However, successful dieters share a common “secret” — they aren’t constantly thinking about eating and exercise. They’ve figured out ways to make their behaviors and choices second nature.
It’s based on the concept of “automaticity” — the ways we perform our daily behaviors without having to think about them. Activities like setting your alarm clock at night, putting on shoes before you leave the house and remembering how to drive to the office do not require much thought. The idea is to apply the same principle to your diet.
TOO MUCH EFFORT
Most failed dieters complain that maintaining a diet is just too much work. “Attempting to consciously perform a novel task or alter a behavior requires effort and utilization of almost the entire control network portion of the brain, whereas, when you’ve learned a behavior and it’s automatic, you can reduce the amount of brainpower by as much as 85 percent,” says Walter Schneider, Ph.D., a professor and researcher in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
In terms of dieting, the amount of information and control required can be extremely difficult for the average person to sustain. This becomes especially important when our control systems are weakened — like when we are sleep-deprived or stressed. It’s an opening for our previous, more comfortable, negative eating habits to resurface. “When there are distractions or concerns competing for your attention, the mental workload can be overwhelming. This could be a reason why we fall off of our diets,” offers Schneider.
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT
Making your diet automatic doesn’t happen overnight. “It takes a couple hundred executions of a new behavior to make it automatic,” says Schneider. For instance, if you want to start automatically ordering a vegetable egg-white omelet for breakfast at the diner instead of buttered toast, greasy eggs and sausage, you can’t just do it a few mornings and expect it to stick. Plus, there are many different areas of your eating and exercise behavior that need adjustment — you need to inspect each part of your day and come up with compromises that work, and then repeat them often.
According to Amy A. Gorin, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School, one of the primary predictors of weight gain or maintenance is dietary consistency. “Those who maintain the same diet regimen across the week and year are more likely to maintain their weight loss over the following year than those who diet more strictly on weekdays and/or during non-holiday periods,” says Gorin. One possible explanation is that dietary consistency is a characteristic that develops naturally over time in people who maintain their weight loss. So giving yourself a break once in a while in the beginning stages of learning to automate your diet is probably not a good idea.
EASIER OVER TIME
Automated behavior is essential for permanent weight control, but a study of the National Weight Control Registry (individuals who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for five years or more) reported in “Obesity Research” found that after losing weight and maintaining it for more than a few years, weight maintenance gets easier.
AVOID THE FLASHING NEON SIGN
“Going on a diet” traditionally involves food deprivation. As soon as we decide to diet, we come up with lists of foods we can’t eat — we might as well put up a neon sign flashing, “EAT – EAT – EAT.” “Any time you try telling yourself not to do something — that’s exactly what you’ll find yourself doing,” explains Dan Wegner, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Harvard University.
If we try not to think about something, just remembering not to think about it brings it to the front of our consciousness — exactly the opposite of what we want. In fact, Wegner did an experiment in which he told participants NOT to think about white bears, and then talked with them for the next 30 minutes. The result: All they talked about were white bears — they mentioned them 30 times on average.
“People think they should have ‘willpower’ to go against their nature, but the human mind is just not constructed that way,” says Wegner. Actually, there’s a good reason why we can’t just shut out the desire for food: We need it for survival. It’s just that our bodies have a hard time distinguishing healthy from unhealthy foods.
DON’T BE A DIET HERO
In the beginning, set yourself up to succeed by arranging your environment so you can execute your new behaviors. “You need to rearrange your world so it can operate as if it’s on autopilot,” suggests Wegner.
The key is to arrange your environment to maximize your chances of losing and maintaining weight and minimize your chances of slipping up. Avoid cues that tempt you. For instance, if you can’t resist the fries when you take your kids to McDonald’s or Burger King, take them to Subway instead. Sounds simple, but most people won’t make a change like this unless they think about it first.
CREATE YOUR OWN MENTAL BUTLER
Let your subconscious mind do the work for you. Set up detailed associations, reminders and triggers to help develop your new behaviors. For example, when your alarm goes off, associate that with putting on your shoes and going out for a walk. Or when you see 12:30 p.m. on the clock at work, automatically order a very specific, healthy lunch from an already designated “healthy” restaurant. These detailed associations are called implementation intentions.
Schneider suggests replacing a few of your old eating behaviors with new, more healthful ones. It’s much easier to replace an old behavior than to rid yourself of a negative behavior on its own.
Take a peek at your eating behaviors and zero in on foods you’re willing to substitute with “Calorie Bargains” — foods low in calories that still taste great. For instance, if you typically eat high-calorie cereal every morning, shop around for a few that are lower in calories but still make you happy — then stock your pantry with only these lower-calorie cereals.
In order to alleviate stressing all day about weight loss, devise a plan for dealing with your “Eating Alarm Times”— the one or two hours when you consume the majority of your high-calorie and high-fat foods. (Midmorning munchies? Prime-time TV snacking? Late-night noshing?) Again, look for Calorie Bargains to substitute at those times when you tend to overeat.
Rehearse scenarios in your mind for difficult eating situations, such as unconscious eating, traveling, special occasions (weddings, family dinners), dining out, nighttime snacking, etc. Develop a rough sketch of how you’d like to change your behavior in that scenario — including the thoughts, emotions and actions you want in your “ideal” version. Mentally prepare for when you slip up, since slip-ups are inevitable.
CREATE A STRATEGY
Part of making your diet automatic is evaluating your own eating and physical activity. Send in any unique strategies you’ve developed to make your diet automatic or any real-life innovative dieting tips to firstname.lastname@example.org — if we publish it, you will receive a free copy of “The Automatic Diet.”