Home » Why We Must Stop Ignoring the Psychology of Weight Loss: Alisa Anokhina at TEDxUCL (Transcript)

Why We Must Stop Ignoring the Psychology of Weight Loss: Alisa Anokhina at TEDxUCL (Transcript)

Alisa – Research psychologist

So we’ve just had a talk about nursing the soul. So I think it is fitting that I now talk about nursing the body. So in particular, I want to talk to you about a sentence which you might have said to 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 sort of a sarcastic headline from the university of all this 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? No. It’s how it would work if we were talking about Celebrex. And it is totally legitimate thing from a physiological standpoint.

But if we are talking about people, it is 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. 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 reports after 12 months of just eating less, is around 6 kilos.

So people who eat less and exercise more around it. But still a lot less than you would expect. And that’s just the people who stuck to it. So that’s out of everyone who started out, at the end of 12 months, only 50 percent are still making effort. So also problem is that, once we lose this weight, the amount will vary depending on what you were doing. What happens afterwards is that we gain at least some of the weight 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 the problem. Because our expectations do not align with reality 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 don’t internalize these beliefs and we try to lose weight by sheer willpower alone, and we are not very good at it. And we assume that’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 is counter-productive.

So from a psychological standpoint, why do we fail? And what are some of the things that we can do to counteract this? Some of this is in a kind of problem-solution problem-solution format. So first, most diet will tend to be structured around deprivation. So people will look at these really lovely food that they like to eat, and say ‘right, I’m not going to eat that anymore, because high in fat and high in calories or whatever.’ So they are in the state of deprivation which is basically punishing yourself. And you cannot do it for a very long time. Eventually, you are going to cave, because being in that state is very unpleasant.

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So the alternative is to change your preferences. So you have to eat the food you like. So if we assume that you know salad is very good for you, but you hate salad. Don’t have salad, have something else. And it’s going to take time and energy to find what it is that you like or what works for you. But its worth it because in the long run, you will be able to do that for longer.

Now second thing is self-control. I touched upon this briefly but we have this idea that, if only we had enough willpower, weight loss will 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 is what happens with self-control. We exert self-control, and become fatigue. In psychology, this is called ego depletion. And then we are 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 the thing that you really hate.

So the alternative to that, is to change your habits. So find something that includes 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. So if you think of it as sort of picking up a new hobby so that you are changing the things that you do 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 a very technical term: the “white bear” effect. And the way it 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 pizzas. 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 pre-conscious level, scan for the thoughts that we are trying to get rid of. 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 this is really tiring to do.

So say you are trying to loss weight. And you’re sitting at home on a Thursday night and you’re thinking ‘Well, I really want pizza right now’. So you know you think, right, you’re trying to distract yourself or do something else. But the pizza thought keeps popping out. 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 next morning with that cheese hangover hating yourself.

Something else that you can do is you can say ‘Right, I want pizza right now. That is fine. So tomorrow night I’m going to have pizza for dinner.’ I’m going to make it myself. So I am going to know exactly what’s in it. And I’m going to put all these really lovely nice toppings on it. And I’m going to really kind of savor it and enjoy it. And this is the positive thing. You are indulging your cravings and your ruminations in a positive way. And so this is basically two points.

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The first is mindfulness. It is being aware of what you are eating and what is in it. And second is about picking quality over quantity. Because that’s an altitude that will basically prevent binge-eating.

So what are successful dieters doing? Well, a disclaimer first, the short answer says we don’t really know. OK. 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 these sort of strategies that I was talking about we can sum 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. Diet is deprivation and it is self-punishment and it’s not sustainable in the long-term. So instead 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 by-product 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 the time that works for you. Consider your schedule, your commitment, your preferences. And then work to that. Instead of tearing out the latest fat diet from the 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 is 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 counselling does number of things. It realizes people’s expectations. So they know that they won’t lose 25 kilos in a year, which means they won’t feel demoralized or miserable. It gives them more sustainable way to lose weight. So it is something that you can do more long-term, as opposed to for 6 months before you get sick of it.

And more importantly, what empirical research suggests to us. (My clicker is 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 these is that weight loss is not just about self-control. It is not about your will-power. It is about a lot more than that. And that is 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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