The question I get asked more than any other, both by friends and strangers, is Could you please stop singing? Rude!
The question I get asked second-most often is How do you eat like that and not get fat?
I’ve been asked the question by friends, by people I’ve just met at dinner parties, by strangers at the next restaurant table.
I’ve also been approached in shopping centres and at sushi counters and on the street and asked what I do to be in such good shape.
If my answer was I’ve always been this way, or I have a fast metabolism, or I’m naturally thin, then that would be no help. It’s the kind of answer that might make an otherwise genial person feel mildly homicidal.
But my answer is none of the above. My answer is longwinded and complicated and has sub-plots and spin-off answers and even the occasional season-finale cliffhanger.
I wrote How To Be Thin in a World of Chocolate in my late forties – that’s how long it took me to work out how to enjoy a sane, happy, non-abusive relationship with food and exercise and also maintain a weight that felt right for my frame.
That’s how long it took me to absorb the behavioural principles I’d studied in my bachelor of psychology. To unearth fascinating books and research papers. To understand the mental masochism and physiological futility of dieting. To experiment with counting calories and points, with exercise classes and cardio machines and weights. To discuss the challenges with my friends, frequently over waffles. To experience success and failure and, over time, to see a very clear pattern.
To find the answer to the question everyone kept asking me.
Food Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
For the vast majority of us, the challenge of losing weight is largely psychological. Superficially it’s basic numbers: calories in versus calories out. You eat less than you use and your weight goes down. Simple. It’s not rocket and feta science.
But we all know the real trouble is not on the plate, it’s between the ears. No, not between the corn cobs on your plate; I’m talking about your brain.
People aren’t struggling with losing weight because they lack information. Wait, binge-watching Netflix under a blankie while eating an extra-cheese pizza every night is NOT how you lose weight? Who knew?
For the most part we know what we should do, but we can’t seem to do it. Even celebrities with the most expensive trainers and personal chefs struggle with their weight. The problem is not what.
The problem is the process.
A Clockwork Jaffa
My interest in the way the mind runs the weight loss show and generally sabotages it like a neural Eve Harrington got sparked during my psych degree. As a typical mature-age student I was diligent and got my assignments in on time and basically annoyed the crap out of the young ones who rolled their eyes and muttered get a life under their breath.
Until the day I nearly failed a straightforward assignment.
The task was to complete a behaviour modification assignment on ourselves: choose a behaviour we wanted to change, devise a reinforcement program to run over a couple of months, monitor, and report. I was eating a lot of chocolate at the time and wanted to lose the few extra kilos I’d gained and lost (okay mostly gained) most of my adult life, so I decided I’d reduce the amount of chocolate I ate. I loved the idea of behaviour modification and in the first few days I threw myself heartily into the project, reading up, designing charts, creating outlines, devising schedules. I’m not going to lie to you – there was significant colour-coding involved.
But then something strange happened. I not only didn’t reduce my chocolate intake, I increased it – alarmingly so. Where previously I might have had one chocolate bar after lunch, I would have two. Or three. For the comfort of everyone involved, I’m just going to stop this paragraph here.
I also found myself tuning out of conversations and instead thinking about chocolate. Unless people happened to be talking about chocolate, which was not uncommon, because I kept bringing the topic up.
Uh sure, yeah I like Snickers, the librarian would answer, side-eyeing the security call button.
And I entered a kind of fugue state about the assignment. I knew at some level the deadline was looming, but I did nothing. If classmates asked how it was going I changed the subject. I watched myself develop this obsession with my smooth dark overlord and I felt only submission.
WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO ME?
Whose Failure Is It Anyway?
Just before the assignment was due my denial fever finally broke and I took myself off to see the subject lecturer and throw myself on her mercy. This was especially hard for me as by then I’d gained several extra kilos and throwing myself anywhere was proving difficult.
