Weight Loss Naturalism: Behavior Technology and the Quest for Self Control, or: How to Eat Otherwise in Future Situations

Seeing that we couldn't have done otherwise in a situation as it played out draws attention to why we behave as we do, giving us more control in future situations, for instance over when and what we eat. The behavior technology involved in weight loss can apply in just about any domain where we seek control, personal or collective. But accessing all the resources of behavior tech requires that we finally grow up as a species, accepting our place in, not above, nature.

Opening gambit: could you have done otherwise?

Many folks struggling with their weight suppose that in consuming chocolate cake on a particular occasion - substitute your favorite fattening food - they could have resisted eating it, but failed to do so. Let’s replay the situation, they imagine: the waiter comes up, just as it actually happened, and asks me what I’d like to order. In the imagined re-play, as in the actual situation, I experience a strong impulse to order the cake and a simultaneous realization that to do so betrays my resolution to avoid fattening foods. In as many respects as possible I imagine the situation just as it was, setting all the conditions the same. But now, the imagined re-play diverges from what actually happened: I choose the lime sherbet. This suggests that in the real, actual situation just as it happened up to the moment of my decision, I could have ordered the sherbet, and that the failure to do so was in some strong sense my own independent doing. Even given the circumstances exactly as they were, inside me and outside me, it seems I could have chosen otherwise. So the fault, dear Brutus, was my own, of me the decider, not that of my situation, upbringing, biology, brain, or other factors.

To see that this is mistaken is perhaps what’s unique about weight loss naturalism. On the naturalistic, science-based view of human beings, there is no you-the-decider independent of your brain, body and situation which rules over them. There’s no immaterial you in charge of the material you that determines what you eat. You – your brain and body – could not have done otherwise in that actual situation given the circumstances, and to understand and accept this can help you gain control over your weight. For you to have resisted the cake, something would have had to been different about that situation, either inside you or outside you or both. This is because, on a scientific understanding, your behavior is a fully caused result of all the factors in play – there isn’t a freely willing, causally exempt decision-maker inside you that could have done otherwise, such as a soul or non-physical mental agent.[1]

Making future situations different such that you are caused to choose the sherbet (with occasional, intentional and well-deserved exceptions!) is our objective here. Seeing that you couldn’t have done otherwise in the actual situation will help you do otherwise in future situations, since those will be different (we hope) in respects that make it more likely you’ll resist temptation. 

Supposing you could have resisted the cake no matter what the conditions were subverts the naturalistic, causal basis for self-control. Why? Because you’ll tend to downplay or ignore the actual determinants of your behavior. Want to gain control over your weight? Then give up the myth of the radically autonomous decider that trumps causality with its contra-causal free will, what philosophers often call libertarian free will. You’ll pay more attention to setting things up so that in the future you’ll more likely be determined to lose weight (both meanings apply).

Compassion and control. Seeing you don’t have contra-causal free will – that you are fully caused – has the effect of highlighting the conditions that actually influence your beliefs, desires and decisions. You can’t suppose you can just will your way to weight loss independent of conditions. Instead, you’ll concentrate on changing those conditions such that you’ll make better choices about eating and exercise. You become smarter and more intentional about behavior change. In short, seeing through the myth of contra-causal free will, should you be in thrall to it, gives you greater control over yourself and your situation. It also makes you more tolerant of any set-backs you encounter: you can’t suppose that, given the conditions in play, you could have done otherwise. Compassion, as well as control, follows from seeing our full causal connection to the world, past and present. Hence the tagline that captures the essence of naturalism: “connection, compassion, control.”

Cause and effect. Losing weight is completely a matter of cause and effect, in this case caloric intake vs. caloric expenditure, and that balance depends almost entirely on what you do. What you do in turn depends on who and what you are, plus your situation. And part of who you are includes what you believe about yourself, including what you believe about how you make choices. Getting real about all this – applying science to yourself as a chooser and decider – is to become more reality-based in your self-image and therefore more effective in realizing your goals. Admitting your behavior is fully caused, and understanding how it is caused, is an important higher-level cognitive tool you can wield in service to self-control.

