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Are you controlling your diet, or is your diet controlling you?

Posted on | Last updated 22-05-2017

Today I want to talk about an issue which I find a huge amount of overweight, repeat-failed dieters face, and that is the issue of learned helplessness. This subject more or less centres around one question – are you in charge of your own destiny?

Now I’m not talking about free will here, which is a debate all of it’s own and one I’m happy to have if you find me and buy me a beer. No, this is a far more tangible and actually answerable one, if we just consider the following hypothetical situation:

You really, really, really want to go and see a globally successful band live in your local city, and the tickets are going on sale tomorrow morning. They go on sale at 6:00am and you know that at best you’re going to have 2 minutes to get online and add a ticket to the basket before they all sell out.

You wake up, your alarm clock is blaring and it’s 6:00. The alarm has been going for 5 straight minutes without you noticing and now you’re going to be late! You open your laptop but it takes a good 90 seconds to boot up, then it takes a little while for the internet to load up. By the time you manage to head to the site at 6:04 they’re gone. Sold out. No tickets for you.

Who’s fault is that?

Now because this isn’t an emotionally fuelled, real-world scenario that’s a pretty easy question to answer but if you imagine what would really happen – looking across a group of people you would see a huge number of different responses. Some will blame the other people for buying the tickets so quickly, some will blame the universe for making it so hard to get tickets, some will blame their internet browser or laptop for being slow. It could be the band for doing such a limited tour or it could be the Alarm clock for not being loud enough. This group basically blame someone else.

But then another group will realise that they could have set an extra alarm. They could have set their alarm to go off earlier. They could have gone to sleep before 2am so that they can actually wake up, or maybe they could have drunk a ton of water before bed, meaning they would have been woken up in the early hours anyway.

There are a bunch of differences between groups one and two, from inbuilt personality traits and their home environment and upbringing to their past history with buying tickets and legitimacy of alarm-clock or internet-based complaints but all of this is summed up by what is referred to in Social Cognitive Therapy as your Locus of Control, a theory first put forward by Julian B Rotter in the 50’s. The theory goes like this:

Those with an internal locus of control believe that they are in charge of their own actions and their own fate. If life goes really well then they worked for it and if something does badly then they could have done it differently.
An external locus of control is a belief system held by those who attribute good fortune to luck and bad fortune to the evils of the universe, in some manner or other.

If you get a parking ticket, did you park in the wrong place or was the warden a jobsworth?

If you’re interested in taking the short test to find out where you sit on the spectrum, hit this link:

(well, hit it after finishing up here anyway)

Why does this matter?

Now this sounds like a minor difference in your worldview and an almost meaningless foray into intellectual masturbation but it actually has profound predictive effects. An internal locus of control is correlated with job satisfaction and performance and an ability to deal better with stressful situations. Considering that stress is endemic in the modern world and the fact that you probably spend upwards of 1/3 of your adult life at work, this is pretty important…but to bring things to a far more relevant topic to the readers of this blog, an internal locus of control is associated with greater success in weight loss interventions.

This makes perfect sense when you think about it. If someone feels that they are in complete control over their actions and therefore their fate, then they are way more likely to live a life that promotes good health – and this is reflected in the literature where we see those with an internal locus of control are more likely to engage in a number of health-promoting activities such as smoking avoidance, healthy eating and wearing a seatbelt.

If someone with this mentality attempts weight loss and succeeds they will realise they are winning, and if they don’t succeed they will shoulder the blame – knowing they can do better next time. If, however, someone believes that they are not completely in control and that other people or the universe has it in for them, then the chances are that they will become easily demotivated when their weight doesn’t drop for the second week running is incredibly high.

Nature or nurture?

It’s difficult to know whether your locus of control is inherited genetically or developed during your lifetime, though if it’s anything like just about every other fact about you from the amount of earwax you produce to the amount of disgusting you find that reference, it’s a little bit of both. After all, while it’s easy to say that those who have an external locus of control are more likely to develop depression because the world is against them, is it not just as likely that those who suffer with depression are more likely to think that the world is against them and therefore end up with an external locus of control?

The reason I wanted to talk about this today, though, was in the context of a yo-yo dieter. You may know this person, may be coaching them or may in fact be them, it doesn’t matter – consider any yoyo dieter who looks to give it ‘one more try’. As we have seen, one factor with a strong predictive power over dietary success is the locus of control that a given person thinks they have and it’s my assertion today that a disproportionate amount of perpetual dieters will have an external locus of control which will undermine their efforts over time. At the same time I’ll give some practical tips which might be able to remedy the situation.

