"I already know what I should be doing to lose weight, I'm just not doing it"Jan 18, 2023
Today I'm going to explain how to actually do what you know you "should be" doing to lose weight for good.
In a world full of weight loss advice like: eat more protein, get enough sleep, drink 2L of water, incorporate at least 30 minutes of exercise daily, I'm going to walk you through the tools to actually apply the knowledge you already have.
When you focus on tools for implementation, you'll develop consistency in your health behaviours, which is what is necessary to lose and maintain the weight loss longterm.
The problem is most weight loss plans provide more nutrition knowledge (which you already have), rather than solving for consistency, resilience and sustainability to keep applying said knowledge even when it's hard.
And most people keep searching for the right diet, the best fitness regimen, or the ideal calorie counting app, rather than figuring out how to follow through, bounce back after a setback, and keep going when motivation wanes.
Most people don’t have a knowledge gap, they have an implementation gap. They know what they should be eating, they’re just not doing it.
There won't be any "eat this to burn off the fat" type of information in this blog article, instead I'll teach you:
- Why eating more and exercising less are our human default position (and not a reflection of poor willpower!)
- How to overcome the natural inclination to unhealthy behaviours
- How to set yourself up for success in following through with your health or weight loss goals
Let's start with an imagination exercise...
Have you ever had this experience?
You wake up in the morning with strong motivation: "Alright, today is the day. I'm going to hit the gym, get my 10,000 steps in, I'm going to cook that healthy recipe I've been meaning to try."
All these amazing intentions to start your day.
You get to work, something goes wrong with a project you're working on, maybe your boss isn't happy with you, it's stressful. You get home a little late, your kids are having a meltdown, they want you to wrestle with them even though you're exhausted, and then they drag their feet when it's bedtime and it's past 9pm when they finally go to sleep and you're wiped.
All you want is to sit down and veg out in front of Netflix with a glass of wine and a bag of chips.
Has that ever happened?
It’s not uncommon that we start the day with good intentions, we’re going to start our “diet”, only to have our intentions kiboshed by the end of the night.
Why is that? Are we all just lazy? Do we all lack willpower?
I want to break this down for you to dispel the disappointment and shame that can come from not following through, and then give you strategies to help you succeed in your healthy eating even on your worst days.
Let’s start by understanding what’s happening in our brains:
The most powerful area of our brain geared for survival is the Limbic System, which is responsible for motivational and emotional drivers. This part of our brain is sometimes referred to as the primal brain, or reward brain, and is very impulsive.
Actions at this level are motivated by three deeply rooted survival instincts:
1) To seek out pleasure, happiness, and comfort. (foods, social relationships, reproduction, acceptance and recognition, drugs and alcohol)
2) To avoid pain - Our Limbic system is motivated to protect us from danger – whether that be physical, emotional or mental pain. Whereas thousands of years ago, we had true physical danger and our brain needed to motivate us to escape that danger, now we don’t have physical threats, it’s more emotional threats- things like stress, boredom, anger, fear. We’re evolutionarily wired to want to avoid these things.
3) To conserve energy and seek efficiency.
So what does this part of the brain sound like when it comes to eating and exercise?
Seek pleasure sounds like: Yum, those cookies taste good!
Avoid pain sounds like, ugh I'm so stressed. Where is that glass of wine?
And conserve energy sounds like: nah, I'm too tired today. I can hit the gym tomorrow.
Based on these powerful, and ancient survival instincts,
Our default position as humans is to eat more, exercise less unless we deliberately use psychological skills to resist.
Fortunately, we have a higher level, human brain, the conscious part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex, that can overcome those strong survival urges from our limbic system.
Our Higher Brain, also called Executive Functioning, is where we have the ability to reason, learn, and apply logic.
Here's the thing: your executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, works well under optimal conditions:
When it's first thing in the morning, you've had a great night's sleep, you have no stress or anxiety, your kids are perfectly behaved, your career is on point... Prefrontal cortex is firing well.
But your executive brain does not work well at 9 o'clock at night after a long, stressful day, when the kids had meltdowns before bed, and your boss yelled at you for bombing a project, and you've been asked a billion questions all day, and you have decision fatigue.
Throw in a glass of wine - or two... and the executive brain is tuned out, down for the count, not engaging in decision making anymore!
You can think of your executive brain like a battery – it’s charge up in the morning, but totally flat by the time 9pm hits.
So the reward brain that really just wants to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort is loud and kicking and telling you all the reasons why you deserve to have another bowl of popcorn, another handful of chocolate almonds, all the while vegging out in front of Netflix.
Not only do we have the issue of a sleepy executive brain. We also have our brain's amazing learning capacity - What we call "brain conditioning".
The more you do something, the stronger the corresponding neural pathways become.
When you add in powerful reward (like hyper-palatable food), the brain quickly delegates these behaviours to autopilot, and you form an unconscious habit.
Do you remember the famous experiment with Pavlov’s dogs?
Pavlov was a Russian physiologist, who did a set of very famous experiments demonstrating a concept called Conditioned Response. He observed dogs at feeding time. Every time he fed the dogs, he rang the bell. After doing this repeatedly, the pairing of food and bell eventually established the dog's Conditioned Response of salivating to the sound of the bell. After repeatedly doing this pairing, Pavlov removed the food and when ringing this bell the dog would salivate.