Chance and control. A quick reminder about chance in all this: if there should be a random element which plays a role in your behavior, for instance something at the quantum level that percolates up in how your brain makes a choice, that obviously doesn’t give you more control or power in a situation. True, it means that something different might have happened given the exact situation, but it doesn’t allow you to understand and predict your behavior in future situations. So there’s no good reason to want there to be exceptions to causal laws, for instance the laws that connect your actions to your desires, or your desires to circumstances. Chance doesn’t give us control, nor does it give us a kind of freedom worth wanting. [2] 

Passivity and excuses. And a quick reminder about passivity and excuse-making: realizing that you’re fully caused doesn’t in the least diminish the value of the goals you’ve set for yourself, in this case weight loss. Losing weight is just as desirable as it was before. Plus, your behavior is just as effective as it ever was in bringing about what you want. So there’s no invitation to passivity here: don’t confuse determinism with fatalism, a mistake people often make. And just because your behavior is fully caused doesn’t mean that you’re let off the hook for not doing the right thing. Don’t confuse explanations with excuses. You can and should hold yourself accountable (and ask others to hold you accountable) for following through on your expressed commitment to lose weight, once you make that commitment. Such accountability, along with other factors, helps to cause you to lose weight, because you as an agent are responsive to it (hence responsible). Since you as an identifiable person are just as real as all the other factors in the weight loss situation, accepting your active role as a responsible agent is simply to be reality-based and effective in the quest for self-control.

From metaphysics to the real world.  Regrettably, a sudden flash of metaphysical insight about contra-causal free will (for those who supposed they had it) isn’t entirely enough to slim down. We have to get into the specifics of behavior change as outlined below. These are gleaned from various sources, including some personal experience in a Weight Watchers program (see endnote 4). Some suggestions will be comparatively easy to adopt, others less so, but none require any superhuman or supernatural will power, which means you can likely succeed in gaining control over your weight. Having put aside the idea that some part of you is exempt from causation, you’ll be more likely to pay attention to, and change, what causes you to be overweight. This has ramifications beyond weight loss, since effective techniques of self-management can be applied in pursuit of more momentous goals, both personal and collective.

But, you might ask yourself, will I actually take steps to lose weight? Well, we don’t know what the future holds, although it holds something (see here). But if you follow the suggestions below, then it’s likely you’ll lose weight, and keep it off. Believing this reasonable proposition is itself an inducement to actually follow the suggestions. On the assumption you’re at least beginning to believe it, you’re already being caused to lose weight, congratulations![3]

Higher level advisories on behavior change

Having stirred the pot a bit with the challenge to contra-causal free will, let’s list some higher level observations and generalizations that set the stage for the more specific strategies to come.

Be scientific and empirical. In deciding how to lose weight, look for evidence-based practices coming from reputable sources that reflect what we know about human physiology, psychology and behavior. In weight loss, as in every other aspect of our lives, we must play by nature’s rules, and knowing the rules often helps us avoid false starts and unsuccessful strategies. I don’t know about you, but I always obey the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and other sciences as they are discovered to apply to human beings. Don’t trust your own untutored intuitions; don’t trust hearsay; don’t let what you want to be the case distort your view of what is the case. This advisory of course applies to the advice given here: don’t take it on faith. A modicum of skepticism is always in order. Or as they say in Missouri, “Show me.”

Analyze this. Conduct an analysis of your situation to see what’s causing the behavior you want to change, in this case eating too much, too often, and maybe not exercising enough. The causes are both internal to you and external, in who and what you are and in your situation. They can be pretty concrete, such as your proximity to food and the company you keep, or pretty abstract, such as your beliefs about human agency discussed above. You’re very likely not an expert in behavioral analysis, but you needn’t be to get a useful handle on your situation; plus you can always ask for help in understanding why you do what you do. Any increase in understanding will give you that much more control. 

Everything presents an opportunity for intervention. All the determinants of your behavior are possible targets for change. True, there is no outside vantage point independent of you and your situation from which you can exert control. This might seem problematic given the traditional notion that we need to be uncaused causers to have “real” control, to have leverage over events. But if you think about it (have you thought about it?), being an uncaused causer doesn’t help give you control or power; see “The flaw of fatalism.” Also note that the weight loss project is engaging desires that were already present in you. So it isn’t as if you’re starting from scratch – your feet are already firmly pushing against the starting blocks.

