The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To lose weight, don’t just resist temptation. Remove it.

One way to lose weight: Make it harder to indulge by moving, or getting rid of, the candy jar. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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This is the fourth installment in my three-part series on obesity, since after the first three it felt wrong to have an obesity series without actually talking about weight loss. So many of us want to be thinner. How can we get there?

Whatever the issue, this column is supposed to take a good hard look at the actual evidence, but our collective inability to lose weight suggests that we won’t find much on strategies that work. We’ll find, instead, that study after study after study concludes that all diets are equally effective — which is to say, ineffective.

Not that we need peer review to tell us that. Just think about it for a second. Pretty much every obesity expert in the whole wide world points to a food environment loaded with convenient, calorie-dense, diabolically delicious food as the culprit (or at least one of the culprits). Yet a prescription for what to eat doesn’t really help when you come face to face with the temptation of what you’re not supposed to eat every time you turn around.

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And guess what? There’s a body of research about that, too. People actually study whether humans eat more when there’s food around. And you’ll be shocked, shocked to find out that they do. “The eating behavior of those with higher relative weights is susceptible to the presence of palatable foods in the environment,” concludes one.

In an experiment done at Google, one beverage station was set up with snacks right next to it, and a second with snacks farther away. When the snacks were right there, people who got a drink were much more likely to take a snack. Men’s snacking odds doubled, and women’s went up by a third.

Most of us, most of the time, don’t overeat because we’re hungry. We overeat because we’re tempted. Yet we continue to try to lose weight by manipulating our diet rather than our environment.

Anybody who pays even a modicum of attention to food already knows, more or less, what we’re supposed to eat: more whole foods with their nutrients intact and a lot less junk (and we know it when we see it). And diet after diet after diet gives us a different combinations of those whole foods, as though this combination is going to do the trick. Enough with the combinations! The problem isn’t the knowing; the problem is the doing. When there’s a plate of cheese danishes at the morning meeting, knowing you’re not supposed to eat them doesn’t really help.

At a societal level, we have to walk back the food environment that got us into this mess. But if you don’t want to wait for government, industry and societal norms to change, you can walk back your own personal food environment.

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To outwit the danish, don’t sign on for yet another diet that tells you not to eat it. We know, we know! Sign on, instead, for a strategy that keeps you from crossing paths with the danish.

Like charity, environmental manipulation begins at home. After two decades of writing about nutrition, and fighting my own weight for my entire life, the single best suggestion I have is to clear your house of every single food that calls to you. Seriously. Every one. If I had to wage a daily battle against a house full of ice cream, chips and baked goods, I would undoubtedly lose. So those things just don’t cross my threshold (except for the occasional festivity). I know I’m no match for 24/7 temptation. But, while I can’t silence the call of the Cherry Garcia all day and all night, I can silence it for the seven seconds it takes me to walk past the ice cream aisle at the grocery store.

This will give you a clue that one of the reasons I’m enthusiastic about the change-your-environment strategy is that it works for me. In a way, that makes me no different from that guy who cornered you at a party to tell you how keto is different from every other diet, and really it’s the only way to lose weight. But think about the last time you tried a diet. Chances are, you lost weight and then you didn’t. And then you might have regained. What changed? If you gradually got lured back in to the status quo of ubiquitous cheese danishes and Cherry Garcia, maybe it’s time to give the environmental strategy a shot.

Not that it’s always so easy. Many of us share a home with other people. People who are, perhaps, not as susceptible to the call of fridge, and don’t need the house to be stripped of snacks before they can eat reasonably well. My husband, Kevin, is one such person, and I am fortunate in that he is on board with my food strategy, and never complains about the fact that there’s nothing but ingredients in our house. Come snacktime, you just can’t do much damage with an onion, a cauliflower and some frozen shrimp.

Still, we do sometimes find ourselves with a rogue box of cookies (who can say no to a Girl Scout?), and I am not above asking Kevin to hide them someplace and dole them out two at a time, after dinner. Some creative solutions and family compromises may be required to make your home a no-temptation zone, but it’s worth doing because it’s the part of your food environment you have the most control over.

Other areas are trickier. Work, for example. You can’t wave your magic wand and get the danishes out of the meetings, the cookies out of the break room, the Snickers out of the vending machines. But you might find a few other folks who’d like to see that happen. Many employers are actively looking for ways to encourage on-the-job wellness, and there might some room to maneuver. You can, at the very least, make a suggestion. If a couple more people make the same suggestion, at-work food policies might begin to change.

Next, recognize the power of habit. We often overeat, again and again, at the same time of day or in the same circumstances. And, because external cues can make us start thinking about food — us and Pavlov’s dogs — changing the cues can help change the behavior. Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit,” is an excellent explanation of this tendency, and he’s got a good synopsis of the basics online, but the essence is straightforward. Break up any routine that culminates in eating stuff you’re trying to avoid. Don’t walk through the kitchen. Don’t drive by the bakery. If you reach for a snack as soon as you get home from work, have a plan to do something else that appeals to you, even if it’s a just round of a video game or an episode of the thing you’re binge-watching. If it involves physical activity, even better. I know my food day goes better when I don’t eat first thing in the morning, and that’s what the crossword puzzle is for.

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Still, you can’t live in a cave, and no amount of careful planning will keep you out of temptation’s way. When that happens, take a cue from the kids that succeeded in that famous delayed-gratification experiment. You know the one: Kids were left in a room with a marshmallow and told they could have two if they waited 15 minutes without eating the first one. The kids that managed to wait ended up coping better with school, stress and food in later life. What did those kids do to wait out the 15 minutes? They distracted themselves. They invented games or they sang songs. The did something — anything — to stop thinking about how much they wanted to eat the marshmallow. If you can’t go with physical separation, mental separation is the next best thing.

This is just the tip of the environmental-manipulation iceberg, but you get the point. Weight loss isn’t about a magic combination of food. There’s just no magic to be had. And when you read about how weight is about carbohydrate metabolism, or your microbiome, or insulin resistance, it’s hard to believe that the answer is as simple as getting the food out of the room. But four decades of getting crazy delicious food in the room — in every room — has gotten us here. So diet like it’s 1979.

Clarification: A previous version of this article referenced a study by Brian Wansink, much of whose work has been discredited. This version has been corrected.

More from Food:

The true connection between poverty and obesity isn’t what you probably think

Food deserts don’t cause obesity. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

6 ideas for curbing the obesity epidemic

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