Can’t resist those Krispy Kremes in the break room? Don’t blame your lack of self-control. Good old-fashioned willpower doesn’t work, according to the book The Instinct Diet by Susan Roberts, PhD, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University. Instead, what we eat is governed by five instincts developed by evolution and survival. Though her ideas seem controversial, Roberts’ research at Tufts got big results: 85% of dieters lost 10 to 50 pounds, and 90% of those dieters kept the weight off for at least a year. Here, Roberts breaks down her theories and suggests easy ways to make them work for you.
Willpower is useless
The science: Food instincts are controlled mostly out of the unconscious parts of our brain. They are similar to breathing in many ways—so important to our long-term safety that they are largely unconscious processes. Willpower is fairly useless when it comes to our food instincts, because it is the conscious control of conscious processes. Willpower doesn’t speak to the unconscious processes at all! I think most psychologists have it backward, really, and their attempts to get people to be tougher and put up with more hardship are attacking weight problems from the wrong end.
The strategy: To confront weight problems from a different direction, use willpower to make conscious decisions. For example, you can decide whether to eat out or stay in, but after you have eaten the first piece of bread from the restaurant breadbasket, your instincts take over and make you eat several pieces until you are satisfied.
If you want to change how and what you eat, you have to control the signals to your brain
The science: Many weight-loss strategies are designed to control food instincts after they have been activated (such as eating your chips mindfully after they have already set off dopamine-addiction chemicals). What we need to do for long-term success is reduce the need for willpower by avoiding activating our instincts in the wrong way in the first place.
The strategy: Start by becoming familiar with your five basic instincts regarding food. Here’s a quick rundown:
- The Hunger Instinct: We need to feel full.
- The Availability Instinct: If food’s there, we’re going to eat it.
- The Calorie-Density Instinct: The more calories a food has, the more we like it.
- The Familiarity Instinct: We’re driven to eat foods we already know, and we’re driven to eat similar foods in familiar emotional situations.
- The Variety Instinct: The more choices we have, the more we eat.
Next: Outsmart your instincts