A number of years ago I was watching a seminar for people who were on the wait list for bariatric surgery. These are people who have struggled throughout their lives to maintain a healthy weight, and they are waiting to get surgery to help with weight management. There were probably 50 people in the room. The clinic nurse and the surgeon got up in front of the group and talked about how amazing the surgery is. They talked about how the surgery can help you lose weight, how you can feel happier, how you can feel healthier, and how the surgery itself is relatively low risk. As they were talking the crowd was getting really pumped up. I could feel the energy myself. These are people that have struggled for years to lose weight. They have tried every diet and exercise program you can find. And someone is finally giving them a solution!
I was a student at the time and when the session was over I turned to my supervisor excitedly and said wow what a great program! This is so amazing for these people! My supervisor looked at me and said Nicole most of these people are not going to lose weight even if they have the surgery. I looked at him shocked. What do you mean? You heard the same talk as me. The surgery is amazing and works! He said yes the surgery works. The surgery reduces your stomach size so you can’t eat as much. But, the surgeon and nurse were only acting like cheerleaders. They gave all the great reasons to lose weight, and they advertised the surgery as instant success with minimal work. The problem is there are many good reasons to stay overweight and it is possible to “out eat” the surgery.
What is this crazy man talking about? Good reasons to be overweight? What does that even mean!?
Any behaviour we do has benefits, even if we aren’t aware of what they are. If a behaviour didn’t give us benefits, we wouldn’t do it!
Take overeating for example. Here are some GOOD reasons to overeat or to be overweight;
Stress management – Ever had a bad day and wanted a bowl of ice cream? Our brains have a strong emotional attachment to food. It makes us feel better. In the short term at least.
Social contact – Eating is often a social activity. We eat with friends and family. It’s fun to go out and indulge in a nice meal. Our brains like this. It feels good.
Biology - There are complex biological processes that get in our way when we are trying to lose weight. You can probably think of someone you know who has lost a ton of weight only to put it all back on and more. Our brain can shift into starvation mode if we lose weight too fast. We start conserving resources, and we don’t lose weight.
Our brains hate change – Our brains will always want to stick to the status quo. That’s why it’s so hard to change habits, including losing weight.
Our brains will always prioritize seeking pleasure, and avoiding pain. Our brains want to feel good and avoid any type of discomfort. Exercising daily and eating a plate of vegetables instead of chocolate cake doesn’t feel good, at least in the short term.
All of these examples are SHORT TERM benefits of overeating. Like I said, the brain prioritizes short term benefits (feeling good and avoiding pain).
To overcome this brain pattern we need to train our brains to focus on the LONG TERM consequences of healthy behaviours. We have to convince our brains to choose the apple over the apple pie. To choose exercising over sitting on the couch. To choose moderation over overeating.
Let’s take another example. Short term and long term impact of exercise versus watching more TV.
short term benefits = feels good, easy, relaxing, saves time going to the gym
long term consequences = weight gain, high blood pressure, poor body image
Going to the gym
short term consequences = takes time, hard work, muscles feel sore
long term benefits = better weight control, better mood, better sleep
In order to get our brains to agree to go to the gym the items listed under long term impact have to be stronger than the short term impact. The benefits of regular exercise (i.e. healthier lives) have to outweigh the short term negatives (i.e. it’s hard work and doesn’t feel good). The long term risks of too much television watching (i.e. weight gain, poor health) have to be stronger than the short term benefits (i.e. it feels good and is easy).
Again it can be helpful to think of our brains like a muscle. We need to retrain our brains to think beyond the norm, to think outside the box, and to challenge our typical patterns of thinking to make significant changes.
The next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re choosing between the apple and the apple pie, remind yourself of the long term goals. Remind yourself of the long term benefits of choosing the healthy option, and the long term consequences of repeatedly choosing the less healthy option. Over time your brain will learn to focus on these long-term benefits and won’t be so tempted by the short-term distractions.