The virtuous circle. We can perhaps roughly divide the opportunities for intervention into domains of belief, desire, situation and behavior: BDSB. Any of these can be worked on in order to bring about improvements, and at least some of them must be changed. Since they are interlinked, changing an element in one domain will likely change elements in the others to some extent. You can work on your beliefs, desires, situation and behavior in any combination.  The opening section above, for instance, was keyed to changing your beliefs about behavior, about who you really are as an effective agent. If that belief changes in a more realistic direction, it can help bring about helpful changes in behavior, which in turn will change your situation to your advantage, which will feed back into more effective behavior, likely reinforcing your desires to lose weight and gain control that got the whole process started. The virtuous circle awaits you.

Be Skinnerian. Behavior is controlled (or shaped, as behaviorist B.F. Skinner liked to say) by its consequences, the rewards and punishments that follow it. We therefore have to engage in incentive management – incentivizing behavior to produce behavior change. Since humanistic naturalists like me want to stay on the positive side of the ledger, we’ll try to use rewards more than punishments in losing weight. We want to make the process of achieving self-control as painless as possible, and of course a primary strategy in this is to reinforce behavior positively, for instance by achieving goals. There’s nothing like success to consolidate a behavioral repertoire; indeed, Skinner himself was always trying to invent reward-based, non-punitive behavior change strategies (he was voted Humanist of the Year back in 1972). However, at least a few rude awakenings (stepping on the scale after a week’s travel) are unavoidable, and they too function to shape behavior. To err is human, and to discover you’ve erred is no fun – it’s a mild bit of punishment that makes you want to do better next time. Keep in mind that in accepting the bits of pain that come our way in losing weight, we’re trying to avoid the much more painful, restrictive consequences of being overweight and out of shape, and we want to access all the energy and self-efficacy of being physically fit. So a little pain now, whether it’s from resisting temptation or being given a little grief for having failed to resist it, is well worth it.

Find other rewards in life. Food is a basic reinforcer, so people tend to resort to it if other reinforcers – that is, pleasurable activities and other intrinsic and extrinsic rewards – aren’t there. This highlights the importance of making one’s life situation to be rewarding in many respects besides eating (which is not at all to dismiss the pleasures of food). The more other activities you enjoy that can compete with eating, the less eating will control you and your behavior. Being physically active – using your body to increase lean muscle and burn calories – is one such type of activity.

Get real. Behavior change isn’t a piece of cake (sorry!). Don’t suppose you can change your beliefs, desires, behavior and situation overnight. Be realistic so you don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Knowing you will sometimes fail (oh no!) goes with the territory. But being realistic is, very importantly, also to believe that progress is entirely possible. With knowledge of cause and effect on your side, you will very likely prevail.

Fully endorse and protect your goal. This advisory is about your desires and motivations. Don’t beat around the bush: do you really want to lose weight, get in better shape, gain in energy, establish a domain of self-control that you can extend to other areas of your life, and get rewarded by achieving your goals?  Of course you do! Can you seriously not fully endorse all of the above?  But of course you are not a single-minded creature (more reality here, sorry). You are subject to countervailing influences: appetites, peer pressure, fatigue, distractions, lack of time, pressing obligations, fear of failure, etc., all of which need to be managed to keep on track. Protecting and nurturing the motivation and opportunity to lose weight against the predations of opposing influences is the name of the game, and it’s entirely possible to win at it.

Incrementalism. Start small and work up: the Big Idea of this article is that you can gradually establish a pattern of control, starting with controlling your weight. Any step you succeed in making toward your goal, however small, is evidence of control, and that evidence will reward you for taking that step. Choose achievable, incremental (bite size?) goals such that you get to experience success. Each bit (bite) of success, such as not having seconds, or using smaller plates, helps to reinforce the behavior that led to it, and, just as important, rewards and reinforces your determination to stick with the entire project of losing weight. This will get you going on the virtuous circle.

Generalization. Success in one area has the further effect of establishing a more general pattern of self-control. For instance, success in establishing portion control (consistently using smaller plates for meals, not going back for seconds) will give you confidence that you can succeed in setting up an exercise routine to build and maintain lean muscle (which in turn helps keep weight off, see below). On a larger scale, success in controlling your weight will serve as a model for self-control in other domains; it proves it’s possible for you to manage your beliefs, desires, situation and behavior to achieve your goals. What’s not to like?