I was going to fail. I deserved to fail. Apart from my initial passionate colour-coding I had nothing – no data, no write-up (it’s surprisingly hard to write a paper on NO RESULTS). It was out of character and I was baffled by my own behaviour. I finished the rest of my Mars bar, took a deep breath, and entered her office.
The way this lecturer handled me that day changed my relationship with weight, food, psychology, and chocolate forever.
Instead of failing me, she thought for a moment and then said this: If you can write a compelling psychological explanation for why you’ve failed this assignment, I’ll grade you on that paper. You have one week.
Suppressing Thoughts Of Chocolate
For the next week I did little else but research weird food behaviour and dietary self-sabotage.
I started with everything I could find in peer-reviewed journals.
My favourite paper was called Suppressing Thoughts About Chocolate and suggested that trying not to think about chocolate could make you more likely to have chocolate.
Another found that WWII veterans experienced disordered eating (they binged!) after suffering food restriction as prisoners of war.
Metastudies seemed to confirm that, following a period of dieting, people binged and became preoccupied with food and eating, and even felt more distracted and dissatisfied with life.
Somehow, we have a bio-psychological resistance to dieting, to depriving ourselves. Presumably it’s an evolutionary imperative to stop us starving. No wonder our willpower is a comparative wimp!
In a Carrie Bradshaw moment I couldn’t help but wonder, did the diet and weight-loss industry know about this? Sadly, it seemed they did.
Fascinated, I went beyond the psych literature, scanning medical tomes and confessional memoirs and self-help books, all of which shed more light on the obsessive relationship I had developed with chocolate.
I got into bed one night with a library book on compulsive eating and it disgorged a great cataract of crumbs. I would have enjoyed the irony so much more had I not had to change the sheets and stand over the sink for twenty minutes shaking out the pages.
The research was clear: my chocolate failure made total sense.
But there was something much more shocking: Everybody’s diet failure made sense.
The Dietary Pandora’s Box
I could see that my chocolate infatuation was a symptom of what I think of as the dietary pandora’s box: the act of dietary deprivation can unleash a whole slew of evils – binging, preoccupation with forbidden foods, distraction. This denial-induced longing makes dieting as sado-masochistic as a Fifty Shades storyline, though with less paraphernalia. Probably.
Geneen Roth sums it up with Newtonian perfection when she says the fourth law of the universe is that for every diet there is an equal and opposite binge.
A diet is like a submerged beach ball. Inevitably things get out of hand and someone gets a giant whack in the nose – also known as consuming a entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s.
I synthesised all the research I’d devoured #haha and wrote up my paper in a haze of shock and excitement and yeah maybe some chocolate crumbs. I got a fantastic grade, but I got much more besides.
I got an insight into the weird, counterproductive things dietary restriction does to our brains (and bodies).
I got an understanding of the utter foolishness of expecting the willpower of our puny frontal cortex to outsmart ancient survival mechanisms.
I got a sense of the sheer masochism of blaming ourselves when the failure is located not in us, but in the diets, the denial, the deprivation.
Being My Own Guinea Pig
Over the following years I continued my research and started observing my own behaviour as though I was both scientist and guinea pig (what could be cuter than a small rodent in a white lab coat?). Diet, exercise, mindset – all came under my microscope.
I kept a journal and noted patterns and successes and failures. Little by little, I lost weight. I became fit. I tweaked my diet further. I went off the rails and adjusted. I found my own little system that worked for me, incorporating my love of chocolate and my exercise preferences (my preference was not to exercise, or at least not in that all-out bootcampy way), and getting me to look and feel the way I wanted.
And then I poured a giant glass of red and began writing it all down.
Being Thin In A World Of Chocolate
Today, years later, staying slim is no longer a game of brinkmanship between me and the Tim Tams. We coexist now, respecting each other, knowing that we actually need one another.
I want to be slender, to feel bien dans ma peau, as the French say, to look good in cute outfits.
But I wouldn’t want to be thin in a world without chocolate.
And the thing I now know, the discovery that changed everything, is that doing so would be absolutely impossible anyway.
Photo by Jason Leung