Our brains are the same. We develop conditioned responses due to something called Associative Learning.
When you were stressed and you ate the chips, your brain made note of the fact that there was dim lighting, it was evening, you were in your living room sitting on the couch, the TV was on.
Now all of those environmental cues are associated with the reward and conditioned desire. So next time it’s dim lighting, evening, and you’re in the living room, your brain is sending you messages that it’s chip time.
You now have an autopilot habit.
This is why many of us find ourselves wandering back to the pantry for the second or third time every evening, looking for another snack, despite the fact that we know we are not hungry. Our reward brain is sending up impulses or desire to eat because it has been conditioned that that’s what we do in the dim lighting of evening time after a long day.
Let me summarize –
- Our brain’s survival instincts are geared to seek pleasure, avoid pain and do what requires the least amount of effort – i.e. eat more, exercise less.
- Our frontal cortex, the conscious part of our brain, is responsible for making sound decisions – but is asleep and depleted, like a dead battery, by the time the end of the night comes around
- We engage in overeating behaviours because of conditioned responses to stimuli in our environment that our brain has associated with food
When we don’t understand all of this, we find ourselves going through the motions, living in autopilot mode, starting out with good intentions, but finding ourselves disappointed night after night when “willpower” has failed yet again.
We may not quite understand why our actions aren't aligning with our intentions, and we don’t know what to do about it.
What most people do, is they say, "ah ha, of course! It’s because I haven’t found the right diet yet. It must be paleo – that’s the answer. Or keto, or whole 30, or low calorie, or counting points."
But the thing is – it never really was about the diet in the first place. Following a diet or having someone write out a meal plan for you assumes that you don’t already know what you should be eating. But that’s just not the case for most people.
Because most people don’t have a knowledge gap. They have an implementation gap.
Most people know what they should be eating, they’re just not doing it.
And that’s why
The real key to successful weight loss and longterm health and wellness, isn’t in finding the right diet, but getting to the root of how do we follow through?
Let me give you 3 really simple strategies that you can start practising right away.
Strategy #1: Make decisions ahead of time.
Our executive brain works well when it’s making decisions ahead of time. When we’re in a moment of impulse, that’s when our primal brain kicks in. If you find yourself battling willpower all the time, or dealing with a lot of mental chatter like “should I? shouldn’t I? Just this once?” It’s likely because you’re attempting to use willpower to battle your instincts to seek pleasure, avoid pain and do what is easiest. And using willpower is exhausting. So there is freedom that comes from making decisions ahead of time. Here are some examples:
- Go to the grocery store with a list.
- Review the menu of the restaurant and decide what you’ll eat before you get there
- Schedule your exercise into your calendar
- Plan your dinner at least 1 day before
Schedule physical activity into your calendar and honour it like you would a meeting with your boss.
- sticking with your plan requires less mental energy than trying to use willpower in the moment.
Perhaps you've heard the saying: a plan that isn't written down is just a wish. Write down your plan.
Strategy #2: Find ways to recharge your battery.
Food provides a very brief form of pleasure that I call false pleasure, but it doesn’t do a very good job of recharging your battery. When you’re stressed or anxious or you’ve had a long day, remember your executive brain is like a battery that has been completely depleted. Your primal brain just wants to do whatever is quick and easy to temporarily relieve the stress or anxiety, and food is the go-to for many people. But food does a very poor job of solving for stress – in fact, it often adds more stress in the form of regret, disappointment or a feeling of failure. That’s why I call it a false pleasure – it’s a pleasure that seems good in the moment, but is associated with an overall net negative effect in your life.
It’s important to find other ways to try to recharge your frontal cortex battery that don’t carry a net negative. Things like: going for a walk in nature, listening to good music, journaling, doing an endorphin-boosting workout, or taking a warm bath. There are many things that you can do for self-care, that will actually recharge you, that don’t have an overall negative effect. The thing is, your brain likely won’t remember them when you need them so one trick is to write down 5 self-care activities on a post-it note and keep it somewhere visible so you can cue your brain in those moments of stress or anxiety.
Strategy #3: Manage your environment.
I told you about Associative Learning and our conditioned responses. So if you know that your environment is cueing your brain to want food, then try changing it up a bit.
Instead of sitting in your living room after supper, go upstairs to your bedroom. Instead of TV time, maybe read a book. I know for me, if I work on my computer at my kitchen table after the kids are asleep – I will for sure end up grabbing some nuts in the pantry. But if I work upstairs in my bedroom, I won’t.
There are other ways of changing your environment that can be helpful – like putting junk food down in the basement instead of in your kitchen, or moving the bread off the counter to a less visible place, for example. Essentially what you want to accomplish is getting yourself out of autopilot behaviours and also reducing the cues to your brain that suggest that it’s eating time.
Let me recap the 3 strategies:
- Make decisions ahead of time.
- Recharge the battery of your prefrontal cortex
- Manage your environment to reduce food cues
If you want more help following through with what you already know you "should be" doing to lose weight, I'd love to help you! Go to www.sashahighmd.com to book a free Discovery Call with me and learn more about my Best Weight coaching + medical program for empowered weight loss. xo
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