Now that we’ve set forth some pretty abstract principles and guidelines, let’s move to more specific strategies and techniques for weight loss. Remember, if you actually practice what’s preached below, then you will very likely lose weight, and keep it off.

Commitment devices and support networks

These are steps you can take to shore up your determination to stick with a weight loss program. Commitment devices are techniques to help you follow through in pursuit of a goal. Having a support network means that you’re not doing it on your own. It’s perfectly possible to do it on your own, but a tougher proposition for most of us. This of course applies to achieving other goals besides weight loss.

Put some money up front. A financial commitment is a good way to maintain motivation. Having paid for participation in a weight loss program, you’ll naturally want to get your money’s worth. This makes it more likely that you’ll stick with the program, for instance in going to meetings and following behavioral advice. But of course it’s perfectly possible to lose weight for free too, so don’t think you have to join a paid program.

Join, or form, a weight loss group.[4] Being part of a group has many advantages, one of which is making your commitment public to other members. You won’t want to disappoint your peers; you want to look good, show people that you can follow through, get their approval for doing so, and be held at least somewhat accountable. Making a public commitment to lose weight puts your reputation on the line. And of course a group provides psychological and motivational support, learning opportunities, and a chance to widen your social network.  Plus, helping others achieve their goals by sharing your own insights and successes (and setbacks) is very satisfying. In all this you’re putting basic human psychology to work to your advantage. Last but not least, the group will most likely have a leader who is familiar with what works to produce behavior change leading to weight loss.

Recruit your spouse, friends, co-workers and family. The same commitment device/support network logic applies here: you already have a network, so put it to work for you. Let people in your life know you’re working on losing weight, and ask for their help in keeping your vow to do so. As you’ll discover, there are many ways they can help with changing your environment (removing candy bowls at work), with giving you support (praise for meeting a goal) and commiseration (sympathy when you don’t). It might turn out that for you to meet your goals, they’ll have to change their behavior in some respects as well, and it will likely be for the better. You could end up leading the charge in your family or social network for healthier behavior - who knew you had it in you? 

Science flash update: See this Economist article about a new evidence-based model of weight loss, and try out the Body Weight Simulator it mentions. The article provides more realism about the difficulties of losing weight, saying "in principle, the heavier person could make the necessary cuts in stages—reducing his daily intake again and again as he lost weight. In practice, that would take a will of iron, and the few people who have such willpower rarely get fat in the first place. The lesson, then, is to stay, rather than become, slim." Ok, point taken, but weight loss naturalism and other applications of behavior tech show how willpower itself - in this case your determination to lose weight - is a function of conditions. It can be fortified by means of all the strategies mentioned above and below; it isn't a fixed quantity you either have or don't. So stay reality-based; don't let this new model get you down!

Managing food-related beliefs, behavior and situations

Now the rubber hits the road, Jack. The basic goal is to reduce the frequency and amount of food intake, while eating healthy foods that meet your caloric and gustatory needs. Remember: take these steps incrementally, track your progress in taking them, and make sure to notice that your successes are evidence that you’re establishing a pattern of self-control. We want you to get caught up in the virtuous circle of BDSB change: changes in belief, desire, situation and behavior that reduce caloric intake.

Guard your appetite! You can use hunger to your advantage, strangely enough. Several strategies apply here:

Reinterpret being hungry. Change your beliefs and attitudes about hunger. Instead of thinking of hunger as a state to be avoided at all costs, reframe it as a sign of success. Guard your appetite! Being hungry indicates that you’re on the deficit side of the caloric transaction – you’re using calories faster than you’re imbibing them. That’s a good thing, right? Right: being hungry means you’re making progress in your project. And just because you’re hungry doesn’t mean you need to eat right away; you can learn to wait. Having made the switch in how you think about hunger (a change in belief), you can even enjoy the fact of being moderately hungry, strange as that may sound. For instance...

