Unofficially, summer is here, the season that is one of the hardest on us from a dieting standpoint. It’s a time when many of us hang out in the sun, grill out with friends and family, share some drinks, and do everything that seems to fly in the face of dieting and getting in shape on a near-daily basis.
Getting up at the crack of dawn, getting a workout in, and eating meals you prepped is hard enough. But in the face of grilling burgers and throwing back a few beers, well that sounds more fun. But it’s not just the fun that makes dieting a challenge — it’s our brains and the way our brains influence our behavior in all the ways we don’t want. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, for most of us, we can diet and get in great shape even in the most difficult times of the year if we recognize and face the challenges that are in front of us – not just the social challenges, but the challenges that we present to ourselves.
Here are the four most common ways your brain tricks you into going off track on your diet and how you can fight back:
1. NARRATIVE BIAS
We all have the wonderful idea that we’re rational beings capable of objective, logical thoughts. In reality, though, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives makes doing this nearly impossible.
We justify everything in our lives with how it fits into our stories. There isn’t a better example of this than the excuses we give for why we fail our fitness goals. Our entire lives are centered on the narrative. Narratives are the vehicles we use to make sense of complex situations and we start weaving our own stories from the day we’re born. Events like getting married and having kids are all things that get woven into our stories. The same goes for things like fitness goals and diets. Our attempts at those become chapters in our stories.
The dangerous part is when these chapters start justifying our failures. We all know someone who has failed at his or her diet and justified it with excuses like, “I was just too busy to cook all the time,” or, “Work got crazy. I didn’t have a chance to get to the gym like I needed to.”
The funny thing is, to them, and perhaps to many of us, these are perfectly valid excuses that we may have used ourselves. It fits within the context of their own personal narratives. To you though, this is a cop-out. You see straight through the attempt to justify their failures. You might have even talked to your other friends about how they gave up on their diets when they instead could have just quit watching so much “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and started prepping more of their own meals. Everyone except us can see through our narratives. All of our failures are easily justified because we can’t view them objectively.
The fix: One of the best tools I’ve noticed with clients who battle and conquer this bias is simply keeping a journal. It could be a training journal, food journal or journal of daily life. It could be all three! The point is when the results you want aren’t there and you can’t objectively look back and see what has happened, altering your personal narrative becomes easier. You can’t look back and ignore all the skipped training sessions and the constant meals out if they’re in your journal. Ahem – this is why we ask you to log your tracking sheet daily, honestly. Additionally, this is where a coach becomes invaluable. A coach not only helps you sift through the past, but a coach helps point out where our actions may not be in line with our stated goals and then can help guide us back towards the right path.
2. COMMON BELIEF FALLACY
For a large part of human history, we didn’t have access to near as much information about the human body as we do today. A great example is that during the time of Shakespeare, the commonly held belief behind the reason that people got sick wasn’t because of a virus, pathogen, or something similar. Instead, most everyone believed that all sickness and health came from the interaction of a few things: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Everything that ever went wrong with our physical health came from the interaction of those four fluids, or humors, as they were known in Ancient Greece. This was a belief held by both the working class, farmers, and physicians alike, and it functions as a great example of the common belief fallacy.
Common belief fallacy basically means the more people say something, the more likely we are to believe it is true. Common belief fallacy is responsible for nearly every widely-held myth in history.
The world of health and fitness is rife with examples of misinformation and common belief fallacy. A few examples include: lifting weights makes women bulky; carbs are bad, artificial sweeteners ruin your insides, cardio is best for weight loss, and the body goes into starvation mode.
Part of the reason for this is that the barrier of entry in the health and fitness world is lower than ever before. Anyone can start up a blog, but the more readers a blog gets, the more people share the information from that blog. The more people who share that information, the more people view it as an authority. This discounts how wrong the information on a widely-read blog can still be.
Another big reason is that extremes are what sell in the health and fitness world. Moderation, balance and tracking aren’t sexy, no matter how time-tested and proven they are.
Instead, 17-day diets, cleanses, detoxes and other fads are what populate the best-selling lists.
The fix: There is no greater tool for battling the common belief fallacy than the scientific method. Does that mean you need to be out in a white lab coat testing different hypotheses? Not quite.
It does mean that a healthy dose of questioning, even from the sources you love and trust won’t hurt anything. When someone comes to you with a hot new idea, diet, or strategy, be willing to listen but also be willing to be skeptical when it starts sounding too good to be true. Understand that life isn’t about actually being right or wrong all the time, but finding a path that works for you. It just so happens that finding that path takes a willingness to try quite a few different paths.
