By Earl Ubell
DON’T look in this article for menus, calorie counters or weight tables. Here, instead, is a scientific technique that can change your eating habits for the rest of your life-and become the key to making that life last longer
The technique is called behavior control, and is based on the reward and punishment ideas of B.F. Skinner and the many psychologists who followed him. I came upon it quite by accident. The year was 1956, I weighed 190 pounds. For a five-foot, ten-inch man at the age of 30, I was 35 pounds overweight. My father, too, had been overweight by 35 pounds when he died of a coronary heart attack in 1948, at the age of 44. His diet had been rich in high-calorie, high-fat foods, as mine was. As a science reporter, I understood well the relationship between overweight and his misfortune.
On the day my father died, I arrived a few minutes after his last heartbeat. The picture of his final agony was burned into my mind: jaw drawn back, mouth slightly open, skin gray, I shall never forget it. I recount that sad, terrifying moment because of a curious phenomenon that occurred when I began to try to lose weight eight years later: Lunchtime. A cafeteria. Like an addict, I am drawn to the hot table with its corned beef and French-fried potatoes. At the sight of corned beef, I actually feel my jaw working. And then, an image of my father’s face as I last saw it flashes before me. I am appalled. I try to turn off the picture by moving away from the hot table. I take a salad. The picture returns. I shout silently to myself: “stop!” I try to think of something pleasant: my forthcoming trip to Europe-anything to get that hospital scene off the screen of my mind. But note: I ended up with the salad rather than the corned beef. And it happened day after day.
Unconsciously, I had altered my eating habits through behavior control. I did not hear about the technique until many years later. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that psychologists showed that human beings can use thoughts to reward and punish themselves in order to bring unwanted behavior under control. And only more recently have the psychologists applied these techniques to eating behavior. The use of thoughts as reward or punishment is enormously convenient if you can make it work, because thoughts are always available. However, each person must find the technique that fits his own life and convenience. And he must use it in a formal and systematic way – that is, set it up as if it were an operating manual for driving a car.
Let’s analyzee how it worked with me. It depended on the fact that eating is automatic, my eating behavior and yours being governed by signals stimuli. The sight of food is obviously a signal to start eating. Hunger may also be triggered by a glance at the clock, a TV commercial, a feeling of anxiety. On that day back in 1956: 1. I am confronted with a stimulus (a signal)-the corned beef. 2. The stimulus initiates an automatic response – I start to reach for the corned beef. 3. At that moment, the unpleasant thought (punishment), the image of my father, appears in my mind. 4. Instead of the corned beef, I take the salad-a desired behavior. 5. Because the image of my father is disturbing, I shut it of f by shouting, “stop!” in my mind. I must do this or else the punishing image will overlap with the desired behavior and perhaps stop that, too. 6. Finally, a pleasant thought as a reward. I used a trip to Europe. Imaging that picture immediately after not be-fore the desired behavior. The sooner rewards are given, the better they work. 7. I move rapidly away from the food table, so as not to let the persistence of the corned-beef signal overwhelm me.
Such a system can be adapted to your own situation. By using thoughts in this way consistently and it should be emphasized over a long period, you will instill a new eating pattern. And the result will be a “permanent” weight loss. The first concrete step in formalizing your own diet change is to make sure you can get your imagination under conscious control. You need to learn three skill: conjuring up an unpleasant thought, stopping that thought (remarkably, imagining yourself shouting, “stop!” will momentarily clear it away), conjuring up a pleasant thought. Practice this sequence in your mind while lying down.
If you cannot imagine a scene that is sufficiently punishing, perhaps one of these will do: # An image that will make you nauseated, such as a bowl of ice cream covered with maggots. # Someone you know who is so obese that he or she disgusts you. Then let that person’s face dissolve and replace it with your own. Rolls of fat around your abdomen come off in your hands like sticky, hot taffy- and then grow back instantly. The essence of such negative thoughts must be that they are sufficiently horrifying to deter you, even momentarily, from undesirable eating behavior, indeed, the rougher a negative thought, the better will be its effect. Heart attack victims often have no problem losing weight initially, because they unconsciously use scenes of themselves in the hospital or dead to deter eating behavior.
In the punishment-stop-reward sequence, the punishing thought loses its potency if you do not reward yourself-at once-for the desired action. The following scenes are suggestions for thought rewards: # Walking arm in arm, thin and handsome or beautiful, with someone you love. # A thin you standing before a mirror in a bathing suit. # Playing with your children on a smooth, green lawn. Whatever image you use, it must give you great pleasure; it should almost have the quality of a daydream.
Once youget your imagination under control, you are now ready to put the technique of reward/punishment to work. As far as your diet itself goes, it really makes little difference what plan you use – counting calories, restricting or eliminating certain foods, or following a specific menu. The key is to be consistent . if you count calories, count them, every day and eat a variety of nutritious foods. You must end up each day, however having eaten less food than is required to keep the energy balance in your body.
Unfortunately, habit often overrules plan. Calorie-counters find themselves wolfing down a piece of apple pie when they could not resist it any longer.” When they count up the calories later in the day, the thought of having “broken the diet” is so punishing that they give up counting. But remember that in the reward/punishment system, there is no such thing as “breaking the diet. “ instead, you are concerned with achieving control at the moment of eating. Occasional failures are not critical; The idea is to adhere to the method more often than not,
To keep track of our food intake, I suggest you make a chart, a graph that shows a line of what your basic weight loss should be over a period of time will suffice. (don’t try to lose more than a pound or two a week.) Just remember as you go along to make another line on the chart of what your weight loss is. Such a chart has some reward/punishment features. For instance, you are about to reach for a slice of pie; in your mind you picture the chart with the line representing your actual weight crossing above the projected weight-loss line; the punishing image will deter you. Even without its psychological utility, the chart is essential as a method of monitoring the amount of food you eat.
After you have chosen your dieting plan –calories, food restriction or menus-and set up a chart, you still face the major problem of handling eating behavior in the presence of a stimulus. Learn to recognize the external signals that trigger your eating. Keep a diary in which you list for each eating occasion what happened to start you eating. Then develop tactics for avoiding these stimuli. If a commercial acts as stimulus, never have food near the TV set, or better, never have a high-calorie, ready-to-eat food in the house.
But behavior control is more powerful than avoiding stimuli, because every refusal increases your resistance. To review the sequence once more: stimulus, television commercial, for instance; food desire; punishment thought, a fat person –your-self-unable to get off a sinking ship; alternate activity, you pick up a book or a magazine; stop the punishment thought; pleasant thought, walking along a beach, for instance, held long enough so that the eating stimulus (the commercial) ends. Each success makes the next effort easier, because the power of the stimulus to make you feel hungry will be reduced –and that will reduce your food intake.
How well does all this work? Experiments indicate that reward/punishment methods can cause weight loss. If you are more than 50 percent overweight, you will find behavior changes on your own difficult but not impossible. People who are around 15 percent overweight have the best chance of changing on their own, using the reward/punishment schemes. They worked well for me. I now weight 157. I’ve lost 33 pounds-and I never felt better in my life.