To many, January 1st is the start of a familiar cycle. The initial few weeks of the year, you’re a paragon of health. You make it to the gym four times a week and stick to your diet plan. But then, Valentine’s Day rolls around, and you give into the office candy jar—three times in one day. Then in March, the cruise you’ve had planned since last June lures you in with an all-you-can-eat buffet. Before you know it, you’re even farther off the healthy-eating wagon than you were back in December.
“Weight loss is the least likely New Year’s Resolution to be achieved,” says Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson, New York Times Best-Selling author and founder of Bright Line Eating. “Research shows that fewer than one percent of people with a serious weight problem are going to get into a right-sized body in any given year.” A 2015 study published by the American Journal of Public Health illustrates this point: over a nine-year period, the probability of obese subjects attaining a normal weight was 1 in 210 for men and 1 in 124 for women. The probability shrinks even further—just 1 in 1290 for men and 1 in 677 for women—among those considered morbidly obese.
The odds for an obese person who starts doing Bright Line Eating? An astounding 1 in 5. On average across all gender and weight categories, the program is 55 times more successful than other approaches.
Why do people struggle so severely to achieve their weight loss resolutions?
Dr. Thompson, who was once obese herself, says significant weight loss is a goal that’s closely tied to identity. “Studies show that it’s a major deal to totally change your life, to go from obese or overweight to slender. The fear of failure is huge. So, a lot of people don’t even get started,” she says.
Another reason is that people have a fundamentally flawed mentality about the process. They think it’s simply about eating less and exercising more. The reality, Dr. Thompson explains, is that in order to make a lasting change you essentially have to reprogram your brain.
Several years ago, the term “decision fatigue” became a prominent feature of think pieces and tech blogs, which touted the trend of Silicon Valley CEOs wearing the same outfit every day. This phenomenon is based upon the theory that deciding what to wear in the morning eats away at a finite amount of decision power in your brain.
The same hypothesis can be applied to willpower, explains Dr. Thompson. “The seed of willpower is this little part of the brain right behind the prefrontal cortex called the anterior cingulate cortex,” she says. “It’s kind of like a battery pack that has only 15 minutes of charge at any given time.”
So, when you’ve used up your willpower on, say, a stressful work meeting before you have to figure out what you’ll eat for lunch that day, the odds you’ll opt for a burger and fries skyrocket.
The solution, says Dr. Thompson, is to make your eating choices as automatic as brushing your teeth twice a day. This automaticity is governed by the basal ganglia—an entirely different part of the brain.
“You need to get your eating into that part of the brain so you’re not making choices on the fly, which makes you vulnerable to what I call the ‘Willpower Gap,’” she says. The "Willpower Gap" refers to the difference between how people want to eat and the reality of the unhealthy choices they tend to make.
“There’s this huge difference between the kind of eating that’s in alignment with our goals and our high standards of self-care, and the way we actually do eat when life gets busy or stressful, or when we’re under pressure,” she says.
And, despite mixed opinions on whether New Year’s resolutions are effective or simply a gimmick, Dr. Thompson says there’s real data behind the clean-slate mentality—although vaguely resolving to “eat better and exercise” probably won’t get you very far. “If you take January 1st as an opportunity to entrust yourself into the care of a proven system, then absolutely, [New Year’s resolutions] can be effective,” she says.
Here are a few daily practices that can help you finally achieve your weight loss goals in 2018.
Focus on diet over exercise. If the first item on your weight-loss checklist is to renew your gym membership, you’re prioritizing the wrong piece of the puzzle.
The biggest problem with overemphasizing exercise is the “compensation effect,” says Dr. Thompson. Essentially, the “I deserve this muffin” mentality that tends to accompany a trip to the gym. Exercise also erodes willpower and can be a time-suck, which means you’re more likely to fall back on fast, unhealthy foods at mealtime.
Dr. Thompson does concede that working out is great for plenty of things: it boosts self-esteem, increases longevity, improves memory and cardiovascular stamina, etc. But, she says, research is very clear: it does little—if anything—to help you drop pounds.
Make the right thing to eat the easiest thing to eat. To make your food choices automatic, make them as easy as possible.
When it comes to weight loss, “the danger of focusing on the goal is enormous,” says Dr. Thompson, noting that an obsession with the scale is only setting yourself up for failure. “Focus on a process, rather than on a goal,” she explains. “Instead of saying, ‘I want to weigh 120 pounds by August 1st,’ you’re better off saying, ‘I want to write down my food the night before each day.’”
She suggests doing just this: writing down planned meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner—the night before, and sticking to the list no matter what. By doing this, “You’re going to make the right thing to eat the easiest thing to eat at any given time,” she says. “So instead of being a free-range eater, you’re going to teach yourself to eat in a systematic way. The difference is huge.”
Practice self-care and gratitude. Dr. Thompson suggests wearing your “bunny slippers” and treating yourself to whatever self-care practices make you feel best—like taking a warm bubble bath, making a list of three things you’re grateful for every night, or meditating daily. These supplemental, feel-good exercises go hand in hand with working toward a healthy weight and staying there.
Eat three meals a day. Sticking to your “Bright Lines”—or the hard-and-fast, no-exceptions rules at the core of Bright Line Eating, which include stipulations, like no added sugars or flour—becomes exponentially more difficult when you’re eating small meals many times throughout the day.
“If you’re eating six small meals a day, you’re a sitting duck for the donuts in the break room,” says Dr. Thompson. “What you need to learn is to say, ‘No, thank you,’ to all food if it’s not mealtime.”
Research shows that most people who lose weight and keep it off follow a specific system. The Bright Line Eating Boot Camp is an eight-week online program that can help you start training your brain for healthy eating habits. People from more than 100 countries have gone through the program. The Clean Start process walks you through the beginning part of the journey step by step, from suggesting supplies to buy—like a digital food scale to make sure you eat enough (the portions are large and filling)—to Customized Care Weekly Coaching Calls, access to social support through the Bright Line Buddy System, and 24/7 interaction and engagement.
“It’s a very intensive, thorough, and amazing Boot Camp,” says Dr. Thompson. “On average, people lose 17 pounds in the eight weeks. And on average, people keep that weight off and continue to lose.”
Unlike traditional diets, which tend to make people more obsessed with food, Dr. Thompson says that data from the Bright Line Boot Camp shows participants experience the reverse: “Almost all [participants] say that their peace and serenity around food has gone up, their hunger has gone down, and they experience little to no food cravings anymore,” she says.
Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, and author of the New York Times Best-Selling book, Bright Line Eating: The Science of Living Happy, Thin, and Free.