The Good News
If you want to lose some weight, I have some very good news for you – just about any diet will do the trick. That’s right. Pick any diet that restricts your food intake and you’ll likely lose some weight.
It doesn’t matter if you restrict yourself to just kale and cabbage or if you eat just bacon and butter. Reducing calorie consumption will help you shed some extra pounds.
I know because I have tried many diets in the past. And guess what? Every single one worked!
It didn’t matter if I went vegan, counted calories or ate mostly protein. I lost weight. Every. Single. Time.
Now I don’t mean to brag, but I was AMAZING! You could just hand me a food plan and within two or three weeks – boom, ten pounds gone. I was like a weight loss magician. The envy of friends and family.
But, I do feel a bit obligated to mention one little thing. The weight loss may not have lasted very long. Ok, fine. It never lasted more than a couple months. There, I said it. The weight always came back!
And, unfortunately, it always came back and brought extra with it. I’d lose weight, the diet timeframe would end and then I would gain it all back and then some. Every new weight loss attempt started with me at a heavier weight than I was when I had started the previous weight loss attempt.
But enough about me. The good news for you is that if you just want to lose some weight temporarily, just about any diet will do the trick.
However, if you’re one of those weirdos looking for permanent weight loss, then the news isn’t quite so positive. In fact it sucks. In one major study of thousands of men and women, it was determined that the odds of an overweight women attaining a healthy weight was 1 in 124 and 1 in 210 for men. And if like you start out morbidly obese, the odds were 1 in 677 for women and 1 in 1290 for men.
This means that 99% of all weight loss books and programs are about as useless as an Amish lad with a Netflix account. Total waste.
The Secret to Permanent Weight Loss
But there is a secret to permanent weight loss. And the secret is just…wait for it…
That’s right. A switch of just three inches can make the difference between temporary fad diet loses that never last or permanent weight loss results that last a lifetime.
And, “Where are those three inches?” you ask. Your hips? Your waist? Actually, they’re in your brain!
That’s right. Three inches is the approximate distance between the parts of your brain called the prefrontal cortex and the basil ganglia. Your prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to complex thinking and decision making. And your basal ganglia take the lead when it comes to handling your more automatic and instinctual behavior.
When you start a new diet plan or a new way of eating you are engaging your prefrontal cortex. You are taking on new behaviors and doing so requires a good deal of your mental effort and energy.
In his bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to this kind of thinking as “system 2.” This type of thinking is very conscious, logical and calculating. But it is also slower, requiring more effort and it takes a lot of willpower to maintain for longer periods of time.
So if your weight loss plan is to succeed long term it must eventually make a three inch move from your prefrontal cortex to your basal ganglia.
As you learn new behaviors such as driving a car or tying your shoes, these behaviors eventually become automatic. Once automatic, you can execute these behaviors with a fraction of the effort and energy they once required. This is largely thanks to the role of the basal ganglia.
These automatic behaviors or habits are what Kahneman calls “system 1.” In contrast to system 2, system 1 is fast, more unconscious and requires very little energy. If you can shift your new healthy eating behaviors to system 1, then weight loss and weight loss maintenance virtually go on autopilot. And autopilot is the difference between temporary and permanent weight loss results.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of weight loss programs are not designed to make this transition easy or even likely to happen at all. The way they work requires a tremendous amount of system 2 resources (primarily the prefrontal cortex) and a major time commitment before system 1 (primarily the basal ganglia) can start to take over. That is why permanent weight loss is so elusive.
How to Make the Three Inch Shift
So if you’re after permanent weight loss success, what should you be looking for in a permanent weight loss program? What features are going to make it easier to make that three inch switch from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia?
The first thing you should look for is a program that is promotes…
#1: Consistent Behavior
The behavior you need for day one of your permanent weight loss plan should be the same behavior you need to use to maintain your healthy weight five years later. In other words, be skeptical of any program where the weight loss phase is quite different from the maintenance phase.
For example, avoid anything where the weight loss phase is primarily based on substituting food with medication, supplements, shakes or prepackaged food. These programs promote one set of behaviors for the weight loss phase and a different set of behaviors in the maintenance phase. This means that if you do manage to lose all of your excess weight, starting the maintenance phase and adding food back in is the mental equivalent of starting an entirely new program.