In sum I believe that many yo-yo dieters, if they succeed in weight loss will blame luck and if they don’t they will just assume that it’s the way it is, the way it always was and the way it always will be.

Why is this true for people who continually go up and down in weight? Because real-world results can influence your locus of control and someone who has failed multiple times before is very likely to stop trying to succeed, even if they are still suffering – this is known as learned helplessness as defined by Seligman in 1967. Seligman had a hypothesis around dogs used in experiments. In many trials dogs were given electric shocks to act as negative reinforcement around a given behaviour but after a time they became useless in experimentation. Why? Because they stopped trying to avoid being shocked.

The prevailing theory from behaviourists was that the dogs had simply become accustomed to shocks but Seligman believed that they had in fact resigned themselves to their fate – they didn’t try to escape the shocks because they didn’t think it was worth the effort to try. The resulting experiment he did is probably one of the most famous in psychology. It went like this:

He took three groups of dogs, one control group, one in charge of their fate and one not in charge of their fate. The first dog group were harnessed up but nothing else happened. The second and third were both harnessed up and given a periodical, painful electric shock. The second group of dogs also had access to a lever which allowed them to turn the shocks off as soon as they worked out what it did.

This meant that for both experimental conditions there were intermittent shocks which stopped periodically but it was only the dog in group 2 which had control over this. As far as the dogs in group 3 were concerned, the shocks happened at random and they were powerless to do anything about it.

In the next phase of the experiment the dogs were placed in a cage with a small wall in the middle. They were shocked through the floor of the cage until they realised they could leap the wall and escape to safety – but group three never learned. They simply lay down and whimpered until the shocks stopped, because they had ‘learned’ that they were powerless to avoid the pain.

So what, right? You’re not a dog. No, but you’d be amazed at how many of our conscious drivers have been preserved through evolution. A similar experiment to this was performed by Hiroto and Seligman where they placed human subjects in a room with a loud, irritating noise and told them that solving a puzzle would make the noise stop. The problem is that one group’s puzzle was impossible to solve – they had no control. When these subjects were later given other puzzles to solve, the group who were able to turn off the noise in the initial experiment did just as well as fresh participants who had not done the prior stage, whereas those not in control did demonstrably worse and gave up faster.

What does this have to do with dieting?

So let’s look at this from the point of view of someone who has struggled to lose weight and keep it off for a long time. To compound this let’s say they are one of the unfortunate people who have what I call the holy trinity of crap weight maintenance situations:

  • They live a stressful life with little free time, but work a sedentary job meaning that both daily activity and leisure time which could be devoted to exercise are minimal
  • They are genetically predisposed to seek out hyperpalatable foods more than other people
  • They fall within a low socioeconomic bracket relative to the wider society which surrounds them

In short, this is a person against whom the odds are stacked anyway and of course a person who has any number of external factors which are genuinely at least partially to blame. This is a person who has a good case that it’s not their fault.

So they fail a diet, try again, fail, try again and fail again. This means that they have experienced a negative response over which they believe they have no control, which then leads to a greater sense of being out of control, which gets reinforced each and every time they fail again and again.

Over time this can lead to generalised helpless behaviour because it’s widely accepted that in some individuals learned helplessness can cross into various aspects of your life. You’re not just unable to lose weight, you also can’t possibly make it to the gym because you have no time, can’t possibly look to buy new food because it’s too expensive and can’t possibly make small and sustainable changes because it won’t work anyway. You are stuck.

So when this individual looks to finally give it one more go, they are already at a significant disadvantage because they don’t actually believe that they can control the outcome directly. They are basically under the impression that it probably won’t work and if it does it’ll be down to random chance – You’ll know someone like this. They are the kind of person who will say ‘and knowing my luck….’ before relaying some expectation of a negative outcome being inevitable. This individual more or less knows what is involved in losing fat, and they probably know how to do it, too, so it’s not like the fitness industry telling her that ‘eating well doesn’t take any more time than eating junk” or asking her what her excuse is, is going to help.

This person, as I would suggest is the case for millions of people globally, has an external locus of control and a hefty amount of learned helplessness. What this person therefore needs is to be empowered with the ability to follow through with what they already know they need to do.

We need to build a belief in the person’s self efficacy. We need the person to trust that they have self-control and we need to show them that the self control they can display will result in clear, defined, dependable benefits. Here’s where to begin:

Set SMART, process-focused goals

I’ve spoken about this before but when goal setting you have a number of different options. Namely:

  • Long-term goals
  • Medium-term goals
  • Short-term goals

Those goals can be SMART goals which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound or they can be stretch goals which offer you an unreachable ideal that you can land close to (people often overshoot SMART goals by genuinely striving for Stretch goals), and they can be outcome focused or process focused.

