Your sense of yourself is likely to change towards feeling able to deserve good things if you don’t already. We’ll return to these issues later on, in the section on self-belief.
3. What won’t change when I lose weight?
The other side of anticipating what will change when you reach your goal is realizing what won’t. When you pin your hopes on a particular goal, you can lose sight of the limitations of achieving it. As Shauna Reid who describes her own success with weight loss says in The Amazing Adventures of Diet Girl:
‘You know what’s funny about losing a stack of weight? Nothing really changes. All that happens is that you lose the thing upon which you used to hang all your neuroses. Fat has shape and substance; you can poke it with a stick. It’s a scapegoat and a handy excuse. Once you start to lose it, you realize you’re stuck with the same neurotic core.’
This doesn’t mean giving up your goals. Just being clear about what they are and what they will and won’t give you.
4. Is this the right time to lose weight?
There will be times in your life when focusing on losing weight would be particularly difficult, because of other major things happening. As I explained at the beginning of this chapter (see here), you need space in your Working Memory to focus on changing habits.
So, if you are struggling to function reasonably well day to day, losing weight may be a step too far right now.
On the other hand, life is rarely smooth, and putting off losing weight could leave it permanently postponed. So, if despite other things going on, you are coping reasonably well day to day, starting now is realistic.
Now you’ve looked at the four questions, you’ll know whether you really do want to lose weight now. If you’ve realized that you’re not sure, or not ready, you can still read on and get a feel for what it will involve when you are ready, but you won’t need to go through a doomed attempt at weight loss. You can instead wait until you’re at a point where the four questions have different answers and you’re ready to go.
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Keep good eating habits and let go of unhelpful ones
Good eating habits fuel and nourish your body and mind, but when you look to food to do more than this, for example by treating it as a hobby, or by using it as medication or as a comfort or a distraction, you consume too much.
And because of human biology, when you swallow food, your body breaks it down and stores what’s not needed as fat. We evolved like this during times of food shortages, and the fat stores were used for energy when food then became scarce.
Your body can’t tell that the cake you’ve just eaten wasn’t needed. It doesn’t have one system for the food we need and one for the food we don’t. It treats all food the same.
What constitutes a helpful eating habit depends on where you are. If food is really scarce, it is a good idea to eat what’s available whenever it is available, but that’s not true of the Western world. If like most people, you live in a home with a well-stocked fridge and cupboards, eating what’s available whenever it is available is a recipe for disaster.
What eating habits do you need to change for weight loss?
The habits you need to change are personal to you – they are the ones that are keeping you heavier than you want to be: eating beyond the point of being just full and eating when you’re not hungry. It’s important to remember that you should only change what you need to change. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
We’re going to look at making changes one step at a time, leaving everything that’s OK as it is and changing what’s not. To start with, we’ll identify the particular things you need to change. Here’s a list of the most common unhelpful eating habits – tick those that apply to you.
1. Eating too much at any one time
- My portion sizes are too big
- I eat dessert even if I’m already full
- I have times when I binge on unhealthy foods and can’t stop
2. Problems with your eating routine
- My eating routine is erratic or non-existent
- I skip meals quite often to save calories
3. Eating when you’re not hungry
- I eat out of habit (e.g. I have biscuits with tea)
- I eat something just because it’s there
- I eat extra food now in case I’m hungry later
- I get cravings for particular foods and tend to give in to them whether I’m hungry or not
- I eat when I feel bored/stressed/angry/agitated/anxious, even though I’m not hungry
4. Problems with what you’re eating
- I find that food I expect to enjoy isn’t satisfying so I keep trying other foods
- I have an unbalanced diet
- I eat too much unhealthy food