Category Archives: Psychology of weight

Dogs and Christmas Eating

I remember going for a walk with my parents and their two dogs a few years ago – before they attempted any proper training of said dogs. We were strolling down a grassy hillside enjoying a rare dry, sunny day in Wales when we sighted potential disaster ahead. The area was usually deserted but on this fateful day a family, with three children, were having a picnic.   They had a neat white cloth, a bottle of wine, bottles of lemonade, heaps of precisely cut sandwiches  and a large cream cake.    Dad made a comment along the lines of, “That family have got an impressive picnic!”

Ben and Sammy, the young Labradors, clearly had the same thought. They came thundering up from behind us and headed for the picnic at full gallop. Dad screamed dire threats but they ignored everything – they had the scent of sausage rolls in their nostrils. Dad took off after them like a racehorse out of the stalls, but the dogs were faster. They hurled themselves into the centre of the picnic in a frenzy. It was so awful we felt like abandoning the dogs and just running away. By the time we managed to rugby-tackle and remove the dogs, the picnic was no more.

That was when Mum and Dad realised it might be a good idea to train their dogs.

Dogs have their own agenda. They pull on the lead, chase cats, sleep on the cream sofa, hoover food off worktops and of course invite themselves to picnics. They don’t engage in these behaviours because they are trying to be “dominant” or leader of the pack – they just do whatever seems most compelling in the moment.

Until they are trained, dogs respond to cues from the environment – smells, sheep, cats, other dogs, food on the counter-top, etc. Once trained (and this can all be done using positive reinforcement based methods) they respond to our cues and start to be less in thrall to their environment.

You’re probably thinking, “What on earth is she whittering on about this time, and has it got ANYTHING to do with weight loss?” Well, our unconscious mind is a bit like an animal, and it’s not necessarily a well trained one! It sometimes takes charge of our eating behaviour, which is why we can’t always control it.

You want your brain to tell you to eat in response to just one cue – hunger. That’s it. However, in reality, it will respond to all kinds of environmental cues, cleverly set up by food companies and society, and accidentally set up by you. Just as a dog will respond to the scent of a squirrel (or a picnic), we are primed to respond to “eating cues” whether they be internal (e.g “I feel bad therefore I must eat to feel better”) or environmental (e.g. “I am in the cinema therefore I eat popcorn”).

Christmas time is absolutely stuffed full of “eating cues”. But you can make it easier for yourself by manipulating some of the environmental cues in your favour. Just as you wouldn’t take an untrained dog in a field of sheep, try to avoid the cues which make most people over-eat without even being consciously aware that they’re doing it:

  • Large plates and large serving utensils make most of us over-eat.
  • Stubby rather than tall glasses cause most people to pour and drink more.
  • Large bags of food tend to make us eat more. Dish out a serving rather than eating from the bag.
  • Tempting food within reach will get eaten whether we’re hungry or not. Put leftovers away and don’t have a box of Quality Street within reach while you’re watching TV!
  • Eating while watching TV makes us stuff 40% more food down. Better to eat at a table if possible.
  • Variety tends to make us eat more. Be aware of this and ask yourself if you are really still hungry. You can always try different foods later.
  • Smaller “fun size” foods tend to make us eat more in total.
  • “Diet” or “low fat” foods tend to make us eat more in total. If you’re going to indulge, do it properly and steer clear of things like Elmlea and low fat options.

By manipulating a few of these things, you will naturally eat less without feeling at all deprived.

But most of all, enjoy it! If you have a “diet mentality”, you are likely to feel that all bets are off over Christmas and you might as well scarf food down yourself until you feel physically sick. So, avoid this kind of thinking. Stop eating as soon as you stop enjoying your food, and remember the diet doesn’t start tomorrow so you can have more lovely food later and you don’t have to eat it all today!

Have a great time over the holiday period!

Recognising genuine hunger

In my programme I encourage you to eat only when you’re hungry. Sounds simple but as you probably know, this is actually quite a tricky instruction.

The more I work in this area, the more I realise just how complicated it is to eat when hungry, particularly in a society which surrounds us with appetising food and bombards us with exhortations to eat.

I have written previously about research showing that our hunger hormones are affected by our beliefs. So, if you think you’ve had the “low fat” milkshake, your brain may “tell” you to be hungry, even though you’ve actually had enough to eat. So, are you hungry or not? You may feel hungry and (because of the hormones) you are biochemically hungry, but do you really need to eat? Probably not!

