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The Antifragile Diet

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I've recently read the book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It's obviously not a diet book, but the principles in it are highly relevant to weight loss.

But first, a bit of background. We are all familiar with things that are fragile. If you drop a Ming vase from a height, it shatters. Something that is resilient on the other hand, when dropped from a height withstands stress. An example might be an iron bar.

But until now, we didn't really have a word for something that gets stronger when it's placed under stress. That's why Mr Taleb coined the term "antifragile".

A good example of antifragility is the system of airline safety. Notwithstanding a few recent tragic examples, air travel gets safer and safer every year. The reason being that every time there is a crash, the incident is scrutinised, causes are elucidated and then measures are taken to try and avoid it happening again. Every air crash makes the next one less likely.

In other words, the system is set up to respond positively to negative things. Every bad incident makes the overall system stronger.

So how does this relate to dieting?

A diet is at its most basic level a list of things that you can and can't eat. It's a prescription of particular foods, combinations of foods or food groups.

With a diet, you are either following the recommendations or else you're not on the diet. If you're following the diet, you're doing well. But eating foods that aren't part of the diet (or those that are expressly forbidden) is considered "cheating".

Furthermore, most diets don't really take into account your own personal preferences, environment or any of the other factors that are part of your lifestyle. They're someone else's rules and you have to stick to them. Your chances of success are directly linked to how firmly you adhere to the rules.

A person on a diet is fragile. Having a bad day or weekend can be enough to derail a particular diet. Lapses are to be avoided at all costs. And any such transgressions are often accompanied by feelings of failure, guilt and disappointment.

But there also isn't much room to move if you want to deviate from the diet. If you're on the Atkins diet, and start feeling like having carbs, then it's hard to see how you can do that and still be on the Atkins. You either stick to the diet or you're out.

But this lack of flexibility and the fact that every transgression is a strike against you, make dieting an unsustainable proposition for most people.

So what's the alternative? Is there an antifragile way of losing weight?

The alternative approach is to focus on changing behaviour. The behavioural approach relies on analysing eating (with the help of a food diary) and then identifying those particular behaviours and triggers that contribute to your increasing weight.

If you can change the triggers and the behaviours (so that the new behaviours become a habit) you will start losing weight naturally. Because your habits have changed, the weight loss should be for the long-term.

The key with changing behaviour is that when things go wrong, it's not a disaster. It actually provides vital information about triggers and behaviours that need to be changed.

So rather than dreading the holiday abroad, the dinner party or the busy time at work, someone using a behavioural approach to weight loss, welcomes these events. Because it is only by experiencing these that they can see what needs to be changed.

You can these use this information to change behaviour in a way that actually make it less likely that the next event will have the same effect.

For example, if you are someone who tends to gain weight on vacation, then on your next trip, you would look at which factors specifically cause your increased consumption.

It could be that you tend to think "I'm on holiday so I can relax and eat more than usual" which is a mindset (cognitive) issue.

Or it might be that you don't know how to deal with hotel breakfast buffets.

Whatever it is, you identify the reason and make appropriate changes. So, the next time you go on holiday, you are better at handling those triggers. The result will be that you're much less likely to gain weight on holiday the next time.

With a behavioural approach, every problem is just feedback. Each new incident gives us more information that you can use to make yourself more resilient to future incidents. Each bad day or bad weekend makes you stronger.

I have a lot of clients who would rather sweep the bad days under the carpet. But you can see that experiencing these negative situations and analysing them is the only way you can make the changes required to lay the foundation for long-lasting weight control.

Dieting is fragile. Focusing on changing behaviour to lose weight is antifragile. And quite obviously, in life, it's much better to be antifragile than fragile.