The working title of my talk was “How to Lose Weight Without Really Trying (in fact it’s the only way).” In the 48-hours I spent crafting the speech, I baked two pies (pumpkin!) and ate two different batches of chocolate chip cookies. Mostly in dough form. You see, as soon as the survival-oriented part of my brain hears me even THINK the words weight loss, it hijacks my higher functions and starts storing up for the inevitable starvation ahead. Yours does too:
- Thinking so hard about not-eating-food FORCES you to focus on food. It’s the Ironic Monitoring Process (better known as the don’t-think-about-pink-elephants principle).
- Thinking you don’t like yourself the way you are is really, really mean. It makes you want to comfort yourself. Say, with food.
- Our brains are designed to ensure we don’t starve to death. At any sign of impending food scarcity (never mind real scarcity — like actual dieting — which only makes it worse), our survival instincts take over, blocking rational thinking and making us eat more than we enjoy. It’s called “famine brain. “You’ve maybe had the experience of emerging from a 2-minute fog to discover you’ve eaten a whole lot of Oreos? That’s what happened. It is not a question of willpower. At all. You’re just fighting a more powerful force: your own will to live.
I first learned this lesson in college. I struggled to retain information for upcoming tests — like various phase diagrams’ triple points — yet effortlessly came to know calorie counts for every foodstuff from celery to Haagen Dasz as well as the subtle differences between Pritiken and Scarsdale diets (it mostly has to do with exactly HOW ketonic your mouth tastes) and what it feels like to gain 25 pounds. And lose it. Repeatedly. It turns out that being surrounded by people discussing what they weigh and need to lose and ate today — plus how they’re going to fast tomorrow — is socially contagious. And that dieting is guaranteed to make you gain weight in the long run. Guaranteed.
Upon graduation, I vowed to leave that culture behind. I honestly didn’t care how much I weighed. I was sick of it all. I bought big baggy pants and lived without a scale or a care in the world for what I ate. What I ate included lots of peanut butter, cheddar cheese, microwave burritos, and ice cream — for while my home territory is the most beautiful place in the world, we didn’t have a good grocery store. I did most of my shopping in 7-11, on the fly, because I was throwing myself into challenging work and gorgeous land with some of my favorite people.
A year later, I returned to my alma mater to watch a friend graduate. Absentmindedly stepping on my host’s scale while brushing my teeth, I discovered 25 pounds were gone. Hmmm… I started to develop my theory that the only way to lose weight is to truly not care if you do.
Test it out for yourself: Consider times YOU have felt most comfortable in your body, times you’ve mysteriously dropped weight or felt fit. I bet it was when you were falling in love — with a person, a place, an animal, an activity, an idea. You didn’t care about weight; you were absorbed in creating a great life which, if you think about it, is a really great way to comfort oneself.
PRACTICAL PROVEN TIP: BTW another great way to comfort yourself — and the only “diet strategy” that has EVER worked for me — is to stroke your arms twice daily while saying OUT LOUD (this is where you might want to shut the door): “You can have whatever you want.” And really really meaning it. Don’t knock this tip until you try it for three weeks.
And then the Universe offered me a lovely chance to test the theory. My host wandered by and said, “yeah, you know, if you lost 10 more pounds you’d really be something.”
“Aargh!!!!” I thought. “Maybe he’s right [though definitely not about how to talk to women] — maybe I should lose weight.” You know what happened next. I went on a strict diet and exercise plan, lost some pounds pretty fast… then blinked my eyes and found myself almost back up to graduation size, filling out those baggy pants nicely, thank you.
So I gave up.
My body returned to normal: not very thin and not very fat. It mostly stays in that neighborhood unless I stop focusing on living creatively and instead focus on how I might lose weight if I exerted even an ounce of self-control…
Which is why I made those pies and cookie batches this week. I wanted to reassure my brain that though I was thinking about the words weight loss, I was not remotely planning any cut-back on food intake! Even still, I could feel my old survival brain getting a little worried, and so ultimately I decided I did not want to dignify “weight loss” with any more thought, much less its own speech. (I’d promised someone a word on the subject though, so hopefully this post is a suitable compromise for that person AND for my psyche!)
Please know that I understand this might seem too risky for you. When I was deep in the weight loss wars, it felt terrifying to think of giving it up. It felt like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Like I’d balloon up forever. And who knows, maybe I will right after posting this — after thinking hard and publicly about something I advocate not thinking about! But dieting made me so heartsick and exhausted that I had to give up. In that magical state, I inevitably find joy in all sorts of places… places where I am so engaged in life that weight is not of concern. And then it’s not.