The end of 2016 is coming up fast, and most of us want to close on a high note: healthy, fit, and on top of our weight. But a recent New York Times article was depressing: “Why You Can’t Lose Weight on a Diet,” the lead paragraph declared: “The problem isn’t willpower. It’s neuroscience. You can’t—and shouldn’t—fight back.”
Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt explained that recent studies show dieting is an ineffective approach to long-term weight loss. One study published this spring revealed that participants on the reality TV show America’s Biggest Loser had regained 70 percent of their lost weight after their season’s finale.
Having spent a lifetime struggling with her weight, Aamodt offered a solution that put the headlines in perspective. She pointed to studies and her own success with “mindful eating,” which she described as “paying attention to signals of hunger and fullness, without judgment, to relearn how to eat only as much as the brain’s weight-regulation system commands.
Sounds simple enough, but how do we become mindful eaters? A first step is to decode the inner dialogue in our minds.
In my new Harvard Health book, Organize Your Emotions, Optimize Your Life, we propose a new model of the human psyche that can be described as an adult version of the Pixar movie Inside Out, positing that the human psyche is like a family of nine life forces with distinct voices and emotions. Every morning, I do a roll call tuning into each of my nine voices, I start the day fresh with new insights and more peace and calm.
What might this roll call sound like for someone wishing to lose some extra pounds? Here’s a window into the mind of a middle-aged woman we’ll call Sandra, a composite of some of my clients.
First let’s meet Autonomy who cares most about being in control and free to make the best choices. It’s true that she’s not happy about weight gain in recent years. And, she often rebels (quietly) when others tell her what to do. Autonomy carries a chronic annoyance with the weight-loss industry—everyone pushing a favorite diet. No one seems to be tuning into what would really work for her.
Next is the Standard Setter, responsible for achievement, setting ambitious goals, and meeting them. She is pretty critical about the steady weight gain. Geez…why the heck are we letting flab accumulate around our middle? Sometimes I get angry at the lack of self-control. Why don’t we curb the sweet tooth in the family, and cut back portions when I say so?
Now onto Confidence, dedicated to being competent and strong, putting Sandra’s confident foot forward. On the topic of flab, she feels defeated and sad. Really, Standard Setter, can you quit being a mean critic? It just makes me feel worse. It’s not true that we are out of control. We are walking more. We eat salads and no bread or chips at lunch. You really gotta let up, please!
Let’s tune into Relational who lives to serve others, to nurture, give care, and love. She cringes when she hears the never-ending argument between Standard Setter and Confidence. She sees the good intentions on both sides, but the noise is distracting. The inner argument takes Sandra away from connecting with her outer family at mealtimes. Relational is also disappointed that Sandra isn’t being a good role model for her teenage daughter, who sees her mom bouncing around between rebellion, self-criticism, and self-defeat.
Next up is the Body Regulator who is all about health and balance. She can spot in a nanosecond Sandra’s best choice on a menu. Always ready to share wisdom on what to put on her plate, and on how to savor every bite, stop eating when she’s nearly full, and lose weight in a sustainable way. However, she can’t make her voice heard. Autonomy is rebelling. Standard Setter is yelling. Confidence alternates between fighting back and giving up. Relational is reeling with all of this upset. Another meal went by yesterday where Sandra lost track of portions, missed the pure enjoyment of eating and family connection, and couldn’t wait for some ice cream to feel a bit of stress-relieving pleasure, even it lasted only a few moments.
Enter the Adventurer. Sandra’s life is pretty steady, and she doesn’t have new adventures too often. Adventurer is waiting at the sidelines to be called upon. She's got good energy and is ever curious about what’s new, what’s interesting, and what there is to learn. The Adventurer is a key source of resilience, finding some good in the bad. Let’s turn this experience into an opportunity to experiment, to try something new, she says.
Creative loves pleasure and being generative. Creative explains that Sandra hasn’t been too creative about cooking recently. Family dinners have gotten pretty boring and predictable. "We really need more fun around here! I would love to make a new recipe with my daughter. I’ll ask Autonomy to come up with some choices that meet the Body Regulator’s approval." Then Relational can collaborate with Sandra’s daughter to decide what recipe to make.
Executive Manager is the inner organizer. She plans, schedules, and tracks progress. She’s good at analysis and notes that now we have five of the inner family (Adventurer, Creative, Autonomy, Body Regulator, and Relational) energized for a new adventure. She notices that Sandra’s inner conflict has settled a little, and she appreciates the Adventurer for turning the ship around. Her executive ability to bring order and clarity is less likely to get hijacked or distracted. Thinking things through, the Executive Manager quickly assembles a plan for shopping and schedules the weekend afternoon for cooking a new recipe with her daughter.
Last is the Meaning Maker who stands back and tunes into the meaning and purpose of big and small moments. She’s the inner coach, nudging us to find the wisdom for this moment. When we started, most of Sandra’s inner family was not happy about her recent weight gain. The Meaning Maker offers a suggestion. If Standard Setter were to be more grateful for the good and more reasonable about weight goals, Confidence would like that too.
Now that Sandra has her inner family all on board, she can look forward to two holiday celebrations—with her inner and her outer family.