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Why Diets Don’t Work Part 2- The Mental Game

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As we touched on in Part 1 of ‘Why Diets Don’t Work’ one of the biggest factors for success is the mental game. This is often overlooked or not taken into account when beginning or implementing any sort of change. Look back to your last failed attempt at dieting. What kind of story were you telling yourself? Were you reaffirming your positive nutritional changes? Did you give yourself a mental pat on the back when you passed up that soda and got water with lemon instead? When you hit your daily goal did you have a small party and tell yourself how awesome you are? Or did you only recognize the times you failed? Did you see that ½ of a pizza on Saturday night as a small setback or an excuse to quit on your diet all together? Did you start the diet as a 6-week challenge or was it an all in lifestyle shift? Were you excited to be positively impacting your health and well being or did you only think of the foods you would be giving up?

Most of us have heard the phrase as a man thinketh, so shall he become. This perfectly explains the power that thought has on our physical form. You cannot hope to change the situation unless you change the lense in which you look at the situation through. Your perception becomes your reality. If you think “no matter what I do I’m going to be fat and out of shape” you will remain fat and out of shape. If you think “well I’ve tried every diet and nothing seems to work” then nothing will work. Have you ever thought “I’m not even going to bother starting because I will probably fail anyway”. This story then becomes your reality.

Lets use Bill as an example to explain how this impacts our choices. Bill wants to lose 30 lbs, but he’s always been heavy set and is very busy with 2 kids and his career. He has tried many diets before and failed miserably, so this one will probably be no different. Regardless, he decides to give it a shot. With his meal plan in hand he heads to the store purchasing only the items on his shopping list. When he gets home he spends a few hours prepping his meals for the week, “boy what a pain in the ass this is” he thinks. The first 5 days are pretty easy. Then Saturday comes, as a treat for dieting hard Bill feels he deserves a treat so has McDonalds for breakfast. After morning soccer games Bill doesn’t have time to cook lunch so BW3 it is. By the time dinner rolls around Bill has already written the day off as a nutritional ‘loss’ so might as well have pizza and a few beers. Besides he’s very busy all week and Saturday is the only time he gets to relax and enjoy himself. Cooking and skipping out on pizza and beers does not sound very relaxing and he can get back on track tomorrow. It’s easier then anyway. After only a few weeks Bill isn’t seeing the results he wants, which isn’t surprising because diets never work for him anyway. So he might as well just go back to eating whatever he wants because it was never going to work anyway, this is too hard, and life without Diet Coke is killing him!

Do you notice a pattern with this story? This story sucks! At every potential pain point (area of adversity) Bill has a created an excuse as to why something hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work now. Instead of creating a story that overcomes adversity he has written one that focuses only on his imminent failure. In more subtle ways Bill trips himself up as well. From complaining about the difficulty of meal prepping to ‘rewarding’ himself for dieting success by eating ‘bad foods’. Essentially his mind has constructed a story of failure so when he eventually does encounter a setback he has an easy way out. “It was never going to work anyway” is a way for his mind to absorb the failure as a success thus saving Bill from that pain. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most likely you have heard of a concept known as Expectancy Theory, which assumes that behavior results from conscious choices to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain. Pain in reference to dieting would most often be perceived as the adversity that must inevitably be faced when making any lifestyle shift. The ‘pain’ of not overindulging on junk food, planning and prepping your meals in advance, even turning down an invitation to dinner and drinks because it doesn’t support your new lifestyle. Here there is no real physical threat of pain, only the story you tell yourselves about that perceived pain. The story often revolves around FOMO (fear of missing out) or the amount of effort that will be required. You have conditioned yourself to believe that opening a bag of chips is easier than cutting up some fresh vegetables. Just as going out for dinner and drinks on Saturday is your treat for making it through the week. Or maybe you were invited by your friends and you don’t want to risk missing out on the good time they will be having. Now really think on the above examples. Do these resonate with you? Do you want to know why? One of the first things we know is that the human brain is an amazing machine. Your brain inherently wants to make you feel good, it will fabricate a whole story around your decisions to make sure you feel like you’re living in line with who you think you are.

After exploring these concepts only a little it is no wonder Bill failed with his diet. His interior monologue is one of failure, so he is consciously and unconsciously making decisions that lead to failure. Let’s rewrite Bill’s story from a success driven mindset.

Bill is ready to make a significant lifestyle change. He may have experienced setbacks before, but this time will be different. He may have been unsuccessful in the past, but he now knows more and has an unparalleled sense of determination. With his meal plan in hand he heads to the store purchasing only the items on his shopping list. When he gets home he takes the necessary time to set himself up for success during the week. The first 5 days are pretty easy. Then Friday night he realizes that tomorrow may be particularly challenging because of his busy morning schedule so he is sure to pack a snack and lunch. Saturday he wakes up 10 minutes early to make breakfast. Finally, when dinner comes around he has had such a successful day that he is invigorated to keep it rolling. He notices that pizza and beer don’t bring him any closer to feeling good about himself and they will probably make him feel like crap tomorrow. Being mindful of this makes it much easier anyway. After only a few weeks Bill is seeing the results he wants, which isn’t surprising because he knew he’d be successful all along. So he reaffirms to never go back to poisoning himself by eating low quality heavily processed foods. This is easy, his workouts feel better, he is happier with the way he looks and life without Diet Coke is pretty amazing!

How was that story? Bill set himself up for success at every possible pain point. Now when he does slip up or encounter adversity he will have developed the habit of success to overcome.

As human beings we make concessions for a multitude of reasons. Usually it revolves around the fact that we have low self- confidence. Maybe we’ve tried things in the past and failed, or never had that ‘rockin hot bod’. So we begin writing a story that keeps us content with being right where we are… Stuck in a rut. Those mounting failures have painted a picture of inadequacy and inner pain. Then, since our brain is hardwired to protect us from pain our inner dialogue turns to, “Well I will probably fail anyway.. So it’s best to not even try that way I don’t feel like bad about myself again.” Rather than trying and failing we make the decision not to try at all, which our brains throw in the ‘WIN’ column. If left unchecked our brains will create a story of failure and call it success, simply to keep us locked in our own little prison of complacency. Noticing this pattern is a critical 1st step in changing the narrative. Your story can be whatever you want it to be because you can be whatever you want to be, you just have to take back the pen.