Dr Christian Jessen’s latest programme “Weighing Up the Enemy” was not necessarily the resounding success of its predecessor, “Supersize vs Superskinny” but it definitely provided food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun.
It develops on the theme of motivation which I discussed previously (see Eat, Train, Love) and illustrates what a powerful tool it can be. The basic premise is that Dr Christian matches up two overweight people (man v man / woman v woman) who have completely contrasting personal views about an aspect of ethics or morality. One week, for example, saw a vegan dog-groomer pitted against a hunting enthusiast. Both parties put up a substantial amount of their own cash in a bet that they can lose the greatest percentage of their own body fat. The wager? Not just that, if they lose, their opponent gets their cold hard cash but the losing party has to watch the winner spend that money on something they absolutely hate.
Well, as motivators go, this is a pretty big one. The participants are each absolutely committed to winning and do everything they can to ensure it happens. However, as they are in charge of their own diet and exercise regimes, there are often some mishaps.
1) Eating 10 bananas a day as snacks is not a good idea
Yes, fruit is good for you. Yes, having a salad as opposed to a burger and chips should be healthier for you. But you have to understand what you’re putting into your mouth. It’s like everything. One drink with dinner won’t give you liver disease but several might. One banana provides you (according to a friend of mine when we were in Year 8) with 12 minutes of energy, which is great. However, each banana is up to 100 calories. It stands to reason then, that the vegan dog groomer wasn’t losing weight because, in addition to three meals a day totalling about 3000 calories (believe it or not, it was down to the jacket potato and salad!), he was consuming another 1000 calories in bananas. He also thought that diet would do the trick upping the exercise wouldn’t make any difference.
2) Be kind to yourself
At the other end of the scale, you’ve got the militant must-be-alpha-male-and-win types. They went for it hammer and tongs, spending hours at the gym and obsessively measuring out every single ingredient for every single portion, giving up everything they love at the same time. Part of me can understand it; they felt they had the most to prove. Hunter-Man had bet his wife’s Jimmy Choo fund (she’d been saving it for over a year) and Spiritualist-Medium-Guy was having his personal beliefs and credibility called into question on national television. A woman who had worked since she was 16 and found herself pitted against a benefits queen was determined to prove that all in all she was the better person. However, when the going got tough, it got really tough.
They were making two mistakes, one of which we’ve already covered and one which we’ll discuss today. The first mistake, that we’re already aware of, is that they were being cruel to themselves. They weren’t just playing to win, but they were playing to win because of hate. Hate is an incredibly negative emotion and, like self-hate, I don’t believe it’s conducive to doing well when it comes to achieving your personal goals. I’ve said before that I’m no scientist, but we’ve all heard of the “happy hormone” serotonin (believed by some scientists to be a neurotransmitter rather than a hormone), haven’t we? A theory is that it affects mood, appetite and desire, among other things. Exercise is supposed to release endorphins (serotonin among them) and therefore it is expected that regular exercise should have the power to make you feel motivated and happy. I’ve definitely experienced this myself during my daily walks – I feel free and relaxed and happy. If your exercise is fuelled by hate, either of self or other, surely that would cancel out any happy feelings that exercise can generate? I know that since I’ve stopped using exercise to punish myself, I’ve been more motivated to do it and I definitely enjoy it more. When I was trying to punish myself or compare myself to others, I quickly lost motivation and felt very moody. No wonder these people struggle.
The second mistake I believe they made (and Dr Christian seemed to be of the same mind as me, judging by his comments to the contestants) was to deny themselves everything they love. Absolute denial can produce negative feelings – the feeling of not being deserving. My friend refers to this as “crooked thinking”, FLYLADY calls it “stinking thinking”. Whatever you call it, the basic premise is the same: if you aim for perfection, if you deny yourself something because you have to do this PERFECTLY, it can encourage negative thought patterns.
Have you ever played the word association game? One player says a random word and another follows with the first word that pops into their head, which they associate with the first.
Thinking patterns are like this – a chain of thoughts, each inspired by the first.
