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Why Diets Don’t Work — and What to Do Instead

Two new books, including one from Deepak Chopra, insist weight loss starts in the mind

posted by Suzanne Gerber, November 15, 2013 More by this author

Food and the brain

Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.


Food and the brain
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If you’re one of the 100 million Americans trying to lose weight, here’s a hot tip: Don’t go on a diet.
 
A peek at the statistics clearly shows that something is terribly wrong. Marketdata Enterprises, a niche-market research firm, says that in our efforts to shed pounds, we spend upwards of $65 billion annually on everything from weight-loss programs and diet products to gym memberships. And yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 69.2 percent of Americans over age 20 are overweight or obese.
 
So what are we doing wrong?
 
(MORE: How to Navigate the Diet Landscape)
 
Why Dieting Is Not the Answer
 
For weight loss to succeed, says author and holistic health guru Deepak Chopra, it needs to be satisfying. “If you bring the body’s hunger signals back into balance, your impulse to eat becomes your ally instead of your enemy," he writes in his latest book, What Are You Hungry For?, which will be the basis of a PBS special in December (check local listings).

“Dieting involves the wrong kind of motivation, which is why it rarely leads to the desired goal,” he notes. 
 
I recently experienced firsthand the difference between a forced, “deprivation” diet and being genuinely motivated to eat restrictively. My goal wasn’t weight loss — though that outcome was welcome. I was doing a meditatiion retreat, and the efficacy of the practices would have been mitigated by the consumption of sugar, salt, fats, onion, garlic, citrus, meat and alcohol.
 
So for two weeks I totally abstained, including on overnight flights where wine has always figured prominently into my sleep strategy. I didn’t indulge in my morning ritual — a lightly sweetened almond-milk latte — drinking only herbal tea. And when friends ordered a beautiful cheese plate and chocolate desserts at dinner, I simply looked the other way.
 
Was it hard? Yes — and no. When eating my simple breakfasts and lunches, I would fantasize about sautéed garlic and pink Himalayan salt (and dinner). Whenever offending items were within reach, I must confess to feeling sorely tempted.
 
But every time I had one of those “lady or the tiger” moments, I would redirect my thoughts and remind myself of my higher purpose: greater self-awareness and the bringing in of spiritual “light.”
 
(MORE: How to Develop a Taste for Better Health)

When it comes to self-discipline, I’m no paragon of virtue. But thanks to my teacher's directive and a clear understanding of cheating's cost, I was able to stay on course.
 
My two-week regimen is just coming to an end and in another day I’ll be free to eat whatever I want. That’s when the real challenge begins. I don’t eat meat, but I am a big fan of salt, sugar, wheat, wine and cheese. Yet in my heart of hearts, I know they’re not good for me. So Chopra’s book, along with a related one, Eat.Q., couldn’t have come into my life at a more auspicious time.
 
Hunger Starts In the Mind
 
Just as a recipe is not a meal, a book — however packed it is with good advice — is only a guide. But the serendipity of these two books arriving just as I’m needing a little support made cracking them open and devouring their contents irresistible.
 
Chopra brings his familiar expertise in mind-body medicine to his program. He initially developed it to change his own eating style, which, though mostly healthy, he says, was still somewhat unconscious and had resulted in his carrying around an unwanted 20 pounds.
 
Coupling his scientific knowledge with the motivation to gain self-control, Chopra says he dropped 19 pounds “effortlessly” through cultivating the kind of mindfulness that allowed him to make conscious choices. “Knowledge is important, but adding more good advice isn’t the solution to healthy eating,” he writes. “The solution is to transform your awareness.”
 
According to Chopra, the reason normal eating slides into overeating is simple. “Life is about fulfillment,” he writes. “If your life isn’t fulfilled, your stomach can never supply what’s missing.” The trick is to become aware of our emotional triggers — usually unconscious — and instead of responding reflexively with food, act in a way that will satisfy our deepest desires.
 
Applying Emotional Intelligence to Eating
 
In Eat.Q, psychologist Susan Albers, Ph.D., echoes Chopra’s directive to become more mindful about the emotional triggers for so many of our food choices. “Some of the smartest people I know overeat,” she says. “Intellectually, they know they would benefit from eating healthier, yet they find they are unable to improve their diets.”
 
Albers says these people tend to ask the same question: “How can I know how to eat well but not be able to do it?” Her answer: “More often than not, it’s a feeling or emotion that lies in the gap between your decision and your actions.”
 
It’s by first becoming aware of that gap and then mastering the skills to close it that we accomplish the necessary shift to change our eating habits and permanently lose weight, Albers maintains.
 
(MORE: How to Get Your Family to Eat More Healthfully)

How to Lose Weight for Good
 
Culling tips from Chopra and Albers, I’ve boiled down the process of applying emotional intelligence to eating to the following six steps. But as noted above, a recipe is not a dinner. You’ve still got to do the inner work.
 
1. Connect with your highest personal goals. When you’re not hungry, take 15 minutes to think about and then write down what’s missing in your life or could use some bolstering. Do you want to increase energy, lose weight, gain confidence or make peace with the image that stares back at you in the mirror?

As a friend once said, “Looking good in my clothes feels better than any food tastes.” Create a little mantra or affirmation that will remind you of your goal. 
 
2. When you have a craving or reflexively reach for food, stop yourself. Call a time-out, step into a “neutral corner” and recite your affirmation 10 times. Try to identify the feeling underlying the desire for food: boredom, stress, sadness, loneliness, exhaustion.
 
3. Figure out what would truly address that emotion. Could you call or email a friend? Do you have time for a short walk? Could you whip up a pot of soup?
 
4. Replace poor food choices in your home with healthy ones. If you like salty snacks, substitute a small handful of nuts or trail mix for packaged chips. If sweets are your undoing, keep dried fruits like figs, prunes and apricots in the house. Got a vacu-sealer? Prepare small portions to help limit your consumption. On the other hand, it's also important to enjoy what you eat, so build into your new plan the occasional "indulgence" — but bring your newfound awareness to all your choices.
 
5. Identify your bad-eating triggers and create strategies for dealing with them. For example, if you eat more when you’re out with others, plan in advance not to eat any bread. Start with a salad, lightly dressed, then fill up on lean protein or more veggies. Remind yourself throughout the meal that dessert is empty calories and that sugar is bad for you.
 
6. Practice being present. The better you get at being aware of your unconscious motivations throughout the day, the stronger your skills. Mindfulness doesn’t just apply to food choices. And the fringe benefit to this kind of self-control isn’t just a thinner, healthier you. It’s a happier, more fulfilled life