Being hungry makes food tastier. Enjoy being hungry as a preview of pleasure to come. Once you’ve experienced on a number of occasions that food really does taste better if you’re sharp set, then it will be easier not to eat right away – it will change your behavior. Likewise, remember the…

Law of diminishing gustatory returns.  It’s the initial bites and portions that taste best, and the more you eat, the less rewarding it gets. Knowing this helps to limit your intake. Relatedly…

Don't eat if you're not hungry. Before eating anything, check to see if you are hungry or not, and just how hungry you are. Can you please wait till you are quite, or reasonably, hungry? Thank you. This will also prepare you for times, Force forbid, when food isn’t immediately available.

Use food as a reward.  You can “be Skinnerian” by finishing a task before your meal or snack, in particular tasks that aren’t that rewarding or that you’ve procrastinated on. You reward yourself with food for having gritted through a necessary but perhaps tedious bit of work. Do the dishes piled up in the sink before you have dinner. Then you can enjoy the meal and not face the pile afterwards. That enjoyment will reinforce doing the dishes first. There are all sorts of ways and opportunities to be Skinnerian, that is, to manage incentives to get better control of your behavior and your situation. About which, please read this on how to train your significant other, roommate, or child to behave better; and remember, the same lessons apply to you.

Displacement and distraction. If hunger is starting to get the better of you, but it isn’t time to eat yet, substitute other activities for eating. Activities involving movement (e.g., walking, exercise, stretching, doing laundry, cleaning house, watering the garden, minor maintenance) work better than those requiring sustained concentration or sitting still (e.g., reading, writing, watching TV). Why? Hunger is less noticeable if you’re moving and actively doing things, at least for me. Activities that get you out of range of food are of course the best. Experiment to see what works for you. 

Manage your food environment. Buy only healthy and balanced food for your household and for work. See below for what that is. Your immediate food environment, over which you have control, is a very important determinant of your food behavior, so be smart about what foods are available to you. Don’t buy the naughty stuff unless you’ve already established the self-control not to binge on it. Relatedly…

Keep temptation out of sight. Both and home and at work, avoid keeping snacks ready to hand since that will subvert self-control. Instead, arrange your situation to minimize temptation. Again: “Arrange your situation to minimize temptation.” Very good! 

Plan your food behavior ahead. This will help you minimize the frequency of eating. For your regular workdays (or simply days, if you don’t work), make a schedule of meals and snacks – e.g., breakfast/snack/lunch/snack/dinner – with fairly specific times and stick to it; wait to eat until the appointed time. If you find yourself getting hungry in advance of the time you’ve scheduled, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Wait! Being hungry is a good thing, or at least not a bad thing (see above). Map out your food day, set your goals for portion control (see below), and prepare what’s needed in advance as necessary, such as making a lunch. As you make and stick to your plan, you’re being successful in gaining a pattern of control, and such success is very rewarding.

Portion control

Perhaps the biggest challenge in weight loss is simply eating less than you’re used to. You need to reduce the size of portions as well as the frequency of eating. Exercise is important (see below), but definitely will not substitute for portion control in losing weight (sorry!). What will cause you to reduce your portions?  Changing your food behavior and situation will do the trick. Here are some tips on how to take and eat less food at each meal.

Serve yourself at home. Don’t let anyone else decide how much to put on your plate, since if they put too much you might feel obligated to eat it and use that, wrongly, as an excuse to have more than you should (the excuse doesn’t fly since no one was holding a gun to your head, forcing you to eat it).  If they give you too little, you’ll have to go back for seconds, possibly subverting the general rule of not having seconds (see below). Here are some other deceptively simple admonitions, or at least not simply deceptive:

Use smaller plates. This works to make portions appear larger, and there’s less room on the plate to pile on more food. For our main meals, we switched from regular 11 inch dinner plates to 7 inch shallow soup bowls with a wide flat rim. Less food looks like more, and it looks less lonely than when sitting on a big plate, surrounded by emptiness, wanting company from more food, poor thing.

Don’t have seconds. By abjuring seconds, thus reducing your caloric intake, you’re taking a very strong step to weight loss. Take a reasonably sized first helping, eat it slowly, savor it, and that’s all folks. And keep in mind: because you’re hungry at the start of a meal, the first helping is always the best, so seconds of anything aren’t as rewarding – they will let you down, gustatorily. To satisfy a desire smartly, not indiscriminately, is both to enjoy its satisfaction more and gain some control over it.

