Kevin Costner and Spear Equals Waterworld

This is part one of Looking for Resolutions in all the Right Places, in which we look at the top 10 most commonly chosen New Year’s resolutions and see if they are all that and a bag of potato chips.

Firstly I’m just going to point out that to “lose weight” as a New Year’s resolution is a little open ended. If you become a heroin addict, lose an arm or a leg in an accident, or have a dog called “Weight” and leave the gate open before setting fireworks off you could potentially succeed at this ill-defined resolution without actually addressing being overweight. So I’ve decided to remove any ambiguity and say that this resolution really means “To attain a healthy body weight”. So from here on you can assume that unless otherwise specified, when I say “lose weight” I’m not talking about becoming a drug addict, an amputee or a bad pet owner.

Why we all want to ‘lose weight’

Christmas is generally a bad time for your health, even if you don’t believe the Santa is Satan conspiracy. The usual ritual is to spend Christmas with family and friends and eat foods that are high in salt, sugar, fat or alcohol (or some combination therein). You then might have a day off to write your New Year’s resolutions before over indulging again for New Years.

Not surprisingly then it is often around this time we reassess our lives and our waistlines and remember that 3 in 5 of us are overweight or obese. Unlike being a member of a political party or a pseudo religion like Scientology, the ranks of the overweight or obese are on the rise globally with now more than 1.4 billion adults worldwide. Throughout the world there are now more people who are overweight then there are those who are suffering from malnutrition. So clearly, obesity is really popular these days.

Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it is good for you – just take a look at the Black Death, women wearing shoulder pads, and Justin Beiber. All of these things were popular afflictions back in the day but they weren’t really all that great for humanity. In fact, obesity is like a combination of the Black Death, shoulder pads, and Justin Beiber all rolled into one – it will kill you, make you look bad, and give you a completely warped sense of reality.

Kevin vs David

Your brain is organised to engage in either goal-oriented behaviours, or habit-based behaviours. The goals largely come from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, whereas the basal ganglia are where all those bad (and sometimes good) habits come from.

The prefrontal cortex is like David Attenborough – educated, reasoned, likes to explore new things and speaks with an accent that sounds posh.

The basal ganglia are like Kevin Coster – it just plays the same character in every movie regardless of whether you like it or not.

When left alone, Kevin Costner does whatever the hell he wants, including play the role of  title Robin Hood with an American accent even though the rest of the cast at least tried to fake an accent of some sort. Thankfully, whenever David Attenborough walks in the room however, Kevin Costner takes a back seat and we all listen to what David Attenborough has to say because it’s generally far more interesting.

So in the battle of the brains, your prefrontal cortex can overrule your basal ganglia. The problem is that the prefrontal cortex only trumps the basal ganglia when you consciously think about it. Therefore, a really big, ambiguous goal like ‘lose weight’ includes changing every single habit you have accumulated to do with everything you eat, drink and do on a day-to-day basis. That’s quite a lot of habits to try and change in one go, which would effectively mean 100% concentration, all day, every day till those habits change, which is a little unrealistic.

Solution 1: Make “lose weight” your ONLY resolution

If your aim is to get to a healthy weight, then make ALL your New Year’s very specific and achievable steps that contribute to losing weight. If you want to lose weight you are not going to have time to also go bungee jumping or climb Mount Everest or build a school in an undeveloped country – though you can save that for after you’ve lost weight.

The prefrontal cortex does a lot more than help you resist the urge to eat condensed milk out of the can. It is also responsible for other useful things like short-term memory, solving abstract problems, and concentration. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex does not have an unlimited supply of energy to just do these things and everything else you ask of it. The more you use it during the day, the less successful it will get at performing these tasks.

The prefrontal cortex does a lot more than help you resist the urge to eat condensed milk out of the can. It is also responsible for other useful things like short-term memory, solving abstract problems, and concentration. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex does not have an unlimited supply of energy to just do these things and everything else you ask of it. The more you use it during the day, the less successful it will get at performing these tasks.

Some people like to make the analogy that the prefrontal cortex is like a muscle. Personally I prefer to think of it as David Attenborough with a six-shooter in a western since the imagery is better. In a six-shooter you only have a few shots to get off before you have to reload (this doesn’t mean you have exactly six things you can resist in the day however, it’s just an analogy…). This means that if you are using your prefrontal cortex throughout the day to do things like short-term memory, problem solving and concentration then this is also running down your ability to resist temptation. The act of resisting temptation is also included in this calculation, so the more times you resist temptation in a day, the quicker you will run down your prefrontal cortex and by the afternoon you will be more susceptible to fall off the wagon.

