To Lose Weight, Stop Trying
A Princeton neuroscientist says he lost 50 pounds in a few months. His technique? Expending no effort whatsoever.
Aeon has an intriguing new essay by Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton with an interesting personal weight loss story. Suspecting that hunger was a psychological state, rather than a physiological one, Graziano set out to see if he could manipulate it. For a year he ate the same foods every day, periodically making small regime adjustments and carefully tracking their effects on his "hunger mood."
Three things made him hungry. The first two, eating excessive carbohydrates and restricting fat, will surprise no one who follows nutrition science. This has been standard American dietary advice for many years, and you'd be hard pressed to find an expert who thinks it hasn't contributed to our portly national condition. That's why today's presumably enlightened health mantras direct us to avoid "refined carbs" and seek out "healthy fats."
But Graziano found a third factor, a counterintuitive one, that would reliably prompt him to eat more: trying to eat less. "Skip breakfast, cut calories at lunch, eat a small dinner, be constantly mindful of the calorie count, and you poke the hunger tiger," he writes. The reason, he says, is that our common-sense notion of willpower is flawed. Hunger is a powerful autonomic drive that runs in the background of our brains. We can influence it indirectly, but actively trying to eat less is a bit like trying to will down your blood pressure. "The more you try to micromanage your automatic hunger control mechanism, the more you mess with its dynamics," he says.
With his admittedly unscientific findings in hand, Graziano reduced his carb intake (not nearly to zero), ate "a little higher fat" and told himself to consume as much as he wanted at each meal. He began losing two pounds a week.
"Our society is impressed by hard work," he writes. "Think of those people exercising maniacally on that TV show The Biggest Loser. We expect progress to be punishing, and we admire the people who push themselves to super-human limits. Another psychological trap, I guess. None of that self-flagellation turned out to be necessary. I had to reconcile myself to what felt like a lazy method. There is really no effort in an all-I-want diet full of moderately fat comfort food. I simply sat back and watched my brainstem do its thing."