3. EGO DEPLETION
Confession: When I first started coaching people, I thought those who failed at their diets “just didn’t want it,” badly enough and lacked willpower. I thought those who succeeded had more willpower and they clearly just “wanted it” more. I know I’m not alone in this assumption.
People lament their failures and blame themselves for their lack of willpower every single day. This could be because they failed on their diet or skipped the gym, but what very few people recognized for a long time, until recently, is that willpower isn’t an unlimited tank we can pull from forever.
Willpower is constantly drained throughout the day. Tiny decisions we have to make every single day require willpower and contribute to what scientists call ego depletion. Ego depletion is why people who wake up excited to succeed on their diets in the morning often wind up being the same people who eat an entire pizza that night. Aside from the fact that pizza is delicious, willpower whittles away throughout the entire day so much that resisting the temptation of pizza is infinitely more difficult at night than in the morning.
The fix: The easiest way to get a handle on ego depletion and salvage your willpower is to automate your decisions via habits. Habits require very minimal energy from your brain, so the better your habits, the more willpower you’ll have left over in the evening. Don’t expect habits to come overnight, and don’t try to make them too large in the beginning. The smaller the habit changes are, the better. This could be as simple as using a lemon or lime wedge to flavor your water instead of soda, just to get more H20 in your system. It could be prepping your meals so you’ve got food on hand for the day.
4. THE BACKFIRE EFFECT
Currently, one of the most popular trends on the Internet is making fun of the Flat Earth Society — people who believe the Earth is flat. Naturally, because it’s the Internet, people come out of the woodwork to point and laugh at how anyone could ever believe something so crazy.
Does this make a Flat-Earther change their mind though? Of course not. This is the backfire effect in action. We like to believe we consider altering our views after we’re confronted with facts that debunk them because that’s what smart people do.
But, what really happens is when something challenges our beliefs, we don’t change them, no matter how strong the facts are. Instead, our beliefs just get stronger. This is what is known as the backfire effect. And it’s this backfire effect that can lead some of us to spend far too much time trying diets that don’t actually serve us for any other reason than they help protect our beliefs.
The backfire effect is part of the reason why science has such a tough time of penetrating mainstream diet advice. Most of us so firmly rooted in their beliefs that even if relevant research comes out that challenges our beliefs, we’ll work hard to find various ways to poke holes in what science is saying.
If you’ve been on Stronger U, you might be familiar with this. Maybe you showed up at a party and saw some friends after you’d gone through a transformation. People started asking questions about how you did it, what you ate, and how it went for you. Then when you start talking about moderation, counting, prepping, and planning, things might start to change. People might spend countless hours trying to convince you why that doesn’t work and why you should go for a cleanse. Or why you shouldn’t drink diet sodas. And more. At this point, you’ve got an option: you can choose to engage and tell them why their beliefs are wrong or you can calmly hear them out and keep on moving further along your journey in a way that works for you. I think we all know the most sensible option here. What’s more, thanks to the backfire effect, the most sensible option might actually be the one that helps them out the most.
The fix: Be willing to engage, but don’t view engaging as an argument that has to be won. If you’re talking with someone that has deeply held beliefs around food, the shape of the Earth, or something else, hear them out, no matter how crazy they sound to you. Treat them like a human being, because that’s what they are. Restate their position as calmly and logically as you can. Recognize that it’s typically not our jobs to change someone’s mind. That’s their journey and their viewpoint. Instead of trying to drag them along towards your point of view, lead by your own example. Show them what you can accomplish with your views, how your views allow you to live the life you want, and create space for them to have a conversation with you about your views when they’re ready. Because if you give them enough time, space, and compassion, that will typically happen.
Getting in shape and dieting is hard enough. It requires doing things like getting sweaty, eating vegetables and drinking water instead of wine. Don’t make it any harder on yourself by letting your brain get in the way. Plan for the future and recognize that when we allow ourselves, we’ll find shortcuts and ways to sabotage our behavior wherever we can. It’s in recognizing those deeper truths about human behavior that we can also start to recognize the importance of finding strategies that help us stay on track. Those strategies might be journaling or working with a coach. They might be having conversations with people who disagree with you. Or they might be some combination of all of the above. The strategies themselves aren’t important. What is important is that we stay open-minded, honest with ourselves, curious, and patient.