I’ve also blogged about research on rats where they were “trained” to eat a certain food when a coloured light was flashed. Initially they were fed the specific food (when hungry) in the presence of the light. After a while, they would eat that food in the presence of the light, even if they had just eaten their fill. They were not strictly speaking “hungry” at all, but something was motivating them to eat. We can’t be sure what it felt like to the rats, but it looks like a human craving.

Research in people has shown similar results – food becomes paired with “cues” such as having a cup of tea, passing a certain shop, getting on the train, going to the cinema, etc. and after a while you eat in response to the cue rather than “genuine” hunger. You may not even be consciously aware of the cue (in fact you almost certainly aren’t).  The urge to eat in response to one of these cues might feel like hunger or it might feel more like a craving. The cue may affect the hormones that make you hungry, so it is very hard to tell if you are “genuinely” hungry or not.

I’ve also noticed a tendency of people on my programme to eat “just in case”.  It’s as if there may be a famine around the corner and the next meal is uncertain. I think this comes from a combination of previous dieting, pressure to eat-up in childhood and just a general human tendency to err on the side of caution where hunger is concerned! (My friends and I picked up a dose of this attitude when travelling, even though it was totally unjustified since you can actually get food in foreign countries! )

I’ve realised that my advice to  “eat when you are hungry” can even make this pre-emptive eating worse. I want you to eat when you’re genuinely hungry, but sometimes it’s very hard to tell, and the cues we’ve talked about above can make you feel kind-of-hungry.  If you train your brain to expect to get fed in response to every little twinge, you will probably end up over-eating.

So what’s the answer?

There clearly isn’t a simple answer. I have to say that those clients who listen to the hypnotherapy CD regularly do seem to get the urge to eat less.  It’s clear that the unconscious mind is hugely influential in all this, and the hypnotherapy CD talks directly to it.  (It even worked on me – after I recorded the CD I found I couldn’t over-eat even if I wanted to! It was as if I hypnotised myself while recording it)

My suggestions:

  • Play around with letting yourself get a bit hungrier, just as an experiment.  Often it’s not so bad, and you may realise that you are consistently eating just a bit too soon. (All the advice on having to eat breakfast, etc, is being questioned at the moment.) 
  • Notice your “trained eating cues”.  Are there things that advertisers, your parents or just life circumstances have trained you into taking as a cue to eat? You may even feel “hungry” in response to these cues.  See if you can wait a while before you eat, rather than responding in drooling Pavlovian style.  This will start to “untrain” the response.
  • Notice if you feel the urge to eat a specific food. If you fancy something in particular (and wouldn’t want to eat something solid or boring) you may be responding to a cue that isn’t really hunger. If you’re genuinely hungry, you should be happy to eat pretty much anything edible!
  • Start to observe how things like portion size, plate size, company, room temperature, alcohol, etc affect how much you eat. If you can manipulate your environment to make it easier not to over-eat, why not do it?
  • Beware of foods high in sugar, particularly if they also contain salt and fat (and this includes most junk food). These foods seem to have a special effect on the brain which makes them very good training aids for the food companies! Your brain finds them rewarding even when you’re not hungry.

The book “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler includes more information on this research.




Tribal Wives

I have recently watched a few of these programs where a workaholic woman from London spends a month with a tribe in some remote jungle in Indonesia or Africa.

The woman gets a very different perspective on life, and the tribeswomen get to have a good laugh about the fact that she’s 38 and not married yet!

One thing that strikes (and bothers) me is the number of tribes in which women undergo some form of ritual mutilation such as teeth sharpening. In many cases, the mutilation must be extremely painful. In some cases, men are also mutilated but these mutilations tend to be of the “short sharp shock” type from which the men recover, whereas women often have things inflicted on them which will affect them for the rest of their lives.

For women, the mutilation is often about being “beautiful” and acceptable for marriage.

Of course such mutilation has happened in many societies over the years, from corsets in Victorian times to the horror of foot binding in China.

These “customs” often render women less strong and capable and more compliant and dependent on men than they would otherwise be, as explained with regard to foot binding:

“During the 1100s the governor Chu Hsi criticized the wornen of Fujian Province for being unchaste and enjoying too much freedom, and ordered them to bind their feet to the extreme. The tiny footed women would then no longer be free to leave the household as they pleased, or engage in the sexual freedoms enjoyed by men.”

One of the strangest aspects of these mutilations is the way the women accept and even embrace them because they are brought up to think of them as natural, normal and necessary. In fact older women often inflict these horrors upon their children and grandchildren.

Foot binding seems to us to be obviously horrific and abusive. But could something similar be going on in our culture?

How many women in our culture want to look like this?

skinny woman How many girls starve themselves because they want to be “slim and beautiful”? How many women wake up thinking about what they are going to eat, obsess about food all day and go to bed vowing to be “good” the next day? What could they achieve if that energy was put into other endeavours?

