If you gave a test to a million people and three-quarters of them flunked, would you attribute their failure to a lack of willpower or laziness? Or would you wonder if the test was flawed?
If the test measured the ability to lose weight, the results would parallel the failure rates for Americans who are trying to reduce their girth. According to the 2012 Food & Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation, 77 percent of Americans are trying to lose weight or avoid gaining weight. Despite their efforts, nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.
For the most part, the test takers do not blame others for their failure; they blame themselves. Desperate to succeed despite a history of dangerous scams and diet schemes, consumers continue their search for a magical solution to weight loss and willingly throw money at the problem. Growing at an annual rate of nearly 11 percent for the past five years, the market for weight-loss products (food, drugs, supplements, services, ingredients, devices, accessories and cosmetics) in 2014 is projected to reach $586 billion.
So why is it so difficult to lose weight? Obesity psychologist Jim Keller asserts that the human body and brain are designed to eat — thus explaining why losing weight proves so challenging for so many.
Keller, who has conducted 14,000 psychological interviews of individuals considering bariatric surgery, says that the causes of obesity are complex. Obesity is not simply a function of laziness or an indication of emotional instability. In addition, genetic and biological factors do not act in isolation but are constantly interacting with an array of environmental factors. Keller notes that both the availability and persuasive advertising of unhealthy food contribute to the obesity epidemic.
While external and genetic factors play a role, no one questions that individuals are in charge of their daily decisions about what and how much to eat. So once we make up our minds to change a habit, why do we find ourselves falling back into old ones? Why can’t we simply make a decision and get on with it? What puzzles and frustrates many trying to lose weight is why changing one’s eating habits is so darn hard.
According to Dr. Howard Rankin, an expert on behavioral change, a key part of the problem is that we believe we have more control over our behavior than we really do. Stress, anxiety, and addiction can limit the conscious control we have over our choices. Dr. Rankin asserts:
What drives our behavior is not logic but brain biochemistry, habits and addiction, states of consciousness and what we see people around us doing. We are emotional beings with the ability to rationalize — not rational beings with emotions. If we are stressed, depressed or addicted, no matter how good the advice we are given, chances are that we will not be able to act on it. The more primitive, emotional brain generally has precedence over the newer, more rational brain.
But even if we removed those individuals who are stressed, depressed or addicted from the test group, we still would be left with a large population of individuals who are unable to stick with their resolve to lose weight.
One possibility is that I have multiple personalities. Another is that resolve is not constant. According to Dr. Rankin, resolve ebbs and flows like the tide. One moment we can be fired up to be mindful of our eating, but in the next instant, our mood, our state of consciousness or the context has changed. Much to our chagrin, we find ourselves indulging in unhealthy treats.
Dr. Rankin also has a healthy respect for people’s extraordinary ability to rationalize almost any behavior. We can persuade ourselves to do almost anything we want to do — especially when the behaviors are ones that our brains are used to doing. But trying to persuade ourselves to do things that we don’t really want to do — behaviors our brain is not used to — is not easy. We are very adept at making wonderful (and plausible) excuses as to why we can’t do what we don’t want to do.
Dr. Rankin reminds us that, for better or worse, our core, emotional values will ultimately determine our choices. Once we identify our heartfelt desires, we can use them to create a healthy lifestyle that reflects our best self. Our deepest values can be summoned to keep us on track, especially when we are facing temptations and distractions. They can also serve as our compass when we go astray.
If we are willing to remain diligently committed to our emotional values, we can be confident that we will succeed in realizing our health and fitness goals. And when we do, maybe some of us will go one step further and give support to family and friends so that they can join us in becoming healthier and happier.