Many years ago, when I was a graduate student, my research advisor embarked on a year-long weight-loss program. He needed to lose 180 pounds and decided to follow a then-popular semi-fasting diet. He was allowed to eat a specific amount of protein daily to replace that being lost by his muscles, along with myriad supplements to prevent nutrient deficiency. His weight loss was at first rapid and noticeable; it seemed to predict a successful outcome to his diet. But after a few months, people became accustomed to his increasingly thinner body, and the congratulations and compliments stopped. And so did his motivation.
One day, without any prompting on my part, he talked to me about how difficult it was to stay on his diet. "I am not hungry, and I don’t long for the foods I am not allowed to eat. But this process seems endless, and I am not sure I have the patience to stick to it long enough to get to my goal." He went on to tell me that he felt he was in a long tunnel and he could see no light indicating he was approaching its end. "I don’t think anyone realizes how much patience it takes to lose a significant amount of weight," he said. "My weight is coming off much more slowly now than at the beginning, and I knew this would happen as my metabolism slows and my body needs fewer calories each day. And I know that eventually, slowly, I will reach my goal. But it is very hard to believe it."
He was too scientifically sophisticated to believe that he could have achieved his goal through one of the faddish, quick-weight-loss diets. Indeed, his initial weight loss was rapid, due to dropping his calorie intake from approximately 3,000 daily to less than 1,000. His scientific training (he was a physiologist) informed him of the various reasons weight loss always slows after time on a diet. So intellectually he knew that he would reach his weight loss goal eventually, but emotionally he felt he was not prepared for the length of the process.
His experience (alas, he jettisoned the diet before reaching his goal), points out the importance of helping the dieter develop or increase enough patience to stay on a weight-loss regimen. Indeed, the way diets are advertised, the consumer might believe, perhaps magically, that the pounds will melt off like a popsicle in July, and that melting will never slow down. "How much weight did you lose this week?" is a question asked at weight-loss support groups when the dieter is weighed or checks in with the health care provider. Answers of "Less than a pound," or "Not at all..." are greeted unhappily by the questioner, and the implied or implicit response is that the dieter must be cheating.
What Diet Programs Should Be Doing
What diet programs should be doing is teaching the dieter to be patient. They should be helping the dieter to keep calm in the face of disappointment, distress, or suffering, as well as increasing the ability to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay. And, at their most relevant, diet programs should help the dieter have perseverance.
Why don’t they? Why don’t they say to the dieter whose weight-loss goal will take months to achieve that patience will be needed, along with diligent adherence to the diet?
If the weight-loss counselor were instead teaching the individual to play tennis, a musical instrument, or a foreign language, advice to the student would include being patient about progress and willing to accept mistakes. Often after early progress of learning a task (e.g., the ball is hit, the instrument makes some sound, a few phrases can be spoken in the new language), frustration at not progressing quickly may set in. But both the instructor and the student know that mastering the new skill will take time and patience.
New Skills to Master
Losing weight permanently also requires mastering a new skill. The skill includes making appropriate food choices, maintaining a fitness routine, dealing with stress without overeating, and acceptance of a new body shape and lifestyle. These should accompany the basic aspect of the diet: weight loss. But when the focus is only on weight loss and not on acquiring the skills to maintain it, it is understandable why patience is lost. And, eventually, adherence to the diet is lost as well.
Isn’t it time to be honest with the dieter? Shouldn’t the dieter be told that he or she has to acquire the new skill of maintaining a normal weight in order for weight not to be regained? Shouldn’t the dieter be told that such a skill will take practice and patience and considerable time to achieve? No one would go to a tennis instructor and expect to be playing in a competition or taking violin lessons and assuming a place in an orchestra after six weeks of instruction. The student understands that after time, practice, mistakes, and patience they will have achieved a new skill. But many dieters are not even willing to put the time into practicing and recovering from mistakes; indeed, the average length of time on a diet is six weeks.
Moreover, shouldn’t we tell the dieter that a failure to practice—i.e., to follow the diet and develop the skills to maintain weight loss—is common? Abandoning the diet should not be the response, nor should starting another diet in the hope that this will be more successful. One would not expect a student who fails to practice for a few lessons on the saxophone to abandon the instrument and start on another, a violin or drums. But this is often what the dieter does. “The diet is not working; I will try another.”
It is understandable why my research advisor ran out of patience and persistence and stopped losing weight. His diet plan could not be transferred to real life since he was consuming only small amounts of lean protein daily. He was not able to learn the skill of eating appropriate foods in appropriate amounts while he was losing weight. He could not see himself becoming, slowly of course, able to negotiate with himself over food choices and time spent exercising because this "self-talk" was not part of his program. His goal was only to see the numbers go down on the scale. It was as if he had learned to play only one note on the saxophone, and he lost patience with doing only that.
A poet, William Langland, wrote in a poem in 1360 that "Patience is a virtue." It is also a necessary component of successful weight loss.