Isn’t funny how all those fast food ads just always seem to be seen in the evening when your prefrontal cortex is at its weakest and you are the most susceptible to temptation isn’t it?

Solution 2: Focus on changing only a few habits at a time

The goal is to turn those unhealthy habits into healthy ones. Now that you know your David Attenborough prefrontal cortex has only got a limited number of shots in it, you need to make sure you use them wisely. So instead of trying to solve all your bad habits at once, only focus on one, or a couple of habits at a time.

For example, if there is a lift that you use every day to go between two floors, make it your new habit to use the stairs every time you are going up a floor. If you can focus on just doing this one task for a month, you are well on your way turning this goal-oriented behaviour into a habit-oriented one. Since habits are managed by the Kevin Costner basal ganglia, when this activity becomes a habit, it will no longer use up one of your ‘shots’ in your prefrontal cortex. This in turn gives you a different bad habit to take a shot at instead, and you can progressively pick off each of them one at time.

There have been plenty of fad diets over the years all claiming to be a silver bullet solution to a growing problem. Of course, if any of them worked then there wouldn’t be an obesity epidemic and the weight loss products wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry.

The problem with ‘going on a diet’ is that from the get-go you have already defined this as a short-term activity. When people ‘go on a diet’ what they really mean is that they are going to dramatically alter their eating patterns for a short period of time, lose some weight then go back to eating the way they always wanted to. You are always on a diet whether you like it or not, the difference is that some of us have a healthy diet that leads to a longer, happier life, whereas some of us have an unhealthy diet that leads to a life of misery.

If you want a healthy diet, skipping meals is probably the worst approach to weight loss since your David Attenborough prefrontal cortex uses up a lot of energy. If you starve David Attenborough of energy, you are also running down your ability to resist temptation and out pops the Kevin Costner basal ganglia to encourage you to watch Dances with Wolves over and over again while eating a few packets of chips. If you starve yourself in the short-term, you are just setting yourself up to binge later on.

Solution 3: Aim for healthy eating habits you can live with… forever…

So first of all, don’t think of yourself as ‘going on a diet’. Instead, think about turning your unhealthy eating habits into healthy ones instead. In terms of implementation this is pretty similar to the previous suggestion of picking a few bad habits to change at a time, then progressively turning them into good ones.

Say you regularly make spaghetti bolognese (which I’m going to call spag bog from now on) with just the mince and pasta sauce. Take a look at your portion sizes for how much spag bog you are serving up to yourself for dinner. Most of us are absolutely terrible at judging portion sizes so you are probably dishing up too much. Divide your meal into appropriate portion sizes, have one for dinner (and one for anyone else you are obliged to feed that night) then at the same time as you are portioning out dinner, put the rest into plastic containers to put in the freezer. These new frozen meals are your “Wednesday lunch” meals – you only get to eat them at work at lunch time (or pick another day that takes your fancy).

The actual goal of this new habit is to make your spag bog last longer into as many meals as you can, though the other consequence is to get your portion sizes under control and ultimately eat less. The really cool thing about this one is that you are also saving money if you would normally buy something for lunch at work instead. When you get used to this new habit, the next phase is to throw some vegies into your spag bog to make it spread further, which also has the added bonus of making it just a lot healthier. Don’t worry, after a while you’ll find spag bog tastes better with vegies and going back to the meat-only version just feels weird and unnatural.

The Verdict

Obesity is popular, but in doomsday cult kind of way – it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s a real bugger to get out of and if you don’t you’ll probably end up dead. If you find yourself in a cult, try getting an android phone instead.

So clearly there are lots of overweight and obese people out there who need to lose weight. Simply putting ‘lose weight’ on your New Year’s Resolution list is not going to help with this problem however. If you are overweight, replace all your New Year’s resolutions with a single Prime Directive to attain a healthy weight instead. Then pick a maximum of 5 unhealthy habits that you need to replace with healthy ones. Whenever you replace one unhealthy habit with a healthy one, pick a new habit to target and keep going. Eventually you’ll find yourself engaging in all sorts of healthy habits that will help you transition to a much healthier life that will be a lot more sustainable.

Should “lose weight” be on your next set of New Year’s resolutions? NO! If you want to lose weight, try something that works!

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