When I was in graduate school for health psychology, I spent a lot of time learning counseling skills. One of the most important things we learned on the first day of Counseling Skills 101 is that counseling is not giving advice.
“It’s not helpful,” my professor informed us. “You don’t just tell someone who’s trying to lose weight to, ‘eat less and move more.’”
This shocked me. I had been a coach for years at that point, and I thought people were paying me for my advice!
“They’re not paying you to tell them what to do. They’re paying you to help them actually do it. Telling someone to ‘eat less and move more’ is about as helpful as telling someone suffering from depression to ‘cheer up.’”
How to Turn Terrible Advice Into Something Useful
The biggest problem I have with “eat less, move more” is that it sets people up for failure. It’s technically true; there’s no cheating thermodynamics. If you want to lose weight, you need to maintain a caloric deficit. And eating less and moving more are the behaviors that one needs to do consistently in order to achieve that deficit. But as soon as you start thinking in terms of restriction, you’ll start feeling controlled. And that’s the opposite of motivating. So here are some tips for getting past the terrible advice and reading something useful on how to lose weight:
1. Never be hungry.
Obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedof was once asked what one piece of advice he would give to people who need to lose a lot of weight. “Never be hungry,” he said.
And while this might also seem like unhelpful advice, it actually summarizes a really helpful way to think about weight loss. One of the biggest problems with restricting our eating is that we know we’re doing it. The problem is that humans are really bad at being hungry. Being hungry is distracting. It constantly reminds us that we’re denying ourselves, that we’re struggling. It also makes us more likely to give into temptation because of a nasty psychological effect known as “ego-depletion.”
So the harder we try to diet, the more likely we are to fail. So how do we get around this? Easy. Eat more.
2. More is less.
The most basic “how-to guide” I give clients is Dan John’s “Four Mores” Diet:
- more colorful vegetables
- more water
- more lean protein
- more healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, walnuts, etc.)
By concentrating on eating more of these items—all of which are very filling—most people naturally start eating less calorie-dense foods. We eat less calories by crowding them out with more nutritious foods that are also fibrous and filling. And by focusing on eating more instead of less, we’re less likely to be hungry and less likely to feel like we’re denying ourselves things.
It also gives us a process goal to shoot for instead of relying on the scale. The better you get at eating more of the above items, the more likely you are to lose weight. You’ll also be less reliant on the scale for feedback so you can focus instead on being consistent.
3. Master consistency.
Dr. Brian Wansink, the founder of the Cornell Food Lab and author of “Mindless Eating,” discovered something else about hunger: Humans don’t notice a 20% caloric deficit, as long as they don’t think they’re on a diet. If you sneak 20% of someone’s food away without her knowledge, she’ll lose weight without trying. For a 2,000 calorie daily goal, that’s 400 calories a day. Take away any more calories than that, and people start to get hungry.
So, according to Wansink, the key to maintaining a caloric deficit long enough to lose weight is to average about a 400- to 500-calorie deficit per day. This is totally possible with something simple like a “Four Mores” approach, but the key to doing it comes down to mastering consistency, not intensity. If you try to make a bigger deficit, you’re just making it harder for yourself in the long run.