Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part Q&A with Jason Lillis, PhD, the author of The Diet Trap: Feed Your Psychological Needs and End the Weight Loss Struggle Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Jason Lillis, PhD, is assistant professor of research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a clinical psychologist at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI. He is coauthor of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and a leading ACT-for-weight-loss research scientist.
Who is this book for? Who can benefit from the ACT approach?
This book is for people who have tried the usual methods for managing their weight and building healthy habits and either have not been successful or have found themselves returning to their unhealthy habits soon after success. Anyone who has found themselves making repeated attempts to change their eating and activity habits and is willing to look broadly at how they relate to what they think and how they feel and make real changes in how they live could benefit from this book.
How does the ACT approach differ from other common weight loss strategies?
I think the biggest difference about this book is that it’s not a set of diet rules and exercise recommendations. It’s a book about how we relate to ourselves, the struggle with how we feel and what we think about ourselves, and how, for some of us, food comes to play a big part in helping us try to change how we think and feel.
Why do some people still struggle to lose weight despite doing the “right” things like calorie restriction and exercise?
The biggest issue, of course, is our toxic food environment. There is an endless supply of delicious, high calorie, unhealthy, relatively inexpensive food available to you at a moment’s notice, and that makes poor eating choices simply too easy for all of us. So when folks make changes in their eating and exercise habits, these changes often don’t last, in part because of the food environment. However there is another key factor. Often these habit changes are made in the name of “fixing” something about oneself that is undesired—body shape, self-esteem, relationships. Weight loss becomes about changing that which is broken, or avoiding that which is undesired. This does not tend to sustain behavior change over time.
What is the “fix-me” trap, and why is it doomed to fail?
The fix-me trap is when people fall into a pattern where they require that their thoughts and feelings change before they do important and meaningful things in their life. A simple example is a guy who says he has to not feel anxious before asking a girl on a date. The anxiety has to go away before he can ask her. Well, as a formerly painfully shy young boy myself, I can tell you that what happens is he never asks any girls out. That boy is in a fix-me trap because he must “fix” his anxiety before doing something meaningful—asking girls out.
Now weight loss can be a big fix-me trap for folks. Many weight patients say they will do all these wonderful things when they lose the weight. Often that means that when they lose the weight they will feel more confident, feel sexy, like how they look, be happier, and so on. And when they feel those things, they will do things like go dancing, to the beach, out with friends, or on a date with their partner—or deeper still—have sex with their partner, which can be the ultimate off-limits for someone who is disgusted by their own body and never feels sexy.
There are a few problems with this. One, while they are “fixing” themselves, they are missing out on life right now. Life is precious, each and every day we have the opportunity to do things that matter to us, and that is what life is all about. So if you put all of that off until you reach some imagined goal weight or some desired set of feelings, what are you doing? What kind of life are you living?
Also, what if you don’t reach said weight? Then what? Do you never do those things?
And finally, and here is what I think is a sad reality for many people, what if you do reach your goal weight…but then you find your thoughts and feelings don’t just line up in a row for you. You don’t feel super sexy and super confident all the time, and maybe your mind gives you a break on your weight, but now it’s found other things to criticize about you. I think many people find this over time. It’s human to have self-criticism and to have negative feelings, so if you think weight loss will erase all of that, and then that’s when you’re going to live your perfect life, well, you’re probably in for a rude awakening.
So, the way to avoid the fix-me trap is to do what matters to you right now. And pursue health not as a way to avoid feeling bad about yourself, but as part of a value-driven life, one in which better health allows you to engage in more desirable activities, have more energy for all the wonderful things you want to do, and allows you to stick around longer and with better functioning to share all those moments with loved ones.