Thinking of going on a diet after stuffing yourself silly over Christmas? If you want to lose weight permanently, it’s almost certainly the worst thing you could do. With the possible exception of the deep-fried Mars bar, diets are probably the most ineffective means yet devised by man for losing weight.
Around 95 per cent of people who go on a diet end up just as fat, or even fatter, a year later. To put it bluntly: the diets aren’t working. If any diet actually performed as promised, then the obesity epidemic would have been cured long ago. Instead, what have we got? More than two-thirds of the UK’s adult population is now overweight or obese. And the problem is getting worse.
Obesity has grown by over 400 per cent in the last 25 years. At any one time, one in five women in the UK are on a diet; the figure is almost as high among teenage girls. And in the US, 45 per cent of women are on a diet on any given day.
The remorseless rise of obesity comes at a time when the diet industry is in rude good health. At this time of year, health clubs and gyms are crammed with people desperately trying to work off the after-effects of too many mince pies. To capitalise on this season of over-indulgence and the hangover of self-loathing, hundreds of ïÂ¿Â½miracle’ diets will be published over the coming weeks. Each and every one will promise to help you lose astonishing amounts of weight in record time. But if you truly want to lose weight, ignore the marketing hype. Diets are 21st Century snake oil. If there was any justice in this world I’d be enormously fat. I eat like a ravenous bear but I’ve always been slim. I deserve to waddle down Oxford Street like a foie gras goose. Thankfully I don’t. I’ve always put it down to good luck, genes or a fast metabolism. Last year I learned the truth when I met Professor Ben Fletcher and Dr. Karen Pine, two scientists researching the psychology of obesity. Professor Fletcher had discovered something remarkable. The naturally slim and the overweight did not differ so much in what they ate, but whether or not they were driven by a collection of hidden habits. Over-eating was a side-issue. A symptom of something deeper. They theorised that if you could break these hidden habits then people would naturally slim down to their ideal weight. And when they tested their theory on obese volunteers, they discovered that you could lose weight simply by breaking these habits. A diet wasn’t needed at all. It was instantly dubbed The No Diet Diet.
At the time, it sounded too good to be true. I was initially highly sceptical but the more I listened to their arguments, the more convinced I became. Then they showed me their data. In clinical trials their programme helped people lose around two pounds a week. Remarkably, this weight loss continued long after the patients had completed the initial 28-day programme. In most cases they continued losing weight until their body’s ideal healthy figure emerged. Some people in the clinical trials lost over 40 pounds and virtually everyone kept the weight off.
It turns out that the key to the No Diet Diet lies in breaking the core habits that force people to over-eat. And, bizarre as it seems, this is done by doing such simple things as taking a different route to work or switching off the TV for a day. To understand how the No Diet Diet works, you need first to comprehend why diets fail. Diets are superficially seductive. It stands to reason that if you consume fewer calories you’ll dig deep into your body’s fat reserves and lose weight. This simplistic observation has underpinned the diet industry for decades. The names of the diets may come and go, but the core belief remains the same. Diets are fine in theory but they very quickly run headlong into human nature. In fact, if you plan on using a diet to lose weight permanently, then every day, for the rest of your life, will be a diet day. In reality, it’s almost impossible to stick to a diet for more than a few weeks or months. It’s not a question of willpower, but one of biology. We have all been honed by millions of years of evolution to seek out and consume food. That’s why nature gave us hunger. But hunger can be driven by so much more than the natural desire to eat. Habits, emotions, expectations, social conditioning and a wide collection of psychological baggage can all act together to create a form of ïÂ¿Â½false hunger’. In practice, this means that doing something as simple as choosing and eating your lunch comes with decades of psychological baggage. Habits make up much of this baggage. These slowly accrue as the years pass. Layer upon layer of habits form and lock your behaviour in place. They all nestle and support each other. One habit leads inexorably to the next, which triggers the next, and the next. Psychologists call these interlinked behaviours ïÂ¿Â½habit chains’, and these become entangled into a web of habits, known as a ïÂ¿Â½habitweb’. Like it or not, psychologists estimate that the average person spends around 85 percent of their time acting out some kind of habit. It’s a personalised Groundhog Day. And one where you’re repeatedly driven to overeat. Cast an eye over your own life: Do you always sleep on the same side of the bed? Get up at the same time? Do you always have sex on the same nights of the week (and in the same positions)? Do you always go to the toilet at the same times? Do you always take the same number of footsteps to the bus stop, station or car? Do you always take the same route to work? And, when you’re there, do you always drink out of the same mug? Do you always sit in the same chair at meetings? Do you always have the same polite conversations with the same people? Need I ask any more? Now extrapolate these habits to food and eating. How many times have you started eating a biscuit only to realise a few minutes later that you’ve scoffed half the packet? You didn’t mean to. It just happened. It’s a habit. You may also have got into the habit of eating say, nacho chips and salsa in front of the TV, or perhaps having a can of beer or a drink of wine before dinner. These are all habits. You are consuming empty calories, often unconsciously, getting no pleasure from it at all, all the while piling on the weight. To make matters worse, almost everything in the modern world is geared towards habit-building. Walk down any high street and you’ll see the same shops selling the same things. The TV and much of the media purveys the same mantras encouraging over-consumption. All of these messages trigger a cascade of mental and physical habits. We are literally being programmed to eat and drink too much. This all sounds very depressing but it is possible to dismantle the habitweb, free yourself, and lose weight. If you break your habits on a daily basis then very quickly they lose their power. Of itself, each habit is easy to break. It’s the psychological connections between them that makes them tough. Vast numbers of these connections give the habitweb its strength – not the individual habits. So the habitweb has a critical weakness. If you break the simple habits that glue the bad ones in place, then the whole edifice comes crashing down. Losing weight really is as simple as breaking habits and becoming more flexible in your daily life. And if you break the habits that compel you to over-eat, then you will naturally lose weight. ***image1***So what does breaking habits and being flexible actually mean? It means making small progressive changes in your life. Each day you need to do something a little differently. Such things as stopping and noticing things on your way to work rather than rushing to the office. It means spending a few moments looking at the flowers in the park, the leaves on the trees, the grip of a baby’s hand on your finger, how your loved one looks when they concentrate, the way a musical tune rises and falls, the colour of your friend’s eyes, the full moon in a black sky. Yes, stopping and enjoying life really can help you lose weight! And won’t that be a nice change? The No Diet Diet by Professor Ben (C) Fletcher, Dr Karen Pine and Dr Danny Penman is published by Orion