When it comes to weight loss , many people rely on diet as one component of the small daily rituals that must be followed to have the desired body . At some point, some of these people will decide to stop pretending that they are meeting the goals of their weekly food chart and will return to embracing a life of carbohydrates and junk food with complete honesty.

Others, however, will manage to follow the diet until they discover, months later, that not only has it not worked for them but they have also gained weight. Why does this happen? Traci Mann , from the University of Minnesota, explains part of this mystery in her book Secrets from the Eating Lab: the science of weight loss, the myth of willpower, and why you should never diet again.

It’s not all about meeting tables

The title of the book may seem very strong, but the truth is that Mann does not suggest that it is the same thing to eat. Obviously it’s not the same to follow a diet based on industrial bakery products and pizzas as it is to stick to an eating plan in which legumes , nuts and fruit make up 80% of what you eat. What the psychologist actually suggests is that diets are ineffective on their own, because they do not contemplate psychological strategies for losing weight: they only indicate the raw material to be used.

Actually, this doesn’t sound far-fetched. If we think of diets as a kind of product to be bought and applied directly, we are probably doing the latter wrong, by giving the diet the power to make us lose weight and to obviate everything else. Specifically, we will be overlooking the mechanisms of self-control that we should be using and the absence of which can make us blind to the continual failures to follow good food planning.

Traci Mann says that to understand why diets are not effective, we must first recognize that each person has a different way of assimilating food, and that this is determined in large part by our genetic .

Many people tend to create large layers of fat, and with others the opposite occurs . Thus, the human body does not have a “center” to tend to naturally, because we are all different. When a person tries to lose weight to get closer to that fictitious “center point”, his or her body feels unbalanced and makes efforts to adapt to the new situation.

One of the side effects of this struggle to adapt to a lower calorie diet is stress. The body tries to keep us alert and looking for new sources of calories, which encourages, as you might expect, more trips to the fridge.

Diets take our usual eating habits and subject them to subtraction, but do not contemplate the compensatory exercise our bodies do to counteract with small daily sums such as snacking between meals. In the end it is possible that with the diet we are eating both the foods that this meal plan proposes to us and the occasional snacks that stress generates in us and that we are capable of overlooking or underestimating, without realizing that we only eat so much between meals since we began to impose a certain type of daily menu on ourselves.

It is useless to think about willpower

Another of the ideas of the book is that it is not practical to make one of the fundamental elements in the fulfillment of the diet the force of will . Mann considers that willpower has been mythologized into a kind of agent whose role is to give orders to the rest of the body, as if it had power over it.

However, this idea of “willpower” ceases to be important when we realize that no component of our body is capable of giving orders unilaterally, without receiving pressure from the rest of the organism. In particular, Mann believes that this concept only exists to have something to blame when something doesn’t work. It is something like the hole under the carpet where what we don’t want to explain is hidden.

What to do?

A useful theoretical model to explain our relationship with diet is one that does not depend on such an abstract idea as willpower and that accepts that we must put limits on the attempt to lose weight if we do not want to lose it in health , due to the role played by our genes. Thus, each person should focus on achieving a point of tolerable thinness, but no more.

From there, the point is to control the quality of what you eat, but rather focus on following strategies to avoid falling into an unacceptably high carbohydrate temptation. These strategies can trust almost nothing to willpower, as it will bend to the adaptation mechanisms dictated by genetics.

What Mann proposes is to pursue goals that will indirectly lead us away from tempting caloric intakes.

Some of these strategies are purely psychological , such as substituting thoughts about a cake with others in which appears wholemeal bread or a food with even less carbohydrates. Others, however, are related to materially changing our environment. For example, hiding or throwing away junk food in the house, or making it difficult to access this food. In this way, the desire for carbohydrate food will be overtaken by another trend that is also very human: the laziness of going looking for food. They are all benefits!

Bibliographic references

  • Mann, T. (2015). Secrets from the Eating Lab: the science of weight loss, the myth of willpower, and why you should never diet again. New York: HarperWave.