You Can't Eat Differently Until You Start to Think Differently

29/08/2013 17:41 BST | Updated 29/10/2013 09:12 GMT

I remember Sandra, one of my first weight management clients that I had the pleasure of meeting over twenty years ago. One evening during her regular weekly group meeting Sandra was aghast to see the scales tip 95kgs (209lbs) one and a half kilos (three pounds) more than the previous week. After the meeting, Sandra sheepishly sidled over to me and asked:

"Alan, avocados, are they fattening?"

"Well, they are more calorific than many other plant foods, but they are an excellent nutritious food". I said.

"Actually this is all I can put it down to, I had an avocado in the week, and that's all I have done differently". Sandra said.

"Blimey Sandra that avocado must have been the size of a beach-ball!"

An average avocado (150g) contains 240 kcal and Sandra had put on the equivalent of over 10,000kcals or 41 avocados in one week. I worried about this for some time. How could someone see things in such a way that was impossible for someone else to understand?

I later learned that this calorie warp is referred to as the eye mouth gap. A coping strategy for people battling with their weight. It allows people to avoid the internal conflicts and psychological trauma of constantly worrying and stressing about what they have just eaten. If you simply don't register it in the frontal lobes (where we make sense of the world) then it doesn't count!

This is not a deliberate ploy to deceive their doctor, dietician or themselves for that matter. The brain does it automatically to mitigate the destructive forces caused by continually beating oneself up about the 'naughty' things we have eaten. The eye mouth gap phenomenon is now well documented on TV shows such as Secret Eaters .

I set out to learn more about our complex behaviours and in particular behavioural change techniques or talking therapies used to change behaviour. Over the next twenty years I researched many ideas and introduced these highly theoretical models into everyday practice to help solve regular people problems. In the context of weight loss, I found that some work better than others. In particular techniques used in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are very helpful.

The premise of CBT is that our thoughts (or cognitions) are malleable and we can control the paths that we take when making judgements and reaching conclusions. When beliefs become dysfunctional: "everyone is judging me by my weight and unless I become super skinny size, my life will have no value." We become trapped in negative and damaging (and sometimes fatal) behaviours. Such actions will be difficult or impossible to change whilst they are upheld by the controlling belief known as the maintaining mechanism.

Therefore a pillar of CBT is to help people to see things in a different way and hopefully benefit from an alternative and more appropriate perspective. When people can see things differently they can also think differently; and this is prerequisite for change. Only at this stage can a person start to build a strategy for moving away from their negative behaviours.

To help modify food beliefs I often use a group workshop imaginatively entitled: What is food? Two tables are placed either side of the meeting room. On one table are vegetables, fruit, rice, eggs, fish etc. The second table contains chocolate, sweets, cola, ice cream, candy and so on. Everyone is asked to go and stand by the table of food. The group to a person invariably end up next to the 'healthy' table.

The group are asked why have they have chosen to stand by this table?

"It's healthy" or natural, it has not been processed or modified". They say.

The group are pressed as these answers are not sufficiently satisfactory; they are too vague. Finally, someone will say it:

"They have grown!" "Precisely! These foods have grown - food grows!"

It is clear the cauliflower, the sweetcorn and the beetroot have all grown. Thanks to truly miraculous cells in plants known as chloroplasts which use the energy of the sun to combine carbon dioxide and water (and soil based components) plants build energy into compounds that we can eat. On consumption, our specialist energy cells called mitochondria then unlock the energy of the sun allowing us to function and thrive.

Alternatively the chicken eats the corn and we eat the chicken unlocking the energy of the sun in a stepwise manner. We then expire the CO2 and the plants oblige once again. It is the beautiful and inspiring symmetry of life on earth.

So if this is the functional food, what are those things on the other table - dysfunctional foods? The group quickly conclude that these are the treats, the feel good gulps, uppers, stimulants or comforters. They are what some turn to for a lift, a boost or simply to indulge and wallow in serotonin and dopamine induced pleasure for a few fleeting moments (yes they are addictive, though that is another story!).

Such behavioural experiments help people to see things in a different way. Now perhaps they can think about these deleterious edible products as substances (and like all substances they can be abused). If you can disassociate these materials from food you can in fact think differently about them and in turn behave differently around them.

The ultimate objective of this generally successful workshop is to ensure that people eat more food and thus lose weight. I hope it has given you food for thought.

Alan Jackson is the Founder of Weight Management Centre and Discovery Learning a health fitness and wellness training organisation.