Updated: Jul 1
This is a common question among my highly intelligent clients. They are driven in so many other areas in their life and they really can’t figure out why they just can’t take the action necessary to lose weight. Does this sound like you? If this is you, you are not alone and there is definitely nothing wrong with you. Let me explain.
The reason that you 'can’t just do it’, is because you have never been taught how. We have been given the phrase, eat less and move more. But why when it hits 4.30 p.m. in the afternoon can you not resist that sweet tooth that is telling you to eat more? The one that says ‘this will help you get through the rest of the day’, as you carry out your schedule after work to drive kids to clubs, make dinner, help with homework, throw in a load of washing and then sit down to complete some insurance or other admin. Or maybe the sweet tooth at night that whispers in your ear ‘you deserve a treat for making it through the day’.
But, that whisper in your ear is not your sweet tooth, it is your primal brain that has enabled the human species to survive till this day. So, it is not that you ‘can’t’, it’s just that you have not been taught how. It doesn’t matter how many diets you go on, if you are not aware how the brain is operating, you will have limited success in the long term to stick to the diet or to keep the weight off.
Let me explain how the brain will sabotage your weight loss efforts completely under your radar.
Your brain has been wired for 3 things that have, in the past, been crucial for our survival. Stick with me…
Your brain is wired to seek pleasure
Let’s start with the first one – the brain has been wired to seek pleasure. So, if your brain see’s some chocolate at the shopping check out, or someone at work offers you a piece of cake or a birthday muffin, the brains innate unconscious action is to the take the food – food is pleasure, and your primitive/primal brain is wired to find food, eat it as fast as possible and store it as fat. It is doing exactly what it is meant to do.
Refined sugary foods are even more pleasurable! And our brain thinks sugar must be even more important to our survival, so increases the desire in the brain. Hence your over desire for sugar. It does the same with flour too.
When we were evolving humans, traditional forms of pleasure were things like shelter from weather, warmth from cold, food from plants and animals. Achieving these things made us feel good and the brain told us to keep repeating these actions through secreting a chemical called dopamine.
But then came sugary foods where we got a bigger physical rush that our brain associates as more important. A bigger dopamine hit. Sugar is not more important, but your primal brain needs some help from you to understand this. You need to enlist the help of your prefrontal cortex, or what I like to call your smart brain, which has your future well being in mind.
The really interesting part is when your primal brain is telling you to ‘take the food’, but your smart brain is saying, ‘but I am trying to lose weight’, you create a war in your brain with these two conflicting thoughts. This negotiation process creates stress, and the best way to alleviate stress is to eat because it will make you feel better! This only reinforces the idea that food makes you feel better. Tricky isn't it.
Your brain is wired to avoid pain
The second thing you are not taught, is that your brain is wired to avoid pain, or more correctly in our days, negative emotion which we associate with pain. We have been conditioned not to feel negative emotion because we believe it will be painful and we won't survive.
Do you identify with being an emotional eater? When life seems stressful or overwhelming with a continuous stream of pick up’s, drop offs, children’s after-school clubs, parties, school events, work deadlines and commitments, housework, responding to emails, and all the other things... Do you eat to escape the feeling of stress, overwhelm, anxiousness? Do you choose to go unconscious?
We are taught that life should be happy all the time and we strive to be happy. Facebook shows us everyone else is happy right?
So, when you discover that your life is not happy all the time, you try to feel better, you eat or drink. You feel worse, you eat or drink and so the cycle continues. Not only does the initial negative emotion come back, but now you add another layer of suffering to it by putting on weight and feeling bad.
Your brain is wired to be efficient
The third thing you are not taught is that your brain likes to be efficient by filing well practiced thoughts and actions away. From this place it can run these files automatically under your awareness. It doesn't take a lot of energy from you. Your brain is being helpful.
So the habit of coming home from a pick up, opening the fridge or cupboard and getting your treat has become filed. You are doing it unconsciously. Your brain has said, at some point, “Hey let me take that task off your to do list, so that you don’t have to use so much energy'. It is just like brushing your teeth. You don't think about which way you brush your teeth anymore, do you?
This served us when we were evolving humans, when our primal brain had to repeat patterns in hunting or preparing food. This is not serving us now. Going to the fridge in unconscious mode and pulling out a treat when you are trying to lose weight is not serving you.
How to overcome your brain
Notice the way your brain is thinking. Of course your brain is going to crave sugar and flour over other food, it has been conditioned to desire things that give it a bigger dopamine (feel good) sensation. So, you need to decondition it. You need to become the watcher of your mind and be willing to experience these overdesires and urges that you brain has learnt, and not act on them.
Check out my blog Post Easter Cravings Anyone for advice on how to process your desire.
Tell your brain that you won’t die if you experience a negative emotion
What if I told you that life wasn’t meant to be happy all the time, that is part of being a human being and you will experience many different emotions, and that is OK. Some days you will have negative emotion like sad, anger, bored, fear or hurt. Would you be willing to feel them? Because when you choose to go unconscious and avoid your feelings the result is overeating and this makes you feel worse.
Let it in – where do you feel it in your body? It is just a feeling, don’t be scared to feel it. The more you can allow the discomfort and not resist it or avoid it with food, the more the discomfort will subside. In the beginning it may be hard to allow the feeling, but it is a very useful skill set to learn not just for weight loss but for all emotions. For more information how to feel different emotions feel free to read my blog Hi Fear I was expecting you.
Get conscious and manage your mind
Get conscious, instead of escaping your feelings, let them in and let them tell you what is going on with your life. This will give your smart brain (prefrontal cortex), the one that is looking out for your future well being, an opportunity to create a few new strategies to make your life better. Overeating to feel better in the short term and gaining weight does not make your life better.
A good way to do this, is when you find yourself reaching for the chocolate bar, get conscious and ask yourself, why am I using my escape button? What am I escaping from? What can I do next time that would prevent me from needing to press the escape button and have the sweet treat? Use your smart prefrontal cortex and plan ahead what you will do next time. When you practice new healthier patterns over time, these will be filed away and these WILL serve you.
Conscious thought does use energy, but it is SO worth it and so are you! So perhaps you didn't have all the skills that you needed to lose weight, and this is empowering. You can now understand why you haven't been able to just 'lose weight' and now have new information about new skills to help you continue to take action toward your weight loss.
If this has given you the nudge that you need and you would like to take this work further to help manage your mind, manage your emotional life and learn how to finish what you start, then check out my Stop Overeating 7 week program. You are worth it!