Don’t rush, practice mindfulness. Remember, it takes a while for your stomach to register the fact that it’s had a sufficiency, which is why it’s important not to rush eating, or rush to have more. If you eat deliberately, you’ll be less likely to eat more than you should. Be mindful of, that is, pay close attention to, how your hunger diminishes in response to eating, and try to notice when it ends before the feeling of being stuffed arrives. Stop eating before you feel stuffed.

Do not finish up leftovers. Don’t eat food that’s left in the pan, bag, or plate just to get rid of it, even if it’s a very small amount! Do not do it! You don’t have to finish the sandwich just because some of it’s still there on your plate. Put it away for later consumption, feed to cat, or otherwise remove from easy accessibility. Every bit of caloric intake matters and even little bits add up, inevitably. Since you now believe this to be true, you’re more likely to behave in a way that takes this truth into account: belief change translates into behavior change.

Fruit and salad first. Start lunch with that apple, nicely sliced and cored, and you’ll savor every bite because you’re hungry and it will fill you up a bit in advance of more caloric foods.  A little cinnamon perhaps, or fresh ground nutmeg (keep some in your desk drawer at work, along with a grater). Or have those carrots first. At dinner, same idea: start with your salad.

Vary your diet. Novelty can be rewarding, thus helping to compensate for smaller portions and having to wait until your scheduled mealtimes.

Eat filling foods. Weight Watchers has lots of advice about what these are that I won’t repeat here (see endnote 4), except to say that it can help to have…

Fiber first. If you use a fiber supplement (e.g., psyllium husk), have that in advance of eating, or while you’re eating, since it helps fill you up. Some of these supplements help ensure you’re getting sufficient fiber for digestive health, and some say they’re good for heart health as well. (Caution: don’t take my word for it; look for reliable scientific evidence to validate these claims). The orange flavored fiber supplements are a reasonable facsimile of an orange drink, especially when mixed with sparkling water, not bad with a sandwich (see endnote 4).

Micro desserts. If you like desserts, have just a bite or three of very good chocolate, candied ginger, or other intensely flavored sweet, keeping in mind that additional bites won’t be as rewarding as the first. Become a connoisseur of maximally rewarding dessert moments that don’t subvert your weight loss goals.

The problem with restaurants.  Not eating too much at restaurants can be very difficult, especially if you’re with peers who aren’t with the program, but it’s possible if you have some strategies thought out in advance. Choose or ask for smaller portions on small plates and avoid those dishes you know perfectly well are unhealthy or super-caloric. Nicely ask your waitron to remove or pack up what seems to be an excess quantity right away, before you’re tempted to dispose of it right there at the table.

Occasional exceptions.  Even in the weight-losing phase of your program, as opposed to the maintenance phase, it’s ok to now and then indulge in what seems (and is!) caloric excess or otherwise questionable food choices. Being too rigid in a weight loss regimen can set you up for a fall, so cutting yourself some slack as part of the program (as does Weight Watchers) is perfectly ok, so long as the overall caloric trajectory and healthiness of your choices are maintained. This goes for most, perhaps all, the rules above and below: occasional exceptions to rules help to make rules more effective. But here’s a question: does the rule just stated apply to itself? I think so, since some rules are more effective if you don’t ever break them.

Healthy food

A consensus of evidence-based belief seems to be emerging about what constitutes a healthy diet, with an emphasis on minimizing processed carbohydrates and fats found in red meat and other bad fats (there are good ones). Get adequate protein, fiber and nutrients; eat your fresh fruits, veggies and legumes; and nuts on a daily basis are good in small quantities. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, make sure you’re getting enough protein, maybe via a protein supplement if necessary. For a recent science-based analysis of what foods seem to be associated with weight reduction, please read Still counting calories? Your weight-loss plan may be outdated. It isn’t just how many calories you consume that matters, but the type of food that’s carrying the calories.

Fiber and protein. According to Weight Watchers, which touts the scientific basis for its program (see endnote 4), digesting fiber and protein uses more energy than digesting simple and/or refined carbohydrates. This is one reason their weight loss plan allocates food points to steer you towards the former and away from the latter. Fiber and protein supplements can help to ensure you’re getting your needs met in this regard, but you can’t rely on them as substitutes for real food.

