Almost all contemporary weight loss programs, including the big brand-name ones, are approaching the process exactly backwards, according to my studies. And that’s why their long-term success rates are so dismal. “I lost a lot of weight,” the slogan goes, “but I eventually put it all back on.” The typical coda, usually added with a rueful expression and tone of voice, is “ – and then some.”
Let’s Analyze the Obvious
Philosopher and scientist Alfred North Whitehead reportedly said, “It takes a very unusual mind to make an analysis of the obvious.” Let’s do just that.
Please bear with this simple analysis of the obvious facts about weight loss, at least the way it works in societies of abundance where food is plentiful and cheap.
Almost every weight loss plan, program, regimen, diet, product, or self-imposed ordeal that I’ve seen or heard of takes on the challenge of weight loss in two obvious steps: 1) getting the weight down to some preferred level; and then 2) “keeping it off!”
Obviously – or perhaps non-obviously – the real problem is in the second phase, not the first. Most people can manage to get rid of some part of their inventory of fat, and just about any method can work to some extent. And yet the much bigger challenge – keeping it off – is typically left to chance, or “will power.” The failure rates are staggering.
What’s the point of taking off weight if you don’t know how to keep it off? If you can’t keep your weight from increasing after you “go off your diet,” what was the point of losing the weight in the first place?
Let’s Get the Horse in Front of the Cart
A more obvious approach, when you think about it in an obvious way, is to reverse the two phases. In phase 1, you to need to learn to stabilize your weight at some particular level – no matter if it’s too high at the beginning – and then, once you prove to yourself you can keep it at or below a chosen target – indefinitely – you can begin to take off the weight by any of a number of reasonable methods. Once you’ve trained yourself to stabilize your weight, you’re out of the yo-yo diet rat race, and on the road to a healthy long term relationship with food.
Okay, suppose we can all agree that stabilizing the weight – a much more useful choice of words than “keeping it off,” in my mind – is the big challenge, then how can we do it? Can you really train yourself to eat skillfully enough to stabilize your weight, and still enjoy the wonderful foods we have available to us?
The answer is yes, and the solution is in mindful eating practices.
The increasingly popular concept of mindfulness, in my view, may become one of the most important features of our understanding of human effectiveness, in all its dimensions. It’s popping up all over the culture, including in the business world. But so far, it seems more like a kind of philosophical slogan than a specific mental skill. We’re learning much more every day about how to operationalize the concept of mindfulness – to turn it into specific mental processes, sensory experiences, memories, and reflexes.
That’s what we can do with the eating experience.
The “Sensory Appetite” Hypothesis: Key to Mindful Eating
The truth is that most of us are more or less perceptually numb – typically oblivious to the rich kaleidoscope of sensory experiences going on in our bodies all the time. We might tune in to a particular sensory experience for five to seven seconds or so, before our mental computers switch back to “thinking.”
Most of us have been conditioned and reinforced, over the many years of our lives, to the robotic habit of mindless eating. The experience of eating is often secondary to other, more “important” activities. We shovel the food into our mouths, only vaguely aware of the flavors and sensations, while we give most of our attention to our surroundings. Some people eat while driving; some eat while talking with friends; some eat while reading, or watching television; some eat while working at their computers; some eat in a hurry – anxious to get back to whatever stressful activity they’re coping with. Even those who eat for emotional comfort or anesthesia have long ago stopped appreciating their food – that’s why they eat too much of it.
At meals, most of us take large bites of food, chew for a few seconds, and shovel in the next bite before we even swallow the first. We might become aware of the sensory experience for a few seconds, and then our “drunken monkey” attention hops on to something else in our environment – or back to our turbulent thought processes.
An emerging hypothesis holds that the human brain has an “appetite,” so to speak, for the sensory experience associated with eating food – and probably other sensory experiences as well. Once the brain gets an adequate amount of these stimuli, the hypothesis holds, our food cravings diminish, and what we know as appetite also fades out. This phenomenon seems to be different from the satiety response associated with digestion of the food.
Think of appetite as something different from hunger. Hunger stops when certain blood compounds rise to adequate levels; appetite can persist for longer than that. “Wow – I’m really full! What do they have for dessert?”
So, Here’s the Plan
Lots of books, articles, websites, gurus, and miscellaneous helpers offer us various little behavioral gimmicks for eating better. “Never eat alone.” “Always eat alone.” “Eat standing up.” “Never eat standing up.” “Drink a glass of water before your meal.” None of those will have much long-term benefit until you learn to “come your senses.”
Certain mindful eating practices, associated with experiencing the flavors, textures, aromas, and appearance of all the foods you eat can bring you to a new level of awareness. These methods can help you radically modify your relationship to food.
So, if you’re unacceptably overweight – but not experiencing a medical emergency – you can let yourself off the hook for a while and stop “dieting.” Don’t even think about reducing your weight for now. Step on the scale, measure your weight, write it down on a card, and put it up on the wall where you’ll see it every day.
Set a goal of stabilizing your weight at this level for at least the next three months. Make it 100 days if you like. Your short-term strategy will be to learn to use mindful eating practices – without the stress, pressure, or guilt of trying to “lose weight” – until they come naturally. If you happen to lose a few pounds, so much the better, but that’s incidental to the main purpose.
If you decide to eat mindfully at every single meal, snack, or tasting experience for the next 100 days, you’ll discover several things:
- It will get easier each time you do it.
- Your food will taste better; you’ll be much more aware of the flavors and textures.
- You’ll find yourself becoming satisfied before you’ve filled up your stomach.
- You’ll find yourself gravitating toward higher-quality food choices.
- Your automatic food reflexes – alerting to revved-up calorie-dense foods – will begin to weaken.
- High-calorie stimulus foods will have less and less appeal to you.
- You’ll be turning down bad food choices more and more often.
As you find yourself becoming ever more confident at eating mindfully, resist the urge to “get back on the diet.” Don’t even think about losing weight during this learning phase. Allow yourself the full 100 days – it’s only once in your life – to reprogram your relationship with food. You’ll have plenty of time to research the various weight-loss approaches, discuss them with your doctor, and choose one that seems right for you.
What Have You Got to Lose?
If this strategy sounds right to you, and you’re ready to start learning the mindful eating practices, try these (download and print this list).
- Do nothing else while you’re eating – don’t multi-task.
- Take small portions – cell-phone size.
- Take very small bites – finger-tip size.
- Taste and savor each bite you take.
- Hold each bite for at least 5 seconds before you swallow – including soft foods.
- Don’t add food to your mouth before you swallow what you’re chewing.
- Don’t wash down your food – sip your beverage separately.
- Put down your fork after every 10 bites.
- Stop eating when you feel satisfied – not when you feel full.
- Leave at least one bite of each item on the plate when you’re done.
Congratulate yourself every time you use these practices.
Let me know how it works for you.
Wansink, Brian. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think. New York: Bantam, 2010.
Kabat-Zinn, John. Wherever You Go, There You Are. New York: Hyperion, 2005.
Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.
He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.
The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.
Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.