With this kind of person the most important goals are SMART goals because the whole idea of a stretch goal is that it’s out of reach, and the whole aim here is to help them achieve something. We also want to look at goals which will give really fast, easy wins because these easy wins and small successes build up to help a person develop confidence in their ability to accomplish a task over time, even if the individual tasks and the small wins are nowhere near related to their end goal. In one study of the elderly, simply asking a person to look after a plant increased their perception of an internal locus of control, which of course leads to all of the associated benefits including a reduced incidence of depression.

So what do we do? We look for things which will help along the way to developing a healthy lifestyle which the client can’t HELP but succeed with, we make them specific actions and we make them something they can start to do TODAY. Examples I’ve previously used with clients are:

  • Ask them to make their bed before they get up. The military uses this as a means of developing discipline which is basically an enhanced feeling of determination and self-control (we’ll come back to this at the end of this article). Making your bed means that literally the first thing you do when you get up is win – this is really important, especially if you enforce it even when a person is running late.
  • Ask them to drink a small glass of water while the kettle boils for their morning coffee or after brushing their teeth. Another easy one.
  • Ask them to take a fish oil or vitamin D supplement with their breakfast
  • Ask them to ensure there’s a protein source, any protein source accompanied by any other food, with their lunch
  • Ask them to write a shopping list and take it with them to the supermarket, even if they don’t actually stick 100% to it

Some of these seem irrelevant or pointless but they all increase the client’s ability to control their life and make their own decisions. You can then pick up the pace by asking them to increase protein portions, focus on whole food choices, eat more vegetables or similar.

Learn to delay gratification

You’ve heard of the marshmallow experiment, right? Researchers asked a child to avoid eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes in return for two marshmallows, and this was a determination of the ability the child had to delay gratification. What you may not know is that these children were then followed up with when they were in their 40’s and not only had the differences in willpower ability held out over the decades, the adults who were once kids with better self-control were:

  • More academically successful
  • More intelligent
  • Better at cognition according to brain scans
  • More financially successful

Which shows us just how important the ability to delay gratification until later can be. Another name for the ability to delay gratification for later is willpower and we can see the importance of it all of the time when talking to people about weight loss. The reason for this is that weight loss basically comes down to how much you value that chocolate bar vs how much you value being leaner in 6 months time, and this decision is at least partly clouded by what we know as future discounting.

  • If I offered you £750 now or £10000 in ten minutes you’d wait, right?
  • What about if I offered you £750 now or £1000 tomorrow?
  • What if it was a year’s time? Or a decade? Two decades?

As a goal gets further and further away we discount the value of it more and more until the hypothetical future situation, regardless of it’s objective value, becomes less valuable than the tangible present situation. £750 today is worth more than £1000 if that £1000 won’t be given to you for another 50 years.

What this means is that you need to do two things, first of all you need to make the final goal something less abstract and more localised and real. This is largely dealt with the S aspect of SMART goal setting because “I want to be able to fit into these size 10 jeans” is a lot more powerful than “I want to lose some weight”. The jeans goal not only makes the goal measurable it makes it tangible – after all losing a certain amount of weight or a certain number of inches is somewhat abstract in that you don’t actually know what that will mean. What will you look like at that point? Will that make you happy? By making the goal more ‘real’ these questions become easier to answer.

The second thing you need to do is, as above, bring the goal closer to the present. I’m a huge fan of dieting in a phasic fashion so rather than having an obese client plan to diet for the next 18-24 months in order to get down to a healthy bodyweight, we can look at it as a series of two month diets, each with their own specific goals in mind, punctuated by a 1-2 week gap in which the client is able to eat a little more loosely at will. While we would still keep an eye on these periods to make sure they don’t go completely overboard, by the time the client has developed a decent relationship with food this shouldn’t be much of a problem anyway. Most people, unless they actively try or out-and-out binge, won’t outdo 8 weeks of dieting with one week of having a dessert every day.

Now the future is no longer a year-plus-long slog ending in a vague positive outcome, but simply a defined 8 week period of work followed by a positive outcome that seems real, and a week of easier sailing. That makes it a lot harder to discount.

Take advantage of classical conditioning

Classical conditioning is one of the most famous psychological theories, first put forward by Russian Psychologist Ivan Pavlov. The basic premise is that animals (of which you are one) can be trained to do something using simple reinforcement tactics. Do something, get a reward, feel like you should do it again.

It’s more complicated than that, though, because after a while you start to not only repeat the action but crave the reward. This is why you’ve probably looked at Facebook at least once since you started reading this – every time you do you get a little ‘hit’ of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the reward centres of your brain and after a while you start to show signs of stress and dissatisfaction without those rewards. ‘Addiction’ to online gaming, sex, gambling and social media are really strongly tied to this process. 