The woman is this picture may be naturally this shape (although her breasts don’t look very natural!) or she may have an eating disorder. She’s almost certainly airbrushed. Is wanting to look like this really so different from wanting 3 inch long feet?

Will future cultures look back at our culture and its obsession with slimness and marvel at the insanity of it just as we do about foot binding?

Does the devil in your mind really doom you to diet failure?

One of my clients, Kate, called me the other day in a bit of a dither. She had just had a terrible binge, in which she felt completely out of control with her eating. She said she had been eating like her labrador and, having seen said labrador dining, I knew this was serious. Kate wanted to understand what had gone wrong, because before this incident she had been very successful with the enlighten programme weight loss course and had not binged for a long time.

We talked about what Kate had eaten that day (same as normal), whether she was upset or angry about anything (no), whether she had let herself get very hungry (no), whether she had stopped listening to the hypnotherapy CD (no). Nothing seemed to have changed and we were about to give up, when she said: “I did read this thing in the Daily Mail about dieting… I don’t suppose that could have triggered anything…” Whilst I am not a great fan of the Daily Mail, I haven’t previously held it responsible for eating binges.

Kate had read an article in the Daily Mail called: “How the devil in our mind dooms us to diet failure”. The article said that there is a little “devil” inside us that wants to eat chips and chocolate and a little “angel” that fights with the devil to make us eat good stuff (all very Old Testament). Some of us have stronger angels than others and those people are better at choosing Celery Surprise in preference to steak and chips.

Kate had read this article and had jokingly told her husband about her “devil”. Then suddenly, she got an irrestable urge to eat (and eat, and eat, at high speed).

After a bit more reflection and a conversation with her unconscious mind (using a technique which she learned on our home study course), it turned out that the part of Kate responsible for her eating didn’t like being called a devil and had had a bit of a tantrum. Once she acknowledged that it was not a devil and was actually on her side, things went back to normal.

It’s true that there are some areas in life where there is a conflict between the hedonistic part of you which would rather sit and watch “Britain’s Got Talent” and the responsible part that knows you’ve got work to do. However, your relationship with food doesn’t need to be like that.

When things are working well, you should feel the urge to eat healthy foods and enjoy just small quantities of things like chocolate or junk food. I think it goes wrong for so many people when they start eating foods full of sugar and chemicals (and this includes some “healthy” low fat breakfast cereals and snack bars) because our bodies and brains can’t cope with the addictive nature of these foods. The other big problem is when we make certain foods “bad”, causing them to take on a tantalising “forbidden fruit” quality.

It is possible to get to a point where food is a pleasure not a battle. Perhaps Kate’s unconscious mind was reminding her that if you choose to go into battle with your body and your unconscious mind, you’ll probably lose.

As I thought whilst trying to get my friend’s very unwilling horse onto a horse box yesterday, if you’re going to pick a fight, it’s not a good idea to pick one with someone bigger and stronger than you!

10 Things You Need to Know about Losing Weight?

For years, mainstream doctors have been saying:

  • To lose weight you just need to eat less and do more; if you get hungry, tough – you have to resist it;
  • A calorie is a calorie is a calorie – it doesn’t matter where it comes from;
  • You must reduce fat especially saturated fat if you want to lose weight;
  • Exercise is good for you but it doesn’t actually “burn” very many calories;
  • Cereal and skimmed milk is a good breakfast (being low in calories and fat).

However, when I ask my clients to record what they eat and notice how it makes them feel afterwards (e.g. do they get hungry again very quickly or crave sweet foods later) and when I encourage them to eat what they really feel like, they notice that:

  • Allowing themselves to get very hungry backfires because they can then no longer control what they eat;
  • It makes a huge difference where their calories come from in terms of how the food makes them feel and how much they eat at the next meal;
  • They seem to be able to eat full fat dairy (in reasonable moderation) and still lose weight;
  • Exercise makes a big difference to the amount of weight they lose;
  • If they eat a protein breakfast such as eggs (free range please!) they don’t get hungry mid morning and don’t crave chocolate;

Now, lo and behold, “scientists” have shown that my clients were right. In the programme “10 things you need to know about losing weight” on Wednesday, it was confirmed that:

  • If you get too hungry, you can’t control yourself – your unconscious mind takes over;If you eat protein, it does keep you going much longer;
  • The calcium in dairy stops you absorbing as much fat;
  • Exercise increases your metabolic rate for a long time after you finish exercising;
  • It’s good to eat eggs for breakfast.

