Excerpted from Spirituality & Health--The Soul/Body Connection
Right this minute, I want a pinwheel cookie--the kind with chocolate on the outside that looks like paint and tastes like plastic. I've loved them as long as I can remember, and I want some so much that I can already see myself turning off my computer and going downstairs to find them. I know exactly which drawer they're in.
We face desires like this all the time, whether for a cookie, a pint of Häagen Dazs, a stiff drink, a cigarette, even a neighbor's spouse. Out of nowhere, we suddenly desire something that we know isn't good for us--something we may not even really want. Yet, so often, we act on these desires and eventually wind up obese, alcoholic, cancerous, or divorced.
Our research, at the University of California, San Francisco, into the causes of obesity makes it clear that all these desires have the same basic roots--and the same basic cures. For over 20 years, we have studied childhood obesity and discovered that 75 percent of children's weight problems are rooted in the inner conversations they have with themselves. Teaching kids some very basic skills--self-nurturing, which is like having a responsive internal "mother," and setting effective limits, which is like have a safe, powerful "father"--brought their minds and bodies into balance and allowed their drives toward overeating to fade.
These skills are very simple but mastering them takes a lot of work and time. Here is what I do when I'm held captive by my favorite cookie: I shut my eyes to my computer and to the pile of journals on my desk. Then I take a deep a deep breath and shut out the noise from the street. I notice my thoughts: I want a cookie. I deserve it. They aren't that many calories. I didn't eat a big lunch today. I let those thoughts pass and go deeper to where my feelings are. I'm not sure I'll find any feeling, but I wait. I give myself plenty of time.
How do I feel? Guilty about my taxes. I haven't done them yet. I also feel restless because I've been sitting at the computer too long. I feel a little bored because I've been formatting charts all day. So what do I need? I need to call my accountant about my taxes and get some exercise, perhaps take walk. Do I need support? No, not really. I can meet these needs by myself.
These first three questions: "How do I feel?" "What do I need?" and "Do I need support?" are much like a nurturing "mother"--allowing me to begin to soothe myself. But nurturing is only half the process. To be in balance I need to access the good "father," who, by setting limits, fills me with a sense of power and safety. So now I'll ask myself three more questions: "Are my expectations reasonable?" "Is my thinking positive and powerful?" And, finally, "What is the essential pain (the unavoidable risk) and the earned reward (the benefit)?"
Scientific research shows that, on average, people lose weight no matter what treatment they choose. Grapefruit diets, chocolate diets, Christian diets, Twelve-step programs, prescription pills, personal trainers--they all "work." If you put yourself on virtually any weight-loss program, chances are you're going to lose at least some weight.
How can all these wildly different paths all seem to go toward the same destination? The answer is simple. Every weight-loss program, no matter how good or crazy, sets limits and so gives people a sense of control. Sometimes the most strict (or even bizarre) diets seem to work best because they set the strictest limits. Nearly every weight-loss method also equips people with a source of nurturing: a support group, a personal trainer, or the self-nurturing that comes from making healthy food choices. This combination of limits and nurturing allows almost everyone to lose weight.
But if all these programs cause people to lose weight, why has there been a 36 percent increase in obesity over the last ten years? Because Americans are eating more--6 percent more fat and 12 percent more calories than ten years ago. And because most people seem to gain back the weight they lose. Why do diets fail so quickly? Traditional weight-loss programs--the personal trainer, the weight-loss drug, the rigid diet-and-exercise program--all rely on external sources of nurturing and limit setting, and external solutions are inherently fragile and unstable. The personal trainer can take a hike, physicians can stop the prescriptions, eating chicken breasts and steamed broccoli gets boring, and a twisted ankle can sideline your exercise. Even the Christian diets and the 12-step diet don't work for long. The drive to overeat is so primitive and so deep that a real solution to weight problems requires far more than mustering the true grit to diet, praying for redemption from gluttony, or calling one's sponsor daily.