To Lose Weight, Studies Show These 4 Words Work Like Magic

Having a quick plan B for when cravings strike can make all the difference in losing weight and keeping it off, according to health journalist Ted Spiker in his new book ‘Downsize.’

lose weight words dessertiStock/LiudmylaSupynskaThere’s a category of people I’ve always admired: those who are cool as Popsicles in an emergency. Lifeguards, paramedics, ER personnel, military folks. Trouble strikes, they react, do their jobs, save a life. I imagine many would tell you the reason they don’t panic is partly because of their personalities, but it’s also because of their training. They have a plan, they know the process, they’ve practiced.

I don’t want to flippantly compare life-and-death accidents and rescue missions to a tabletop of tortilla chips, but the lesson still holds. The one thing we can do to better equip ourselves for dietary emergencies is to have a plan in place, then employ that plan when we need it.

Two Words for Stronger Diet Willpower

There’s plenty of information available about how to lose weight, and most of us know there’s a huge difference nutritionally between, say, zucchini and fried zucchini sticks. We’re not lacking the cognitive skills to understand what we tend to do right with our diets and what we don’t. We just don’t do. To create the bridge from know to do, all it takes is two more words.

If and then.

This is the emergency response plan. If X happens, you do Y. So when you create a plan about losing weight, along with the steps on how you’re going to do it, the next step is creating “if and then” scenarios to help with your most common temptation. If your coworkers ask you to happy hour every Thursday, when what? If the server brings bread that you know you shouldn’t pick at, then what? If your partner pours a bowl of Lucky Charms every night, then what?

Create a list of the scenarios most likely to derail you. What will happen is “then” will start to become a habit. Offered a drink, you say, “No, thanks. I’ll have one tomorrow.” Partner eating blocks of cheese? That’s your cue to get the veggies and hummus. These simple responses and action plans are typically enough to stave off the temptation, in-the-moment impulse, and help you stick to your plan for achieving your main goals.

If-then is what keeps showing up in studies as an effective strategy because it’s a simple and instant way to break habits, said Peter Gollwitzer, PhD, a professor of psychology at New York University who studies goals and how emotions, cognition, and behaviors influence them. When you’re faced with frustration or temptation that goes against the spirit of the goal, the if-then statement shoots up to the top of your mind. Your automatic response grows into whatever your articulated “then” statement is, rather than you reflexively diving into a meringue pie.

Two Words for Making Better Food Choices

In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers found that subtle word choice can be effective in helping us make better food choices. “I don’t” is more effective than “I can’t.” It is an issue of empowerment—the sense that “I don’t eat ice cream” gives more control to the person than “I can’t eat ice cream.” In one of two experiments, subjects were told to practice one of the two phrases in relation to tempting, unhealthy foods. They filled out a questionnaire, and when they turned it in, they were given a choice between taking a chocolate candy bar or a granola bar. The researchers found that those assigned to the “I don’t” group chose the granola 64 percent of the time, while those in the “I can’t” group chose it only 39 percent of the time.

Without even knowing it, I used this tactic in the way I approached kicking a two-decade addiction to diet soda. The subtle word change seems to take the edge off temptation. No diet plan is telling you what to do. You’re simply making a choice about what you are and aren’t eating.

From DOWN SIZE: 12 Truths for Turning Pants-Splitting Frustration into Pants-Fitting Success by Ted Spiker. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Ted Spiker, 2014.

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