Instead, look for a program where the weight loss phase and maintenance phase are virtually identical. The amount of food you eat can be different in these two phases, but the types of food you eat and your new eating behaviors should be virtually the same. This way, by the time you reach your goal weight, your basal ganglia is well on its way to putting these healthy behaviors on autopilot.
#2: A Plate Template
Next, look for a program with what I call a “plate template.” If you can tell me what your plate of food will generally look like at dinner four weeks from today, then that program has a plate template. I don’t mean you know exactly what you’ll be eating, but you should have a general description.
For example, a program with a good plate template would allow you to say something like, “My plate will be half full of vegetables, a quarter full of a lean protein and a quarter full of a whole grain or potato.” Or you might say, “l’ll be having six ounces of protein, twelve ounces of veggies, four ounces of a whole grain and six ounces of fruit.” In other words, you have a mental template of what you’ll be eating at every meal.
However, you fail the plate template test if your answer is something like this:
“Well, I’m keeping my calories to under 1,400 a day so it will depend on what I’ve had for breakfast and lunch already that day. It will also depend on what we’re having for dinner. If we’re having lasagna, which is my favorite, then I’ll just have a bigger piece of lasagna and maybe a small salad because I won’t want to use my calories on other foods if I can spend more of them on the lasagna.”
The first scenario is perfect basal ganglia material. It is simple and will be much easier to put on autopilot. The second scenario – not so much. It involves making lots of daily decisions, looking up calorie counts and doing lots of math. This is major prefrontal cortex work. It could eventually make the three inch move to the basal ganglia (most anything can), but it could take years.
#3: Clear Rules
The third thing to look for in a permanent weight loss program is a clear set of rules or boundaries. You don’t need a lot of them, but they do need to be very clear. A good rule leaves no doubt as to when it is followed and when it is broken.
For example, “I will cut back on my sugar consumption” is not a clear rule. It lends itself to an internal debate every day which requires your prefrontal cortex. But, “I will never drink any beverage with added sugar” is a clear rule. No internal debate or wiggle room. A perfect task for the basal ganglia.
Clear rules have two other advantages according to James Clear, bestselling author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. First, they provide empowerment by helping you create a new identity. For example, I am someone who doesn’t drink sugary beverages. This speaks to who I am and not just what I’m going to do in this particular situation.
Second, clear rules will help you conserve willpower. There is no deep analysis your prefrontal cortex needs to do to determine if you are going to have a sugary drink with your meal. Your basal ganglia already knows that you are not someone who drinks that stuff.
(For more information, on the power of clear rules in helping you establish health habits, see James Clear’s blog post, How to Declutter Your Mind and Unleash Your Willpower by Using Bright-Line Rules.)
#4: Minimal Willpower
Number four is to use a program that minimizes willpower. If your permanent weight loss program meets the first three criteria above, then you’re half way there. However, the best programs will help you further minimize your reliance on willpower as much as possible.
In other words, your program should provide way more than a meal plan. It should teach lots of other strategies to help you conserve willpower for when you need it most. It should give you advice on how to break bad habits, how to avoid tempting food triggers and how to replenish your willpower reserves.
For example, the program I used to lose 150 pounds actually had me avoid exercise during the weight loss phase. It did so because trying to add a brand new exercise routine on top of my new eating routines would only drain more willpower. (And not to mention, exercise has minimal benefits when it comes to weight loss. I explain why here: Stop Exercising to Lose Weight.)
Unfortunately, most weight loss programs seem to be designed by fitness experts who have never struggled with their weight. Maintaining a healthy weight comes easy to them and they need minimal willpower to complete their daily diet and exercise routine. As a result, their programs focus more on giving nutritional information and little advice related to the psychology of weight loss. But if nutritional knowledge was all it took, we’d all be skinny by now.
Permanent Weight Loss: It Can Be Done
So, if you’re tired of the temporary weight loss cycle and you want something that will finally provide permanent results, there is something you can do: use a program that helps you make the three inch move from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia. By taking this simple and highly effect step you will be setting yourself up for more permanent weight loss results.
For more information on the program that I used to lose all of my weight, check out my blog post, How I Lost Over 100 Pounds in Just Six Months Using Only Four Rules. For the first time in my life I am not concerned about regaining any weight. I am now down over 150 lbs and the freedom which has resulted has been lifechanging,