Losing weight isn’t that difficult but changing your lifestyle is

Spring has well and truly sprung. The weather is warm, days are long and Sydneysiders are finally allowed to flock to the beach. With the holiday season just around the corner and the festivities and social events that accompany the tail end of the year appearing in the calendar, it’s no surprise that weight loss is at the forefront of people's minds. Your internal monologue could be criticising a couple of COVID kilo’s, a health professional may have recommended you watch your weight or a relative could have made some unwelcome probing accusation; whatever your motivation to losing weight is, it’s likely that you’re dreading the journey.

Fair enough, there’s nothing appealing about the Ab Circle Pro or sacrificing your meals for a shake. But weight loss doesn’t have to look like this. Corporations benefit from perpetuating a narrative that weight loss is complex and can only be achieved by spending exorbitant amounts of money on novelty products. While some of these products will be conducive to weight loss, the businesses are deliberately vague on the science behind the results. Why? It is in their best interest to keep the consumer believing that only with the support of this product can they achieve weight loss, therefore creating a repeat customer.

The truth is weight loss cannot be achieved through a magic pill.

The science behind losing weight is simple, it’s called a calorie deficit. A calorie is a unit of energy; in layman's terms, we can think of calories as fuel, when we eat food we ingest calories or increase the fuel in our tank and when we use the energy we burn calories or deplete the amount of fuel in our tank. Now in order to lose weight, we need to be burning more fuel than what is available in our tank - be in a calorie deficit. When there is a calorie deficit the body will look to fat stores as an alternative source of energy, thus causing a reduction in the fat stored and a weight loss.

This leaves two options when trying to elicit a calorie deficit, either decrease the fuel in the tank by eating less food or increase the fuel used by burning more calories. This is why I consider weight loss as simple, you can literally do nothing all day and you will be in a calorie deficit.

I experienced this first hand when I was hospitalised during my gap-year travels. Complications arising from my appendix removal left me bed bound for 3 weeks unable to walk unassisted even to the bathroom and struggling to eat any solid food. While my exercise levels were at an all time low I still lost a staggering 16 kilograms. This is because the fuel required to execute basic bodily functions (think breathing and talking) exceeded the meagre amounts of calories I was able to consume.

So if losing weight is simple then why do so many people struggle with it?

As evidenced above conceptually weight loss is incredibly simple - either eat less or move more to a point where your calorie requirements exceed your intake - the difficulty arises on the execution of these strategies when they are incompatible with usual behaviours. Humans are creatures of habit, steeped in ritualistic behaviour that we repeat autonomously day-in and day-out, our lives become fundamentally hinged on the scripts we replay over and over again. This is why it can be so difficult to behave in a way that is different to these rituals, as it pushes us outside our comfort zone.

It is widely agreed that humans are on average loss averse, this means we are more willing to take measures to avoid pain than gain pleasure. The paradigm between pain and pleasure is crucial to understanding human decisions making, while an individual may have positive intentions to behave in a certain way if this behaviour change presents a risk that they may experience pain (such as an emotional discomfort or an identity crisis) then their subconscious will compel them to resist this change and remain in a state of inertia. This fear of change can present a serious obstacle to people wanting to make life changes such as committing to a fitness program or eliminating a particular food from their diet.

Overcoming the fear of change is difficult as it runs counter to human instinct, however, change can be easier when there is a compelling reason to undergo the transformation. When we lack the reason for change risk outweighs the rewards which mean far greater willpower is required to adhere to the change. Alternatively, when there is a compelling justification the scales are flipped and change becomes the more rational option as the risk is now outweighed by the rewards. For example, minimising refined sugar from your diet is going to be easier if you’ve just been diagnosed with pre-diabetes than if you hadn’t received a diagnosis.

Just because a compelling reason exists doesn’t mean change will be easy but it will provide the very foundation for developing good habits, taking action and eventually achieving goals.

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