The sad thing is that for years, doctors have been giving people bad advice. And yet, if people are encouraged to respect themselves and listen to their own bodies, they actually work these things out for themselves!

Intermittent Fasting

As I may have mentioned before, my Dad has never been one for moderation. When we were children, he read a book by John Yudkin called “Pure, White and Deadly” and this resulted in all sugar-containing items from our cupboards being hurled onto the back lawn “for the birds”. He then read about fibre and suddenly, instead of the bug-eaten apples from our tree turning into apple pie or apple crumble, they were stewed, with added bran – yum! The real low point was when they were stewed (with added bran) IN THEIR SKINS!

So recently when he announced that he would now only be eating every other day, I wasn’t particularly surprised. “It was on Horizon and in New Scientist” he said. “Stops you getting dementia and makes you live longer.” (He didn’t need to lose weight, having obsessively walked a minimum of 10,000 steps in the hills each day for the last 900 plus days.) However, when several of my sensible friends – who are much less prone to wild enthusiasms – also went onto this regime, I thought I’d better do some research!

So, what is intermittent fasting? Basically it is any regime that involves periods where you eat what you like and periods where you eat nothing or very little. There are lots of different ways of doing this, but in the popular 5:2 approach, you restrict calories severely (to 500 for women and 600 for men) on two days a week and eat what you like on the other five. Recently it has been suggested that intermittent fasting can help with weight loss, insulin function (diabetes, heart disease) and even dementia and cancer.

So – is it a good idea?

The New Scientist article and the Horizon programme were very positive about intermittent fasting. However, most of the research has been carried out on males (many of them rats, but far more male humans than female!) The research on women is less clear cut and the effects of fasting appear to be very different between men and women.

If you google “intermittent fasting women” there is some useful information including a very detailed blog post by Stefani Ruper. If you just want a summary, see below for my take on it.


There seems to be some evidence that “grazing” (especially on carbs) is not a good idea as your body is constantly having to release insulin. Fasting gives your body a break from this and there is some evidence that it improves insulin function (although the evidence is clearer for men than women.)

Intuitive eating programmes like mine encourage you to eat when hungry and not get over-hungry. However some people who are very afraid of getting hungry may interpret this as “don’t ever let yourself get hungry” and end up eating even when not hungry, to avoid getting too hungry (pre-emptive eating!)

For these people, intermittent fasting can sometimes help them to realise that they can get hungry and they won’t actually die!

Intermittent fasting may help you remember what it is like to be genuinely hungry – this is something you need to know!

Some people find it easier to eat a rigidly defined small amount some days and what they like other days than to eat moderately all the time. It can remove the constant thoughts of food that many people have, as there is no “shall I or shan’t I?” decision to be made. So, it may be an easier way to lose weight than permanent moderation. It can be a way to reduce food intake without feeling you are “dieting” because you know you can always eat lots tomorrow!
It can be an effective way to lose weight, but it really needs to be a long term lifestyle choice, otherwise it is just another diet and you’ll put the weight back on when you stop.


If you aren’t overweight (and particularly if you haven’t gone through the menopause), I don’t think the research at this stage supports using intermittent fasting for health reasons (e.g. to prevent dementia or generally prolong life.)

Fasting may make you feel very alert and energised. However if this translates into not being able to sleep, you may feel good short term but actually be technically stressed. Long term you may compromise your adrenal glands.
Some women actually gain weight when they start fasting. I assume the body interprets this as a stressor/ indicator of famine to come and finds a way to put on weight.

If you have a history of eating disorders, I wouldn’t recommend it. It is easy to get obsessive and go “just a bit longer”.

It may push you back into the “diet mentality” where your brain and/or body assumes food is scarce and urges you to eat more and store more fat.

As with all eating approaches, there is no right answer. You just have to experiment. Looking into IF has caused me to experiment with eating breakfast later if I’m not hungry first thing. Previously I thought I needed to eat something before mucking out the horses or I’d feel weak. But (especially if I eat low carb the day before) I can wait till 10am or even later some mornings before I’m hungry. If I had an early supper the night before, that is actually quite a long time without food. Some people find that having an “eating window” of say 10am to 6pm gives them the benefits of a fast without getting too hungry.

So, the bottom line seems to be – listen to your body! Intermittent fasting MAY help you lose weight, get more in touch with what it really feels like to be hungry, lose a fear of hunger and/or stop obsessing about food. However, it may have the opposite effect! And it could make you ill if you overdo it and don’t listen to your body, particularly if you are already thin.

