The Psychology of Successful Dieting

In 2015, I finally achieved a lifelong goal: get six pack abs*. The pride of having a specific aesthetic was short-lived. But the habits created during that time have had a profound effect on my life.

Now, I expend no extra energy thinking about eating healthy—it’s automatic.

It wasn’t a magic pill, obscure diet or secret workout program that go me there. It was changing the way I thought about eating, and my relationship to food, that made the biggest difference.

In this post (Day 11 of NaNoWrimo!) I want to share with you the top 5 mental shifts that led to a successful, sustainable diet.

*Getting abs is one thing, keeping them is…story for another time. I’m aware this is bragging and no one gives a shit about my abs but me.

[Mental shift 1] Apply 80/20

Health nuts have this saying: The body is made in the kitchen.

I believe that’s completely true.

What we put in our bodies (diet) will account for 80% of the results, and how we move our bodies (fitness) provides the last 20% of outcomes.

In other words, diet is more important than exercise.

Just feed a muscle car a gallon of piss and see how it runs.

For the longest time, I tried to beat dieting with working out. If I ate a donut, I figured a few pushups or quick run would “balance” that out.

What shocked me was learning how fucked  the ratio was between calories burned to exercise required. It would take me a goddamn hour of exercise to burn off a donut.

The economics don’t work out.

[Mental shift 2] Dieting as self research

Having read fitness blogs and magazines, I developed an erroneous sense that there was “one way” to get fit. And that “way” was too generalized to be useful.

The longer I followed the 80/20 rule, the more I saw dieting as an act of self discovery. How does my body respond to fats and sugar? What about low carbs and high protein?

The clearest AB test for me was trying out “Cheat days” on Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet. After a week of what felt like “clean” eating to me at the time, doing a cheat day full of sugar & fast food wrecked me. That contrast was clearer feedback to me than the medium level of mediocre eating I was used to.

This detachment of seeing my body as a system of inputs was surprisingly… helpful.

The labels in my head about my own body – flabby, doughy, not lean enough – subsided to the more objective view of inputs and outputs.

Software is eating the world, and I’m excited about personalized health through tech. Better tracking, better data and better recommendations will greatly lower the barrier for every body to develop a dieting plan that works for them.

[Mental shift 3] Seeing food as fuel

I enjoy looking at nutritional labels and benefit descriptions when I take my vitamins. It’s my way of maximizing the placebo effect. I visualize the nutrients fueling this vehicle called my body. Yes, this is just the tip of the iceberg to my weirdness.

I see eating healthy foods the same way. The result is that I associate food with the feeling and energy I get from it, more than the taste or variety. (Does my food still taste good? Yes, because I’m a Stir Fry Master™.)

The more we see food as pleasure or food as stress relief, the harder it is to stop eating crap. The more I orieinted my relationship towards food as fuel, the more successful I was to sticking to a system.

The food relationship ratio: 80% food as fuel and 20% food as pleasure.

During the setup phase of my diet, I leaned more towards food as fuel vs food as pleasure. As I got used to my diet and established a system, I now enjoy treats guilt free. (Rum raisin is my favorite ice cream and I love sea salt chocolate.)

[Mental shift 4] Variety is overrated

UberEats and Doordash have made eating like surfing Netflix.

But we overestimate the amount of variety needed. How many of us grew up eating the same damn 2-3 cereals? Okay, that’s probably because the cereal was loaded with crack.

There’s a pleasure that I derive from cooking healthy meals. It’s just stir frying a bunch of protein and veggies – any combination, any amount. Add spice to taste.

I repeat the same exact meals – with a couple variations here and there – and it’s made dieting thoughtless and simple.

[Mental shift 5] Use simple systems, ditch the complicated

There’s a saying in sales: complicate to profit, simplify for results.

My eyes glaze over when I see overly complicated “advice,” like

  • Eat 6 meals perfectly spaced out throughout the day!
  • Take this specific cocktail of vitamins & supplements!
  • Use this fancy meal prep strategy!

    The more complicated it is, the harder it is to stick to. Dieting is a marathon and you want to find sustainable solutions that work for you. If that means being bit less hardcore about tracking every calorie and getting to a lean body instead of a ripped neurotic asshole, then it’s worth it.

[Bonus] Dieting is about setting boundaries

The strange thing is that once you get committed to eating a certain way, people will become opinionated about how you eat.

It’s not different from telling people you don’t drink; they want to convince you to drink.

Dieting is about setting boundaries with yourself and others.

Since eating is such a social activity, it’s not a bad idea to plan ahead for certain scenarios:

  • What can you eat, almost anywhere?
  • Can you pre-eat and just tell them you already ate, or just have a coffee instead?
  • Do you need new friends who support you?

Hopefully you’re around people who can support your health goals.

In lieu of a taking the time to explain your grand philosophy of dieting, you can send them this article.

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