Mind Over [Body] Matter: 4 Ways The Brain Tries To Sabotage Your Diet
Summer will be here before we know it. If you haven't started yet, you're probably feeling the pressure to start working out, eating better and acting like you generally have your sh*t together.
Getting up at the crack of dawn, getting a workout in and eating meals you prepped is hard enough because, well, ordering a pizza and washing it down with a bottle of wine or a few beers is obviously easier.
When you factor in the many ways your brain tries to sabotage your fitness efforts, it seems downright impossible.
Here are the four most common ways your brain tricks you into failure 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. We begin weaving our own stories from the day we're born until the day we die.
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, these are perfectly valid excuses. 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.”
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 this 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.
2. Common belief fallacy
The Church of Scientology claims to have 50,000 members. That's 50,000 people who actively subscribe to the idea that aliens fell into volcanoes from space.
Just because thousands of people find that to be true doesn't make it any more likely to be factual. We know this for things like Scientology, but not when it comes to fitness or nutrition myths.
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; fat is bad; artificial sweeteners give you cancer; cardio is best for weight loss.
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 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 taking time 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 and provide excellent examples of common belief fallacy.
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.
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 had a lack of 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 we only have a finite amount of willpower.
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 binge on 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 habits change the better.
This could be as simple as using a zero-calorie flavoring in your water instead of soda, just to get more H20 in your system.
4. The backfire effect
Everyone knows a crazy vegan who is convinced that too much protein or animal products are responsible for cancer, even if the vegan bible, The China Study, has been thoroughly debunked.
Does this make a vegan change his or her opinion 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.
The backfire effect is part of the reason why science has such a tough time of penetrating mainstream diet advice.
Most people are so firmly rooted in their beliefs that even if science comes out saying the paleo diet isn't perfect or vegans need more protein and vitamin D, those who believe otherwise don't immediately change course. Instead, they dig into their beliefs anymore.
The fix: We all think we know just as much, if not more, about the opposing side's point of view than they do.
The Low-Carb Truthers know that people who say carbs aren't killing us just haven't learned yet, and the vegans know that we'll all come around someday.
It's fine to disagree with people — doing so is just human nature. But, it isn't okay to not consider alternate points of view at all.
One of the simplest ways to break down the backfire effect is to simply explain the opposing points of view argument, without the help of Google.
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.
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