If you’ve been struggling with weight your entire life, you’ll be happy to know that sticking with a plan of eating can actually be as easy as brushing your teeth. Really.
It might sound strange, but slimming down triumphantly isn’t about how much willpower you have, but how automated you make your food choices, explains Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson, New York Times best-selling author and founder of Bright Line Eating.
Think of how second nature the practice of brushing your teeth is. According to Dr. Thompson, 95% of people brush their teeth each and every day without fail—even when facing illnesses, crazy schedules and unexpected family crises.
“You’re executing that behavior not as a matter of choice, but a matter of habit,” she says. Here lies the strategy that Bright Line Eating uses to get its participants to lose weight at a mind-bogglingly successful rate—taking willpower out of the equation.
“The first thing you must realize is that pretty much all diets out there rely on willpower,” Dr. Thompson explains. “They don’t mean to, but they give you a plan and leave the long-term execution in your hands, expecting that your willpower is just going to show up for you. Unfortunately, the brain just doesn’t work that way.”
The seat of willpower in your brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, also governs all kinds of other decision-making, like choosing which email to read first or what route to take to work. Emotional regulation is controlled here as well, like dealing with unruly kids or sitting in frustrating traffic.
“The upshot is it gets depleted really, really quickly by all these different types of tasks,” Dr. Thompson says, adding that some research has shown that after just 15 minutes of use, it’s basically shot.
It’s unsurprising then, with the average person making around 221 food decisions per day, that despite best intentions, you may find yourself falling into the Willpower Gap.
“[The Willpower Gap] is the space between our ideal state of how we’d like to be eating and working out, and the choices that we’re actually making day in and day out,” Dr. Thompson says. We may start the day intending to have a salad for lunch, but by the time we get out of a frustrating morning meeting, pizza is sounding better. And the part of the brain toggling back and forth between salad and pizza is one that is easily hijacked by cravings and rationalizations.
But back to the tooth brushing example: activities that are second nature get initiated by a completely different part of the brain—the basal ganglia.
“We think of our entire system [at Bright Line Eating] through the lens of automaticity,” Dr. Thompson explains. “The system itself is designed to be executed with as little conscious effort as tooth brushing. As you do it for a few months, you one day realize, ‘Wow, I’m eating the right thing every day, day in and day out, without thinking about it.’”
The road to automaticity
So how exactly does Bright Line Eating do that? In addition to drawing a Bright Line, or clear boundary, against eating sugar or flour, which takes food addiction out of the mix, the program has several key strategies for creating automaticity.
First, the program tells participants to eat three meals a day with nothing in between—no exceptions. This eliminates the number of meals that you need to prepare and plan for, makes each meal routine hard-wired in your brain, and helps you to refuse mindless grazing throughout the day.
“Saying ‘no, thank you’ between meals becomes habit, too,” Dr. Thompson says.
Next, Dr. Thompson recommends nixing exercise until your eating habits become second nature (about the three- or four-month mark).
“Exercise is good for you,” she says. “But because you’re already changing your eating habits, adding workouts into the mix at the same time is just too much to handle. You’re using up your willpower at the gym, leaving you vulnerable to poor food choices later in the day. In fact, our research has shown that people who insist on continuing to exercise in the first months of Bright Line Eating actually lose the least amount of weight.”
Third, you’ll need a clear plan for each and every day, down to whether you’ll be having an apple or an orange with your lunch. “When you leave the house you need to know exactly what you’re eating that day,” Dr. Thompson says. And you will, because you’ve physically written it down in a small book you keep by the fridge, to take any last-minute decision-making out of the picture.
By making food choices automatic, the Bright Line Eating Boot Camp program is 55 times more successful at getting an obese person into a right-sized body within one year than any other approach, Dr. Thompson’s research shows. (To compare, the probability of an obese person getting down to his or her goal weight is typically less than 1% otherwise, according to research.)
How to strengthen resolve in the moment
So what do you do when you’re on the path to automaticity, but feel your resolve weakening? Bright Line Eating has answers for that, too.
Program participants craft their own Emergency Action Plan, which comes into play when you’re trying to replenish willpower in the moment. “Social connection is your #1 bet,” Dr. Thompson says, adding that you can shoot over a text message to a close pal or reach out to other members of the Bright Line Eating Boot Camp. Second, research has shown the benefits on willpower of looking to prayer or meditation, if it fits with your beliefs, to touch base with what your goals are.
Another strategy that can shift your focus is thinking about a few things you’re thankful for. “When you turn your heart to gratitude it shifts the equation,” Dr. Thompson says. “From what you want to what you already have.” You can also try to see where you can be of service—is there someone you can pay a compliment to, or can you help clear dishes at the party?
And finally, go into social situations focused on relating to others, not the food that’s being served. “Go into the party thinking about human connection, and suddenly opportunities open up before you,” she says.
The bottom line? By taking the burden off willpower, you can make healthy eating a force of habit and stick to it long term.
“Willpower is not going to show up for you when it comes to food,” Dr. Thompson says. “You have to develop habits instead.”
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