Exercise, muscle and eating: the virtuous circle

One aid to losing weight and keeping it off, according to many sources, including Weight Watchers, is to increase and maintain your amount of lean muscle. Lean muscle burns calories more than fatty tissue, even at rest, so the more muscular you are, the easier it is to burn calories without even trying. This means, once you’re down to your target weight, if you’re muscular you can eat more than you could otherwise and maintain the same weight. This in turn means you can have more food enjoyment and be stronger, more physically capable, and more energetic. What’s not to like?

Exercise, of course, is the route to building lean muscle, and it has many other benefits, physical and psychological. Unless you’re a professional athlete or trainer, or your trade involves regular and intense use of all major muscle groups, you need to engage in an intentional program of exercise that builds and maintains muscle. This is possible at any stage of life, so being old (however you choose to define it!) is no excuse not to exercise. One has to be careful, of course, to not overdo it, so be smart and incremental as you take up exercise. For instance, in order to get stronger you don’t need to lift the maximum weight you’re capable of, putting your joints and tendons at risk. Taking an exercise class is helpful for the reasons mentioned above about joining a weight loss group. You’re more likely to exercise harder, and enjoy it more, if you do it with others than on your own.

My exercise routine (fwiw). After taking an 8 week small group training in intensive exercise (they called it "boot camp" and it was), my workout 3 days a week is to do about 30-45 minutes of minute-long sets of free weight lifting, machines and core exercises (e.g., planks, crunches) with 30-45 second breaks in between, stopping every 10 minutes or so for a 3 minute water break. This routine gets my heart rate and breathing up pretty high for most of the workout while working all the muscle groups hard, thus maintaining muscle strength and cardio conditioning simultaneously. I vary the exercises from one day to the next, which helps to keep it fun (or, more realistically, less onerous). As you lose weight, some exercises, such as pull ups, become easier since you’re lifting fewer pounds of yourself. It’s very rewarding to be able to do double or more the pull ups than what you could before. Remember too that the endorphin release after strenuous exercise will elevate your mood very reliably.

Monitoring your weight and behavior

Regular weigh-ins. Make sure to weigh yourself often (e.g., every day at the same time), so that you get continuous feedback on how you’re doing. Once you see your weight start to drop, bit by bit, the very act of weighing yourself becomes rewarding, hence part of your routine. If you see it creeping up, that’s an early warning to resume what you were doing right.

Record your weight. Keep a weekly diary of your weight to track your progress and to see how it correlates with your food-related behavior. Such correlations are evidence for what does and doesn’t work in weight loss. Relatedly…

Record significant changes in your behavior and situation. Keep a simple diary of what changes you make in your food-related behavior and situation, including exercise, so that you remember what you did and when. This record will show that you did make changes, that you were able to establish a pattern of control, which is rewarding in and of itself. And as noted above, you’ll also be able to see what changes in behavior and situation are associated with changes in your weight. Knowing what works – being empirical about the process of losing weight – helps you keep doing the right thing.

What to expect

Weight loss. If you reduce the frequency of eating and portion sizes as described above, it’s very likely you will begin to lose weight. Indeed, it’s inevitable you’ll lose weight if your caloric intake drops below your caloric expenditure in maintaining your bodily functions and in carrying out daily activities. In a 16 week Weight Watchers program, I lost 16.6 pounds (averaging about 1 pound lost per week) to reach my target weight, which I’ve maintained since then.

Hunger. You can expect to feel hungry more often, especially when you’re in the weight loss phase of the project (as opposed to the maintenance phase, when you can increase food consumption somewhat). But as explained above, this is not a bad thing. Since you’ve reinterpreted hunger as a sign of success, and since hunger now precedes more enjoyable food experiences, hunger isn’t something to fear or avoid like the plague. You can accept it as part of a successful process of losing weight and gaining control.

Food satisfaction. You can expect to enjoy food more, since you’re eating less often and less of it. Food tastes better when you’re hungry, which you’ll be more often. You’ve become a connoisseur of fewer, but more intense food moments, which you can enjoy in anticipation as well. Seeing this adds to the total picture of having gained control:  you’ve actually gained in net pleasure too. You’ve managed to manage a desire to optimize its satisfaction.

