We all know a better diet will help us lose weight, and there are a thousand of them out there. We are also aware that exercise will help us lose weight, and there are many to choose from. Why is it that we often choose to eat bad foods and fail to exercise if we know these choices will not help us lose weight? The answer is complex, and the way to correct this bad behavior is through the third pillar of weight loss: behavior modification.
Behavior modification is the process of thinking through your bad choices and deciding how to avoid that choice in the future. It is frequently difficult to just extinguish a bad behavior. It may be a lot easier to replace a bad behavior with a better one.
Why do we do bad things, like eating a bowl of ice cream when we’re full, or sitting in front of the TV all night when we know we need a workout? There are two reasons: habit and reward. If you always have a snack to nibble on while watching TV, or if you always go out to eat every Friday and Saturday night, you’ve got yourself a bad habit, my friend.
And where does the reward come in? It comes from a surge of dopamine in your brain. When you eat sugary or fried foods, you get a little squirt of dopamine in your brain, which you experience as pleasure. For 99% of human existence, the real threat to survival was starvation, not obesity or its related ills. So we evolved a desire for things that helped us store up calories – sweets and fats. It’s just natural that we like these things. So how do we avoid them? By using cognitive therapy: teaching and reminding ourselves how much damage they can do to our bodies and our lives. Actually, it will work better if we do the opposite and accentuate the positive. We should constantly remind ourselves that eating lower fat and lower carb diet and reasonable portions will do us a lot of good. We will be thinner, feel better, take less medication, spend less time in the hospital and at doctors’ offices, live longer, and so on.
Back to the habit part of this equation. Habit is the road to success… or disaster. We make lots of choices every day, but most of our responses are habits. We rarely have to think very hard for most day-to-day decisions. We just choose what we’ve gotten into a habit of choosing. This is where the good news comes in. If you develop good habits, you will continue to do good things without really trying very hard.
Step 1: Weight Loss Journal
I suggest keeping all your food diary and exercises on paper for at least 3-4 weeks, maybe permanently. Once a week, on Sunday perhaps, analyze what you did and try to reason why. It will help if you jot little notes relating to the choice, such as “ate chips while watching TV” or “ate a brownie that a coworker brought to office.”
Step 2: Substitute
If you snack in front of the TV, try planning on having carrots and hummus available instead of chips. Or some other healthy snack. If you try to just stop the bad snacks, hunger may force you into a bad choice, so substitute a good food instead. Or better yet, try adding exercise where a snack used to be. Ride your stationary bike or walk the treadmill while you watch TV instead. Write down positive choices as well. If you did something good, write down not only that you went for a swim, but why?
Step 3: Goals
We all do things better if we plan, and especially if it is a written plan. At the end of the first week, write your goals for weight loss in your journal, but be specific as to behaviors. Don’t write “lose 2 lbs a week for 10 weeks.” That’s a worthy goal, but we’re working on behavior, so these goals should be things like “go for a walk after lunch break” or “plan healthy snacks for work and home” or “join a softball team” or “avoid all fast food” or “learn about nutrition/exercise for 30 minutes each week.” Put down all the behaviors you need to stop, and if you can, some substitute good behavior. Add in any new good behaviors you want to start.
Step 4: Evaluate
At the end of the second week, evaluate how well you did at changing your behavior. Here is a key to avoiding failure: do not overdo it. If you try to change 10 or 20 behaviors in one week, you have unrealistic expectations, and you will fail. Choose one or two behaviors the first week, and add a new one each week, but only if you’ve succeeded at the prior goals. And start with the easier behaviors. This makes you more likely to succeed, and as the saying goes, “nothing breeds success like success.” Small successes slowly accumulated will motivate you to do better the next week. And as you go along, the behaviors you started weeks and months ago will become ingrained habits, and therefore easier to do.
I am confident that if you follow these steps, you will succeed in your weight loss goals. There are many paths to weight loss success, but all of them must include discarding bad behaviors and gaining new good ones. That, in a nutshell, is behavior modification.
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