The Psychology of Dieting

Wednesday, Sep 9, 2020 | Featured

Written by: Coach Mindy Matus

How many times have you started a weight loss journey and given up before you reached your goal? How many times have you restarted? Have you ever wondered why you can’t control the urge to reach for the donut in the conference room? Have you ever wondered why you can’t keep grabbing the bag of chips each evening while you are watching TV? It all boils down to your elephant. Who and what is my elephant you ask. Well, let me explain. Your brain is made of two parts: Emotional and rational, our elephant and the rider. A great analogy of this war on the brain was developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He argued that the human brain consisted of two sides: an emotional side (The Elephant) and an analytical, rational, logical side (its Rider).


Your Elephant represents your emotional side-AKA the unconscious brain.

Your unconscious brain is multi-tasking and can focus on many things at any given time. It is also involuntary. It controls bodily functions like breathing, heart rate, digestion, and reflexes. The unconscious brain is a habitual creature. It prefers things that are comforting and familiar. It also stores past experiences and is responsible for your core beliefs and values. Your unconscious brain only operates in the present, and focuses on what it needs and WANTS now. We call this part of the brain your elephant. Your elephant is who urges you to grab the macaroni and cheese when you are blue. You see, your elephant is a great manipulator. Your elephant is the colossal, looming monster inside of you that wants to eat cookies, pig out on the charcuterie board at book club, and lounge on the sofa while chowing down a bag of chips while binge-watching Netflix. Your inner elephant is basically a brat. Now let’s meet the rider.

The rider represents your conscious brain.

Your conscious brain can only focus on one thing at a time. It is the reason why you can’t scroll Facebook and follow what’s happening on Ozark. This part of your brain is also voluntary. Your conscious brain controls actions that are not controlled by the unconscious part of your brain. It is also responsible for setting goals and casting judgements. Your conscious brain makes all the decisions and is results driven. It has short term memory and thinks of things in the future as well as the past. This, my friends, is the rider. The one whose desire is to control the elephant and lead him through a path of self control. The Rider is your reliable, responsible mind that understands that eating a whole pint of Rocky Road will make you gain 10 pounds, feel like crap, burden yourself with guilt and hate yourself later.

The trick to weight loss is to balance out the power over your inner elephant and the rider.

The reason why you’ve struggled is because your inner elephant has had control. But, the trick isn’t to extinguish your elephant’s desires because you will never win that way. Your elephant is way too big and powerful. What you need to do is make peace with your elephant, tame him. You see, your elephant REALLY likes things to stay the same. He likes taking the familiar, comfortable path. So, when setting goals, don’t change too much at one time. Focus on one goal at a time. Small baby steps for the elephant. Another thing that really spooks your inner elephant is goals that are too big. You need to set small, obtainable goals. Ones that you can meet pretty quickly and easily and work your way up like getting in your recommended water for the day or meeting your step goal all week, and losing 5 lbs. This way your elephant can stay on course and resist the path of least resistance, which is the familiar path (your old habits). Another thing you need to do is treat your elephant occasionally. Have the nachos, save your bites for the brownie overload Blizzard and don’t feel guilty about it. Remember, you’re experiencing a lifestyle change. This isn’t a diet you go on and off of. I can’t imagine a life without chocolate and neither can your elephant. Occasionally, your elephant is going to win. That is just life. He may win the battle but he won’t win the war if you focus on pulling in his reins as soon as you can. Don’t beat yourself up when he gets the best of you, your rider knows exactly how to handle that pesky elephant. Being conscious of your elephant and understanding it is the first step in mastering it.

It all boils down to building new habits and changing existing ones. Habits are like a muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it will be. Once these new habits become second nature your elephant will pick up on it and it will become more automatic. This points your elephant in a new direction and your rider won’t spend as much energy guiding him. And that’s got to be a good thing.