I’ll be honest; I’m not really into the whole diet thing. The second I try to stop myself eating something, I become obsessed and eat more of it.
But it seems I’m not alone, as a whopping 95% of all diets fail miserably. So why are we so bad at dieting?
It’s all about psychology.
Our brains and our environment make it almost impossible to lose weight – and keep it off – with any diet that limits our choices.
So it’s really not our fault when we fall (unceremoniously) off the wagon, straight into a bucket of doughnuts. Again.
Recently, I’ve been studying Behavioural Science, and, as part of my course I had to read ‘Mindless Eating – Why we eat more than we think we do’ by Brian Wansink, PH.D.
This book is as fascinating as it is alarming, uncovering the hidden influences behind what makes us eat as much as we do. And why we almost always eat more than we think.
As Wansink says, deprivation diets don’t work for three reasons:
- Your body fights against it
- Your brain fights against it
- Your environment fights against it
Think about it: Our ancestors were hunter-gathers. They foraged for food and adapted over generations to survive severe droughts and famines.
Luckily, evolution means that we don’t have to hunt for our food any more, but if you suddenly start depriving your body of vital calories, it’ll burn fat at a slower rate to help you survive your self-induced ‘famine’.
Which is amazing and annoying in equal measure.
Plus, if we consciously deny ourselves something (and let’s face it, it’s always something we love, right?), our brains will make us crave it more and more. It makes us miserable. And there’s only so long you can keep resisting temptation before you’ll eventually crack.
Willpower can only get you so far.
In fact, willpower works overtime on our behalf, since we make over 200 food-related decisions every day.
Every. Single. Day.
So, if you’re sitting right next to an open packet of biscuits, you’ll need to decide whether or not to stick one in your mouth EVERY TIME you look at them. It’s no wonder we cave under the pressure.
“No, delicious little biscuit, not today! I’m being good. No, really, I am. Oh, damn you look tasty. Go on then, come here you gorgeous hunk of crunchy goodness.”
Most of us put on weight so slowly, we don’t even realise it’s happened until we dust off our party pants and realise we can’t do the zip up.
But, before you sob uncontrollably into your Oreo McFlurry, there is some good news.
“The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on”
Amen to that! Apparently, the secret to losing weight effectively is what Brian calls the ‘mindless margin’.
Because we gain weight gradually over time, we don’t remember ever ‘eating more’. Which means it’s possible to reverse the process and lose weight gradually, without even feeling like you’re on a diet. Hurrah!
By skimming off just a few calories every day, your body won’t panic and go into starvation mode. You won’t feel like you’re depriving yourself, and those special jeans will soon start to feel more comfortable.
Here are my top 10 tips for losing weight ‘mindlessly’:
1. Ditch all your tall, thin drinking glasses
We all over-pour our drinks when given a short, fat tumbler. So, switch to taller, thinner glasses and you’ll drink less fizzy pop without feeling you’ve been short changed.
Brain Wansink and his team at the Food and Brand Lab conducted countless field experiments on this subject and proved that even experienced bar tenders pour overly generous measures when given a short, fat glass.
Which is handy to know.
Also, if you’re really keen, you should add some ice cubes. Our bodies use energy to heat up iced drinks, at the rate of roughly one calorie per fluid ounce. Every little helps!
2. Buy smaller dinner plates
Surprisingly, our stomachs don’t tell us when we’re full – our eyes do. And what’s more, they make the decision BEFORE we’ve even started eating.
If your dinner doesn’t look impressive on the plate, you’ll convince yourself that you’re still hungry afterwards, even if it’s the same amount of food you’d usually serve up.
Remember, this isn’t speculation, this is the result of a series of robust, scientific studies – asking subjects whether they’re full, how much they think they’ve eaten, and measuring how much they’ve managed to put away. Over and over again.
Our minds play tricks on us. Invest in some smaller plates, and your portion sizes will adjust accordingly.
Interestingly, plate sizes (in America at least) have increased over the years. When people buy vintage dinnerware, they often use dinner plates as side dishes, and serving platters for their main meals.
3. Don’t eat in front of the TV
…Or at your desk, or when you’re reading a magazine, or when you’re driving. Being distracted while you eat makes it harder to know when to stop.
You won’t notice your body signalling that you’ve had enough, and then – just like that – you’ve eaten too much.
How many times have you been sitting at your desk with a chocolate bar, or bag of crisps, absent-mindedly munching away as you work, only to almost fall off your chair in shock when you glance down and realise you’ve finished already?
Did someone swipe your snack off your desk while you weren’t looking?
Surely you didn’t eat it all? You’d have noticed. Wouldn’t you?
In that moment you feel cheated. And, if you’re anything like me, you go straight out and find something else to eat.
We rely on cues to tell us to stop eating – there’s no food left on the table; the packet is empty; everyone else has left the restaurant, etc. Otherwise, we keep eating.
Even if it’s stale popcorn or the leftover Quality Street that nobody likes, we just can’t seem to stop ourselves. So sit at the table and ‘be present’ while you enjoy your meal.
4. Decide how much you’ll eat, before you sit down
In the same way that we over-eat when we’re distracted, we also over-eat when we’ve got a table of delicious food laid out for us.
Self serving from a range of bowls is a recipe for disaster (in the over-eating stakes), because we simply can’t resist sampling a ‘little’ of everything, which tends to add up to a lot – particularly when we’re eating, chatting, and spooning more onto our plates as we go.