Satiation. Once you’ve reduced portion size for a while, you’ll find that you’ll feel uncomfortably stuffed if you eat the amount you used to, for instance when you had seconds and maybe thirds. Instead of feeling comfortably satiated, you’ll feel as if you overdid it - and you have! That feeling will help get you back on track. Put another way (as Skinner would put it), feeling stuffed becomes aversive, not pleasurable, so you’ll avoid the behavior that leads to feeling that way, namely eating too much. As you eat, remember to stop before you start feeling stuffed.

Well beyond weight loss: behavior tech and collective self-control

All the practical recommendations above, and the more abstract advisories that preceded them, can prove useful in losing weight even if you declined the opening gambit: that your behavior is fully caused. Even if you insist that you could have done otherwise in an actual situation as it played out, for instance the cake-choosing situation, these advisories will still work for you. However, if you suppose you’re exempt from causation in some respect, you’ll be less likely to pay attention to the full set of conditions that, from a scientific standpoint, actually determine your motivations and actions. This reduces the amount of potential control you have over them, which disempowers you. You’ll also be more likely to blame yourself in emotionally toxic ways, since you’ll imagine that you could have done otherwise, but simply failed to do so as a matter of contra-causal choice. Chronic self-blame is unproductive and demoralizing. So there are two good pragmatic reasons to disbelieve in contra-causal free will: the gain in self-control and the gain in self-compassion. But of course the primary reason to disbelieve in it is on empirical grounds: there’s no science-based evidence you have it, and science is by far the most reliable grounds for factual beliefs about the world.

Wherever you end up in your beliefs about free will, the techniques of behavior change and incentive management that work in weight loss can be applied in any domain where you want to gain control. Having won the battle to manage your weight, or at least having made progress in it, you’re now in a position to generalize your weight loss strategy. Analyze your situation to see what’s causing the behavior you want to change. These causes lie in your beliefs, desires, concrete environment, social networks, and wider culture. All of these are potential targets for intervention. Proceed scientifically, incrementally and realistically, taking note of your progress as evidence that yes, you can establish domains of self-control.

Our desires for self-mastery and self-actualization are perfectly legitimate concerns for each of us individually, but not the end of the story when it comes to the quest for control. Inhabiting a technologically advanced culture, we’ve gotten very good at designing gadgets to make life easier and more entertaining, and in arranging environments to be pleasing and convenient. In comparison, we’ve spent very little time thinking about and designing ways to manage ourselves for our own good and the good of other species and the environment. Even to raise the question of collective self-control using behavioral technology (behavior tech) is controversial, since it immediately raises the specter of authoritarian states trampling on human rights and individual initiative. But there’s no necessary contradiction between intentional collective self-management and having an open, democratic society; indeed, the latter might well depend on attaining the former (see here and here). We can, and must, take on the question of control explicitly, asking how we can balance our legitimate desires for liberty and autonomy against the pressing needs for constraints on behavior, for instance on reproduction and consumption in an age of diminishing resources. We are the inheritors of a culture premised on the supreme value of personal freedom, but understanding its practical limits may be the best, and only, way to preserve it.

We either take control intentionally, in light of an open conversation about what sort of world we want and what sorts of democratically self-imposed constraints are necessary to achieve it, or we will likely face a rather uncomfortable future dominated by the consequences of not taking control. Believing this, we are more likely to embark on the momentous project of applying behavioral technology to ourselves in the pursuit of long-term happiness. This will be progress toward achieving maturity as a species, one fully cognizant and accepting of its own nature, and thus capable of exerting skillful self-control on its own behalf and on behalf of its unthinking, vulnerable parent: planet Earth.

TWC, August 2011


[1] If you think there is such a decision-maker, please see the Free Will section.

[2] Unless perhaps you want to escape prediction by an omniscient god or demon, or have another reason to suppose that being undetermined in some respect is important. For example, see Bob Doyle’s work on two-stage models of free will in which randomness is hypothesized to play a role in generating the imagined possibilities that we select from in making a choice.

[3] If you think that being caused to do something is an affront to your autonomy, then you’re still clinging to a supernatural and self-important notion of an ultimately self-made self. You are fully caused – get used to it and take advantage of it!

[4] Full disclosure: Although I participated in a Weight Watchers group, I am neither endorsing nor recommending against that organization or any other commercial weight loss program, nor am I advising or being compensated by any such program or any other commercial enterprise selling weight loss products or any other commodity.