Real Talk: Why Is Weight Loss So Hard?
Whether it’s by email or when I tell a new acquaintance I created a health-coaching model in graduate school that focuses on why people don’t “make the healthy choices they know they should,” I usually hear some version of this question:
“Why do I lack the discipline to say no to the innumerable choices before me that aren’t good for my body? I have 3 kids who are constantly at parties, events, etc. where there are so many temptations. Life also regularly gets in the way and it’s those times that become hard to deal with too. How can I handle these food temptations?”
It’s a brilliant question.
This challenge falls into the same category as the questions I hear daily:
Why can’t food just be easy?
Why does my weight weigh me down so much — and cause me to eat!?
Most nutrition experts and health coaches approach these challenges as technical challenges.
A technical challenge is where education — learning more — can solve your problem. There’s a known solution and you just need to learn the answer.
Technical weight loss solutions look like:
Educate you on how bad sugar is for your body. “If you just knew how bad sugar was for you, you’d give it up!”.
This is why there’s 10,000 books on giving up sugar that all say the same thing. Often by the same expert, but with a different title!
Food plans that provide low-carb, “guilt-free” brownies and cauliflower pizza crust recipes. Learn and stay-in your points or the low-carb system and you’ll succeed.
The non-diet movement teaches that you fight food in reaction to hating your body. So you need to start learning to love your body. These coaches usually provide lessons on visualization techniques or self-care tips like, “call a friend” before you secretly grab tons of bad food at a convenience store.
With technical challenges, there’s a known solution and Google can be your guru.
I googled, “stop eating tempting foods” and got 17,700 results in under a second.
Reader’s Digest suggests “unwrapping your lover first” when they surprise you with a big box of chocolates. Now, if you happen to be at a kid’s birthday party that would be awkward.
These types of suggestions and answers are extremely helpful if this is your first, second or third nutrition rodeo and you just need to learn more.
However, if you’ve tried all the diets and body love tips, and are still struggling…
… then you have what’s considered an adaptive challenge.
Weight loss as an adaptive challenge
Adaptive challenges answer, “But how?”
- How do I not eat bad foods despite knowing they’re taking years off my life and adding to my waistline?
- How do I not rebel against the very program I willingly paid for yet now makes me want to eat even more?
- How do I actually call my friend and not buy the large peanut M&Ms and eat them in my car?
The answer to “but how” is that adaptive challenges ask you to change.
It’s about discovering how to become the person who doesn’t care about tempting foods. It’s a change from inside.
This is different than asking you to change your habits like, “don’t go to a party hungry” or “use the Emotional Freedom Technique when you have a craving.” These are “topical” or external, technical solutions.
It’s a subtle, yet profound difference.
Because when you become the person who doesn’t care about tempting foods, you don’t need coping mechanisms that drain your energy or have plans to rebel against.
Ronald Heifetz, the founder of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership and a leading thinker on how change occurs, explains that
the biggest mistake when trying to change is to try and solve adaptive challenges with technical solutions.
The reason you haven’t solved this “food thing” is because you can’t learn more about nutrition or body love to solve it. Yet this is what 99% of nutrition and health coaching programs that I’ve seen do.
Which is also why it took studying coaching and adult development in graduate school to create a better, adaptive approach. This is why clients find how I coach so different from the very beginning or remark, “this is what I needed but didn’t have the language for.”
You see, adaptive challenges are difficult to understand on the surface. In other words, “why is food so tempting?” isn’t the best question.
The best question is “why am I someone who finds food so tempting?”
And guess what? No one can tell you that. And if they claim they can, they don’t understand this is an adaptive challenge.
The emphasis is on you versus the tempting food.
It’s why clients like Britney report it being a “paradigm shift to finding freedom with myself” or Abby who said, “After decades of dieting, Truce with Food was the biggest insight and change into my eating issues. I now know myself so much better.”
The answers to adaptive challenges have to be discovered. Other examples of adaptive challenges are starting a business or reducing Big Pharma’s influence on the U.S. medical system.
There’s lots of answers and more questions as you work through to the solution.
For food to be easy, it’s not about discipline or willpower. Rather, you have to want to know the truth to these two questions:
What foods work best for my body (so cravings disappear) and
What’s underneath my bad eating that makes me sabotage feeling good?
Adaptive challenges involve changing who you are. To be successful, you need a radically different approach than just learning more.
Adaptive challenges require trying new behaviors, experimenting and being open to new discoveries. It’s an unfolding process that requires curiosity and courage.
Many people believe they’re already experimenting. With things like Whole30. Or going sugar-free.
But these experiments often don’t change how you really understand who you have to be to not be tempted by food. In fact, they often reinforce them by staying in a technical mode where you’re the student.
In an adaptive approach, the “student” is also the “teacher” in that they have the answer. They’re usually just not aware of that, yet. I engage clients in a series of meal experiments so they can trust their bodies have the answer of which foods work best for them.
For example, one experiment is where I have them eat three different breakfasts, one Vegetarian/Vegan, one Mediterranean and one Paleo. They next pay attention to how they feel for the next couple of hours in terms of hunger, cravings, energy and moods. This helps them see where their body lies on the diet (noun) spectrum. You can try this yourself or you can receive the exact ready-made, breakfast experiment I give to clients.
It’s always fun, especially when we do this in groups, for them to see how varied the responses are from person to person. And as they feel better with the breakfast, then lunch an dinner that works best, they also learn to trust their bodies want to feel great, rather than food and health being a battle.
Critical to adaptive challenges are having a process that will keep you inspired (clients report a bumpy ride on the emotional side of these experiments!). For adults to stick with the change process, they need relatively quick results. These experiments allow my clients to connect what they eat with how easy or difficult their day will go. Healthy eating becomes a source of calm, grounded and powerful energy and focus rather than a tool to shame and diminish their own authority.
An adaptive approach to weight loss and nutrition is sustainable because when you change how you relate to food, you eventually don’t need tips or tricks. You can unwrap your lover if you want. Either way, you’re no longer the person tempted by food.
Food becomes simpler. Life becomes easier. The grip around “having to lose weight” loosens as you start to feel better and more confident about yourself from working through the process.
And it’s why clients are surprised that the changes in their lives are so broad. Their marriages improve without thinking anything was wrong. Their house is cleaner. They stop shopping as much.
But, you have to want to know about what’s true about what’s underneath your bad eating. And you have to be willing to experiment.
You might be surprised when you find out what’s true for you. Delightfully so.
The first step to being someone who isn’t tempted by food is to figure out what diet (noun, not verb) works best for weight loss. For you. Begin to understand what diet is best for you.