inertia the real weight loss killer

Inertia – The Real Weight Loss Killer

Warren Huberman, Ph.D.

We do what we do because that’s what we do. That may seem like one of the most ridiculous sentences ever committed to paper, but read it again. We do what we do because that’s what we do.

This means that we don’t necessarily do what we do because we made conscious choices to do it that way. It means that much of our behavior is on autopilot. Think of this phrase with regards to eating. We spend so much time talking about emotional eating that we’ve forgotten that most of the time that we’re eating unhealthy or eating “comfort foods” it is not because we are depressed or anxious, it’s because we’re just not thinking about what we are doing, and eating has become a seemingly automatic behavior. Our minds are somewhere else. I’m not saying that emotional eating isn’t a problem, but rather that the behavior of eating without thinking is as big if not the bigger problem much of the time. Think about it. How often do you go into the kitchen to have some cookies because you are depressed? Now, think about how many times you go into the kitchen to get some cookies and you have no idea why you went into the kitchen. I bet the latter situation happens much more often. Ever find yourself in the middle of eating some cookies and you don’t even remember going into the kitchen or opening up the box of cookies? See what I mean!!!

It may be true that we learned to eat as a means of comforting ourselves from negative emotions such as anxiety and depression. However, the behavior of eating often persists long after the anxiety and depression is gone. Why? Habits are really hard to break and your brain isn’t in the business of breaking them without a whole lot of effort. A great deal of any individual’s behavior occurs outside of his or her awareness and with very little conscious thought. What this means is that many of our bad habits persist because we are not aware enough to do anything about it. We don’t necessarily reach for the cookies because we CHOOSE to have cookies. Our brains just automatically crave cookies when we are in circumstances that we have commonly eaten cookies in the past. We don’t even need to think about it anymore. Because you’ve engaged in the behavior of eating cookies under specific circumstances so many times (let’s say at night, feeling tired, watching television, a bit bored with the show) your brain now cues you to go for cookies without any conscious thought from you. No thinking required! And if you’re not actively thinking about your choices, you’re not making a choice. You’re operating on inertia.

What is inertia? You remember that phrase from high school physics
 “an object in motion is likely to stay in motion
.” What this means in terms of behavior is that a behavior that is repeated over and over (also called a habit) will persist unless something comes along to interfere with that behavior. Inertia is when behavior just keeps going because its been going. John Lennon had this wonderful lyric that said “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” This means that as long as you are alive, even when you’re not trying to make decisions or to make change, life goes on. Therefore, if you don’t do something to make changes in your behavior, you’ll likely keep performing the same behaviors you’ve always performed under similar circumstances. This is exactly what happens with eating most of the time. Diets are an exception. Consider just how different your eating behavior is from its normal state when you’re on a diet.

When you’re on a diet, you are contemplating every decision. You are in the moment and you are making choices. You are reading labels. You are measuring servings. You are counting calories, points, carbohydrates, etc. You are “on.” When you go off the diet, if you’re like most people, ALL of this stops. No more thinking, no more measuring, no more counting, no more making choices
just running on inertia. Eating with very little thought and your brain seems to eagerly resort back to its old ways. That’s inertia.

The keys to change are therefore rather obvious. Be in the moment. Contemplate as many food decisions as you can. Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time rather than trusting that your brain will help you make the right decision in the moment. It won’t. Anticipate high-risk eating situations like parties, weddings, and barbeques. Maybe you’ve heard all of this before. You probably have. There are many different terms used for this approach and they are likely speaking to the same concept. A hot term these days is “mindfulness.” It’s not really a new concept
the Buddhists have been talking about it for several thousand years. It’s really very simple in theory
be aware and observe your thoughts and feelings, and be present in the here-and-now. Then make your decision.

Why is mindfulness so important? Because habits and the power of inertia are incredibly powerful and the weight you have lost or are trying to lose wants to come back. Your body isn’t the least bit interested in helping you lose weight. So if your mind isn’t very conscious of what it’s trying to achieve, it’s just not going to happen. In fact, your body is fighting tooth-and-nail against you. Inertia is what happens when you’re not fighting back. Remember
we do what we do because that’s what we do. If you want to lose weight and keep it off, your new phrase needs to become “I do what I do because that’s what I’ve decided to do,” or better stated, “I eat what I eat because that is what I choose to eat.”

Dr. Huberman is a Clinical Psychologist with a practice in New York City. He is a Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. He is an Affiliate Psychologist at the NYU Langone Medical Center and NSLIJ-Lenox Hill Hospital. Dr. Huberman is a consulting psychologist to the NYU/Langone Weight Management Program. He is the author of the New Book Through Thick & Thin: The Emotional Journey of Weight Loss Surgery. For more information, visit