So, plate up your food before you sit down, and you won’t keep nibbling the naan or finishing off a half empty dish, just because it’s there.
The same goes for eating out of a packet. Pringles certainly know what they’re talking about – once you pop, it’s practically impossible to stop, and you’ll have no idea how many you’ve eaten.
So, don’t mindlessly munch your way to a bigger pair of jeans, decide how many crisps (or sweets, or peanuts) you want to eat, and put them in a bowl. Then hide the packet in the cupboard!
5. Substitute meat for more veg
This one may seem a little harder to sneak past the keeper, but you can seriously cut calories by switching up the meat/veg ratio in your meals.
Eat a slightly smaller steak and have more salad, or bulk up your bolognaise with some sneaky veggies. You honestly won’t notice the difference (especially if you serve it on a smaller plate), but you’ll be well on your way to a healthier diet.
In Wansink’s experiments, he swapped ½ pounder burgers for ¼ pounders, and added more salad to compensate. When people believed they’d eaten the bigger burger, they reported feeling more full.
Similarly (in another experiment), when people thought they’d only eaten half a bowl of soup, they still felt hungry. In fact, due to some cleverly rigged up soup bowls, some of them had actually eaten over two-and-a-half bowls of the stuff, without even realising.
See! Tasty burgers with lots of salad. What’s not to like?
6. Keep treats in the cupboard
Yep, it’s the biscuit trick again. If you can’t ‘see’ the Bourbons, you’re less likely to fall prey to their irresistible charms. So, do yourself a favour and stick them in the cupboard where you’ll forget about them (for a while at least).
When you DO remember they’re there, go ahead, have a biscuit.
Just remember, if they’d been in your line of vision for an entire morning, you’d probably have munched half a packet by now, so you’ve actually done well.
Of course, you could go one step further and leave the biscuits in the shop, so you actually have to get up, put your shoes on and walk there to satisfy your craving, but, you’re only human, and life is too short.
The lesson here is – the more effort you have to put into getting a biscuit (or anything else for that matter), the less often you’ll bother.
7. Share deserts with a friend
When you’re eating out, some people like to do the 2/3 trick – either have a starter and a main, or a main and a pudding.
It’s a handy way to get into good habits, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll order a starter and then decide just to have a ‘quick look’ at the desert menu. Because well, it’s rude not to.
It’s also a slippery slope.
Before you know it, you’re halfway through an Eton Mess wondering what happened to self-control and vowing to have a salad for lunch tomorrow.
Instead, get into the habit of either ordering a small desert (sometimes there’s a mini desert option with coffee), or share a desert with your friend.
Apparently, the first three bites are the most important – they’re the ones that satisfy your craving, so anything after that just blurs into insignificance.
8. Double bluff the buffet
If you find yourself at a lot of business events, or weddings with a buffet option, stick to the ‘two items on your plate’ rule. Every time you go to the buffet table, choose just two things and stand a few steps away (or more) to eat.
That way, you’ll have to keep going back to the table for more food.
It sounds simple, but the effort of walking over and choosing two more items will slow down the pace and keep you from over indulging.
You’ll have to wait until there’s a break in the conversation to refill your plate, meaning fewer visits, and you won’t find yourself absent-mindedly working your way through a platter of chicken wings while listening to someone drone on about tax returns.
9. Don’t give up comfort food
Life’s just too short to deny yourself a little taste of heaven every now and again.
Just eat the really indulgent treats in smaller portion sizes, or add a healthy snack in there too. So, if you’d normally eat a tub of vanilla ice cream, try eating half a tub with some strawberries on the side.
Food associations have been with us since we were children, so they’ll take time to re-engineer. But, it is possible to upgrade your comfort foods, introduce new habits and re-wire your brain.
Try to make healthier associations with food – celebrate with strawberries and frozen yoghurt or a mango smoothie instead of reaching for the doughnuts. You never know, it could become your new favourite thing.
Someone’s birthday at work?
Why not grab a basket of exotic fruit to throw down next to Colin the Caterpillar? Your colleagues might take a smaller slice with a side portion of mango, without even thinking they’ve been duped.
“Exotic fruit? I didn’t order this!” Said nobody, ever.
10. Slow down
When you’re eating with friends or family, pause for a second before you get stuck into your dinner. Make sure you’re the last to start eating, and the last to finish.
Eating slowly means you’ll give your body the chance to register when it’s full, so you’re less likely to over-eat.
If we eat by ourselves, we’ll eat less and for a shorter amount of time than when we eat with a group of people. If you eat with just one other person, you’ll eat 35% more, on average.
If you eat with a group of seven or more people, you’ll end up eating almost double (96% more).
Social norms mean you’ll stay at the table longer, and carry on nibbling long after you’ve actually ‘finished’. Partly because we don’t like to leave people eating by themselves, and partly because it’s hard to walk away while there’s still food on the table.
So, if you’re trying to lose weight, avoid eating in a big group, or try to go out with friends who have smaller appetites.
Small changes, big results
According to Brian Wansink, if you make just three 100-calorie changes a day (1/3 of a bag of crisps, or two squares of chocolate), you’ll lose around 30lbs (over 2 stone) by the end of the year.
Even if you only manage to make one or two changes a day, you’ll still feel a lot healthier by the time Christmas rolls back around.
You’ll have created a much more achievable way to reach your target weight, without feeling like you’re punishing yourself and missing out.
It’s got to be worth a try, hasn’t it?