If you’re willing, let’s try an experiment. I’m going to offer you two options and I’d like you to pick the option which you think you’d be more likely to be successful.
Option 2: Tomorrow go for a 10 minute walk, the day after that eat two servings of fruit, and the following day drink 3 glasses of water.
Which option would you be more likely to succeed at? Which option would anyone be more likely to succeed at? If you picked option 2, you win!
Why would most of us would pick option 2 over option 1? It’s because option 1 involves an outcome (weight) and option 2 involves a behavior (doing something). And as humans we have much more control over our behavior than we do outcomes like weight. In fact, there’s mounting and convincing evidence that we don’t control our weight.
Now this may seem hard to believe. Everything you’ve ever heard from the media, from your healthcare providers, from others in your life is that if you just work hard enough, if you just try long enough you will be able to have a beautiful skinny body. But science actually tells us the opposite. We can influence our weight but we don’t have direct control. If we did have direct control we’d be just as willing to pick option 1 as option 2.
The Complexity of Weight
Source: Blundell, John & Baker, Jennifer & Boyland, Emma & Blaak, Ellen & Charzewska, Jadwiga & Henauw, Stefaan & Frühbeck, Gema & Gonzalez-Gross, Marcela & Hebebrand, Johannes & Holm, Lotte & Kriaucioniene, Vilma & Lissner, Lauren & Oppert, Jean-Michel & Schindler, Karin & Silva, Ana & Woodward, Euan. (2017). Variations in the Prevalence of Obesity Among European Countries, and a Consideration of Possible Causes. Obesity facts. 10. 25-37. 10.1159/000455952
Weight is actually influenced by over 50 different processes many of which we have no control over. The figure illustrates all the factors that influence weight. For example, weight is influenced by how much sleep you get, the cortisol (stress hormone) levels in your body, how many MacDonald’s are in your neighborhood, the walkability of your city, your genetics, and your access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Most of these we have no direct control over. How much you eat and how much you exercise are only two small factors in weight.
This also has important implications for how to manage weight. If we focus on weight as the goal, at some point, we will feel like our efforts aren’t getting us to our goal. This is inevitable because we don’t control all the factors that influence weight. And when we feel like our efforts aren’t getting us to our goals, the most normal response is to give up trying and to not bother to try again. This is an effect called “learned helplessness” first described by Dr. Seligman and his colleagues: when we feel we have no control we just stop trying. Many of my patients living with obesity will describe trying over and over and over again to lose weight only to find themselves heavier than when they started. And often I will hear them say “and then I just gave up”. That’s learned helplessness. And once learned helplessness sets in it’s hard to undo.
But there is a way we can avoid learned helplessness: by focusing on behavior as a goal instead of weight as a goal. If you try harder to go for a walk, you’re much more likely to go for a walk but if you try harder to lose weight you don’t necessarily lose more weight. In fact, the stress of trying to lose weight can increase the cortisol levels in your body and make it harder to lose weight.
So, if you’re working to manage your weight, think about setting behavioral goals: things that other people can see you do. Examples include things like going for a walk, eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, eating more whole foods, eating at regular intervals during the day, or tracking your food intake. You’ll be more likely to feel successful and to want to keep going.