If you go for complete perfection, the implication is that you were imperfect before. This means you are not good enough. If you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve something. If you don’t deserve something, you can’t have it. You can’t have it because that’s the consequence for not deserving it because you’re not good enough because you’re not perfect.
Do you see how quickly these thoughts build up?
Denial becomes a punishment – if you do something wrong, you’re taught that there’s a consequence. This is supported in primary socialisation at home with parents, in school systems, in the judicial system, and of course in our social interactions. With denial or consequences so intrinsically linked to negative things within our society is it any wonder that, if you deny yourself what you love, you start to feel miserable and lose motivation?
It comes back to the psychology of fitness, which we’ve discussed before. Abstinence from something does not necessarily have to be a punishment. It can be empowering. Look at monks and nuns – people who abstain from many of the things other citizens enjoy. They’re not doing it as a punishment; they’re doing it for the reward of being able to focus more clearly on their calling, on serving God. This is incredibly fulfilling (so I’m told – not being a nun or a vicar myself I have no first-hand experience) and can only be a positive thing. It’s not a punishment for not being good enough, it’s a choice which leads to a personal reward.
I do think that people who abstain from things for religious reasons have one big advantage over people who abstain from their favourite foods when dieting: faith. Their faith in God, or Allah, or Buddha, or whoever their particular deity is, is an incredibly powerful thing. Their faith is in something else, not in themselves. Having faith in yourself is not something that comes easily to people. People who are trying to increase their fitness and become a better version of themselves have to have faith in themselves that they can do it. The problem is that so many of them (sorry, I should say us, as I am definitely in this camp) simply don’t have the faith in themselves.
Take Lent, for example. I’ve already shared the fact that I’ve tried and fai**d (banned word used for illustrative purposes only) several d*ets (same again) but when it came to abstaining from energy drinks, Facebook, and coffee for Lent I managed it. Why? Because I had faith in what I was doing. I succeeded because it didn’t require me believing in myself. I have a friend who wanted to give up smoking but lacked the faith and motivation. He met someone, and believed in their future together. When his girlfriend got upset at the thought of him being taken from her prematurely due to the diseases associated with smoking, he managed to give it up. Just like that. No patches, no meetings, no e-cigarettes – nothing. Whatever your personal beliefs, spiritual or otherwise, having something that you can aim for, having faith in being able to succeed and possibly doing it for someone you care for will be a big help.
However, if you’re not able to have faith in yourself, and you’re not quite at the stage of seeing that saying no to the second piece of chocolate cake is a good thing and brings its reward, complete abstinence may only exacerbate the stinking thinking. In Eat, Train, Love, I discussed the issues with maintaining motivation if the goal is weight-loss as weight-loss tends to be gradual and we live in a world of instant gratification where the buffering icon on YouTube is taken as a personal insult. The lesson here? Have a little bit of what you fancy. Don’t punish yourself. Don’t hate yourself.
Let them eat cake!
It’s my birthday today. Yesterday before work I got on the scales and noted that, in the past 2 weeks (I’m focusing on fitness not weight, but I was curious), I’ve lost 2.5lbs. At work, the office table was laden with all sorts of wonderful treats to celebrate my birthday. Did I feel miserable at the sight of them? No – I was delighted! Did I think “I really mustn’t have any because I’ll undo all my hard work?” No! I thought to myself, well, thank goodness I’ve worked so hard, because if I hadn’t, this lovely cake wouldn’t be a reward and I’d end up even more unfit than I was to start with.
Readers, I ate a slice of cake and shared a tub of M&S chocolate mini rolls with my gorgeous bottom set Year 10 class. It was a wonderful day and I didn’t feel deprived. Because I hadn’t been strictly abstaining but making positive choices for the past two weeks, I didn’t feel guilty either. This meant I didn’t gorge and I haven’t failed. What’s more, I’m sitting here, writing to you, feeling excited that it’s my birthday and eagerly anticipating the fish and chip supper that my mum and grandma are treating my husband and me to this evening.
In conclusion, today I have not failed a diet. I have enjoyed my birthday and will continue on my journey to fitness and to becoming the best version of myself. Dear readers, while I can’t share my birthday cake with you, I can say that I hope you’ll have a little bit of what you fancy.