This year millions of people will embark upon a diet and most will fail to lose weight. The usual response to this failure by the people marketing the diet is to blame the individual for the failure. This leaves the person feeling defeated and guilty because of their lack of “will-power”
Blaming the individual also preserves the illusion that diets are an effective way to lose weight. I think it is time to move the discussion beyond this “blaming” level and explore the real reasons diets fail.
I will use an example to explain my position.
When most people are presented with something like a chocolate (candy) bar it is not long before they feel a desire to eat the thing. Most will simply blame the chocolate for causing the desire. They will then try to battle the craving with “will-power”. Usually, they lose this battle and sooner or later give in and eat the chocolate bar. This “giving-in” often marks the end of the diet.
Now let’s look at why this “giving-in” occurred. We know that the cognitive process that caused the craving to eat the chocolate bar went something like this; sensory input was received through the appropriate receptors [mainly eyes in this case] and the mind formed some type of neural or sensory representation of the object that will be defined as a chocolate bar. We can regard this process as inescapable. If the sensory receptors are in working order, the mind must form a representation or neural image of the object.
When a neural image has been formed we have been taught to assign meanings, from memory to these images as they occur in the mind. The assignment of meaning is followed by an emotional response appropriate to the meaning assigned. In the case of the chocolate bar, the meaning assigned included memories of pleasant experiences associated with eating chocolate bars, hence the craving to eat this chocolate bar. So really it was not the presence of the object that will be defined as a chocolate bar that caused the craving, but the cognitive process outlined.
Specifically, it was the assignment of meaning that caused the craving. And because this assignment of meaning has become totally automatic in most people, the chocolate bar gets the blame for the craving when in fact it only had the power to cause the mind to form a meaningless image. For most, the meaning and image have become “fused”, with the meaning now seen as an inherent part of the neural image itself rather than something assigned from within the mind. This of course gives the stimulus the power to be the cause of the response.
Just thinking about or reflecting upon a chocolate bar has the same effect. A neural image is formed from that reflection and when it has been formed the cognitive process of automatically assigning meaning to it is exactly the same as with images caused by an external stimulus. We feel a strong desire to eat the chocolate bar.
This all means of course that every time we are presented with a chocolate bar or some other desirable food, the mind automatically performs the cognitive process outlined and creates a desire to eat the delicacy. These continual emotional responses build up and eventually wear us down. This is the reason we “give-in” and the diet goes out the window.
My point is then, the only way to reduce our food intake and still feel comfortable is to modify this process of automatically assigning meaning to the images that come into our heads. This way we can reduce the desire to eat unnecessarily and thereby modify our eating behavior so that we lose weight and keep it off.
Diets do not supply these techniques and in actual fact, they fail the individual not the other way round as their providers would have you believe. If changing our behavior as easy as making a decision to go on a diet, most of us would have changed many things about ourselves long ago. The truth is we need techniques that will help us to bring that change about, or we are setting ourselves up to fail.