We can take advantage of it in a really simple way, though. Do you or anyone you know have a FitBit? The guys who designed these really got it down to a tee.

When you first look at your FitBit in the morning it gives you a little positive message. “Let’s make it a good day!” or “Let’s get it!” which sounds ridiculous but it’s enough to give you a little burst of cognitive pleasure, and it’s therefore enough to make you keep putting it on when you get up.

Then when you hit your step goal it vibrates, flashes and maybe shows a cartoon of a spaceship or some fireworks. Again, this is not done by accident – there are teams of very well paid researchers and psychologists who design these kinds of things and for one very good reason – it works. After a while you crave that reward, and you’re therefore more likely to put on your device and try to hit your goal.

When trying to develop the short-term, process based SMART goals from above, create a table with Monday-Sunday on one side and space for up to three stickers. Succeed with a habit, add a sticker. It seems childish and it seems stupid, but human beings are remarkably predictable and if someone remembers to add the stickers (another habit?) they have a greater chance of actually sticking to what they are supposed to be sticking to.

Don’t be tempted to opt for complete deprivation.

Train your mental muscles

Another aspect of willpower which we have somewhat touched on is that it’s something you can practice and get better at over time with practice. One research paper by Muraven showed that two groups of participants asked to exert self control for a period of as little as two weeks (either by abstaining from sweet foods or performing a physically uncomfortable grip test for as long as possible every day) improved their self-control far better than two control groups who were assigned tasks requiring little self control to complete.

This means that the above approach of creating self-belief by orchestrating success at easy tasks should perhaps be paired with tasks that actually require some effort, which is why making your bed every morning can help with fat loss. Can someone drink ONLY water for a given period? Can someone cut out caffeine for a given period? Can someone, as in the test, give up all sweets for only two weeks?

Building willpower and the ability someone has to say “No” to themselves has fallen out of favour in a world of flexible dieting and an insane push to avoid orthorexia at all costs, but ultimately any diet which causes fat loss is BY DEFINITION restrictive and a person who is unable to restrict themselves is guaranteed to fail.

And finally:

Change your environment

Some of the biggest reasons that people tell me they can’t stick to a diet are:

  • Cravings
  • Habitual eating (usually at night)
  • “I can’t resist XYZ food”

And the answer to all of these is… well, fair enough. Those with an external locus of control are likely to find these three things particularly challenging because they genuinely are all outside agents bent on keeping them overweight. You can’t control your cravings, breaking habits is HARD and resisting the thing you want most is just about impossible.

So what we can do to put you back in control is this: Rather than changing yourself in the environment which is full of problematic foods and situations, change the environment which you are in. You can’t eat a food you can’t get to, and you will find it much easier to resist a food when it’s a 40 minute round trip away. This isn’t a failsafe of course, but someone who blames luck and the universe for a lack of dietary success isn’t improving the situation much by having a well-stocked biscuit tin. Changing your environment is difficult because it may involve throwing food away, it may involve some difficult conversations with your kids/partner/family and it’ll probably involve a change to the process by which you actually buy food in the first place, but it’s really effective.

It just might help you develop self control, in fact!

As a closing note to this, though, don’t be tempted to opt for complete deprivation. The fitness and health industry has already tried to promote ‘clean eating’ and sticking to only a limited range of foods forever. I don’t need to bang on about it, but it didn’t work. Perhaps keep 1-2 snacks in the house that you love, but keep them out of the way. Perhaps get a dessert every now and then, but buy it to eat that day/week because you really want it, not because ‘we have dessert on Saturday’ or because it’s on offer.

Final Thoughts

In my eyes the theory of Locus of Control lays neatly onto Self Esteem. If you have an external locus of control you’re obviously not going to feel all that empowered and you’re obviously going to find that failures knock you a little more than they otherwise would. Someone who attributes every success they have to outside forces doesn’t give themselves a lot of credit, either. To end this piece I’d like to speak to that point. You can do a hell of a lot to change your life and everything you do MATTERS. You are in charge. You make the decisions and your decisions determine the outcome.

Accepting this is a scary prospect – after all, while it sounds nice to say ‘everything you do has meaning’ that’s also saying that everything you do has consequences. If anything, although it’s a little depressing to think that nothing you do makes a difference it’s also the easy way out. It’s not you, it’s your genes – well, that’s a relief! (Un)Fortunately the idea that you’re powerless in basically any situation is flat out wrong.

But take that on the chin, because responsibility is a good thing and without it people are never going to truly value their own brilliance.


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