Weight Loss 

Why We must stop ignoring the psychology of weight loss: Alisa Anokhina at TEDxUCL

We must stop ignoring the psychology of weight loss

So we’ve just had a talk
about nourishing the soul. So I think it’s fitting that I now
talk about nourishing the body. So, in particular, I want
to talk to you about a sentence which you might have said
yourself at some point or you’ve heard someone else say. And the sentence is this: “Losing weight is easy,
just eat less and exercise more.” And you see this in the media a lot. So, it’ll come up as a sarcastic headline
from the University of Obvious every once in a while. And it seems like a rational premise. So if calories in
is less than calories out, you lose weight, right? [Wrong] No. It’s how it would work
if we were talking about, say, lab rats. And it’s, you know,
a totally legitimate thing from a physiological standpoint. But if we’re talking about people,
it’s more complicated than that. So what can psychology research
tell us about weight loss? Well, first let’s look about
some of the assumptions we have about how easy it’s going to be for us.

We must stop ignoring the psychology of weight loss

So, a few years ago, there was a survey where they asked people
who were trying to lose weight what sort of weight loss
they were aiming for. And the average for that
was around 25 kilos or 55 pounds. So the actual average weight loss that people report
after 12 months of just “eating less,” it’s around six kilos. OK? So people who eat less
and exercise more around eight. But still a lot less
than you would expect. And that’s just the people
who stuck to it. So that’s, you know,
out of everyone who started out, at the end of 12 months, only 50%
are still, you know, making effort. So also a problem
is that once we lose this weight – the amount will vary depending
on what you’re doing – what happens afterwards is that we gain at least
some of it back. So basically, what empirical
research suggests to us is that for the vast majority of us, “just eating less”
as a weight loss strategy, really, really, doesn’t work. Right? So, obviously, this is a problem because our expectations
do not align with reality.

We must stop ignoring the psychology of weight loss

And in part these expectations
are perpetuated by the media and commercial
weight loss programs which promise us quick, easy
and drastic weight loss. And what happens is
we then internalize these beliefs, and we try to lose weight by,
you know, sheer willpower alone, and then we’re not very good at it. And we assume that it’s because
we’re greedy and lazy and whatever. So, this idea that “if you want to lose weight,
you should just eat less” is wrong. And it’s counterproductive. So from a psychological standpoint, why do we fail? And what are some of the things
that we can do to counteract this? So I’m going to do this in kind of a problem-solution,
problem-solution format. So first, most diets will tend
to be structured around deprivation. So people will look at these really
lovely food they like to eat and say, Right, I’m not going to eat that anymore because it’s high in fat
or high in calories or whatever.

So they’re in the state of deprivation,
which is basically punishing yourself. And you can’t do this for very long time. Eventually, you’re going to cave because being in that state
is really unpleasant. So the alternative
is to change your preferences. So you have to eat food you like. So if we assume that, you know,
salad is really good for you, but you hate salad, don’t have salad, have something else, OK? And it’s going to take time and energy to find what it is that you like
and what works for you. But it’s worth it because in the long run,
you will be able to do that for longer.

Now, the second thing is self-control. I touched upon this briefly. But we have this idea,
that if only we had enough willpower, weight loss would be really easy. Now, what psychology tells us is that we have a finite
amount of self-control. OK. If you think of it like a muscle,
when you use it, you get tired. And that’s what happens with self-control. We exert self-control; become fatigued. In psychology,
this is called ego depletion. And then we’re less able
to use self-control again. So if you think about going to the gym – right, when you really hate
going to the gym – what happens is
that you’re going to be tired from the physical activity. But you’re also going
to be mentally exhausted because you’re forcing yourself
to do this thing that you really hate. So the alternative to that
is to change your habits. So find something that includes, you know, an amount of physical exercise
or physical activity, but that you like for its own sake, as opposed to for the purpose
of weight loss.

That, you know, if you think of it
as sort of picking up a new hobby. So you’re changing the things
that you are doing on a regular basis. But it incorporates something that is beneficial
to your weight loss goal. Third comes from the research
of thought suppression. And this has the very technical term:
the “white bear” effect. And the way works is like this: “Don’t think of a white bear.” What are you thinking about? White bear. So it works the same way with, say, pizza. So if you’re telling yourself,
“Don’t think about pizza,” all you’re going to be
thinking about is pizza. And this happens because
when we try to suppress thoughts, we have to, on a preconscious level, scan for the thought
that we’re trying to get rid of.

We must stop ignoring the psychology of weight loss

And that means we have to be aware
of what it actually is. So then it starts popping up
in our consciousness, and we have to constantly suppress it,
and we do this over and over again. And it’s really tiring to do. So, say you’re trying to lose weight. You’re sitting at home
on a Thursday night, and you’re thinking, “Wow, I really want pizza right now.” So, you know, you think you’re going to try and distract yourself
or do something else.

We must stop ignoring the psychology of weight loss

But the pizza thought keeps popping up. So there are two things you can do: One: You can kind of give up
and give in and get a takeaway, eat it in one sitting and wake up the next morning
with a cheese hangover hating yourself. Something else that you can do is you can say, “Right, I want pizza
right now. That’s fine. So tomorrow night,
I’m going to have pizza for dinner. I’m going to make it myself.
I’m going to know exactly what’s in it.

I’m going to put these really lovely,
nice toppings on it. And I’m going to really kind of
savor and enjoy it.” This is the positive thing. You’re indulging your cravings
and your ruminations in a positive way. And so this is basically two points. The first is sort of mindfulness, is being aware of what
you’re eating and what’s in it.

And second is about sort of
picking quality over quantity. Because that’s an altitude
that will basically prevent binge eating. So what are successful dieter’s doing? Well, a disclaimer first, the short answer says
we don’t really know. OK? There is not (Laughter) very much – or there’s definitely
not enough research on this, certainly not from
a psychological standpoint, and this is something
that needs to change, basically. But that’s, you know,
a point for the academics. What we do know is that, you know, the sort of strategies
that I was talking about can be summed up in two key points.

So the first is that people who
successfully lose weights and keep it off, first of all, don’t conceptualize
it as a diet, OK? Diet is deprivation; it’s self-punishment, and it’s not sustainable in the long term. So instead when you think about
making changes to your life, to the way you think
and the way you behave and then having weight loss
is a byproduct of that. So it’s about treating your body well,
and with positivity and kindness.

So it’s about improving your life,
not just losing weight. The second thing is that
they will take a personalized approach. So eat the foods that you like. Exercise at times that will work for you. Consider your schedule,
your commitments, your preferences. And then work to that instead of tearing out the latest fat diet
from a magazine and hoping that works, because it won’t. So we have to accept that even those
two things are very difficult to do – they take time and they take effort. But with the right support, it’s easier. By support, I mean having the right advice and the right strategies
to deal with things that make weight loss difficult
from a psychological standpoint with the right cognitive skills. So weight loss counseling
does a number of things. It realigns people’s expectations, so they know they won’t lose
25 kilos in a year, which means they won’t feel
demoralized and miserable.

We must stop ignoring the psychology of weight loss

It gives a more sustainable
way to lose weight. So it’s something that you
can do more long term as opposed to for six months
before you, you know, get sick of it. And more importantly,
what empirical research suggests to us – my clicker’s broken, there we go – it suggests to us that people
who receive this type of support, not only lose more weight
but also maintain that loss. So the take-home message from all of this is that weight loss
is not just about self-control. It’s not about your willpower. It’s about a lot more than that.

And that’s the way
we need to start thinking about it. So the concluding thought here is that losing weight
shouldn’t be about eating less. It should be about thinking differently. Thank you.

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