One thing I would take from the positive research on IF is that it is perfectly safe to let go of any belief that you “need” to eat breakfast or three meals a day, or indeed any other dictate that makes you eat when you’re not hungry! Whatever you try, approach it with a spirit of exploration as to what works for your body, and be gentle on yourself (i.e. remember those Enlighten Programme principles!)

Who Knows Best: Fighting the Fat

Last night’s “Who Knows Best – Fighting the Fat”, on channel 4, was so awful I hardly know where to start.

The programme pitches supposed experts against one another like modern day gladiators. Last night’s challenge was about weight loss and pitched Paul the personal trainer (who thinks people are overweight because they are lazy and greedy and who shouted and swore his way through the programme) against Janet (who supposedly took a psychological approach).

Each contestant chose a willing victim for the other person to work with and the challenge was on – who could get their person to lose the most weight over a 6 week period? Paul was allocated Sarah whose favourite food was spam and egg pie, and Janet got Shareema who had a thing about chocolate doughnuts

Surprise, surprise the outcome was that Paul’s victim lost 22lb and Janet’s only 6lb. Hardly surprising since Paul’s approach involved serious exercise bordering on torture, coupled with a strict diet. A perfect strategy for short term dramatic weight loss (and subsequent dramatic weight gain…)

The programme was pointless in the first place because it is not that
hard to lose weight over 6 weeks – you can do this using any
number of diets. The hard thing is to keep it off.

Also, how can you conclude anything from an experiment involving just two people? How silly.

The “psychological approach” was very disappointing. I suspect Janet may do a good job in reality. It may that the programme makers just wanted to make her look silly by concentrating on tapping meridians and associating doughnuts with vomit (techniques which were presented in such a way as to invite ridicule).

But it didn’t seem that Janet’s woman got away from the “diet mentality” of good and bad foods, and “naughty days”, so again it just looked like a diet and I suspect she put the weight back on. She said she was an emotional eater but the only strategy we saw for dealing with this was “tapping the meridians”. This kind of thing can help some people but they also need to work out how to deal with emotions in other ways, without using food. I’m sure Janet will have covered this but we didn’t see it on the programme.

So, a victory for Paul the sadist, but I don’t suppose viewers had any doubt about what will happen to Sarah’s weight when Paul is no longer kicking her arse, as he so charmingly put it!

This post is transferred form another blog, so these comments have just been copied over.

Showing 4 comments

Denis Watkins

Hi Sharrema. I was glad to read your comments and I wish you all success in your diet regime. I am a very enthusiastic follower of lots of exercise. Everything I have ever read about exercise confirms my views. However, if I might just say what works for me.

First, find an exercise you enjoy or at least is not unpleasant. For most of my life it was playing sports, particularly football, and lots of walking/hiking. Now it is mainly walking/hiking. I have found a good electronic but simple pedometer a huge incentive. My aim is a minimum of 10,000 steps a day and as I have a Labrador this is perfect as he walks with me.

Second. There is massive scientific support for load bearing excercise e.g.: weight lifting; these exercise “elastics” – I bought a set of “FLEXCORDS” via Amazon and they provide endless oportunities.

Third. The appropriate diet and Roz knows a lot more about this than myself.

Four. Persevere. The only failure is to give up trying.

You sound to me like a terrific person who has the great virtue of being open minded and ready to change to use new ideas. I wish you lots of luck in your regime.

08/25/2010 04:06 PM

Hi Sharrema, thanks for this update. It’s really useful to know a bit more about what actually went on. I’m glad that Janet’s techniques are helping you. I suspected that she did a lot more than we saw, and that it could be good. It’s a shame it wasn’t portrayed a bit more positively but if the whole idea is to lose weight as fast as possible, you are never going to get a sensible approach winning!
Anyway, it’s great that you are losing weight and I find if it comes off slowly, it seems to stay off! Insulin resistance can certainly make it harder so it’s great that you are making progress. And I’m glad that Emma is getting help from Janet too.
Congratulations on the X-Factor and your album launch – that is really fantastic – well done!

08/23/2010 05:50 PM
Denis Watkins

The programme was not about losing weight; it was about entertainment. Paul, with an attitude so simple minded as to make me cringe, you can throw in his own internal macho needs as “I don’t care if people don’t like me, I’m here to do a job.” Yeh, yeh Paul. You are a really tough guy with desperate overweight women and obese men. Rather sad that you have to work out your own so obvious insecurities on these vulnerable people desperate to lose weight. In my view this is the only approach open to you as you have neither the professional knowledge nor insight to do anything else.

Janet may have offered more and done better. We will never know. The programme was so crass and superficial that she looked lost and, I’m afraid, rather foolish.

08/21/2010 05:27 PM

Sharrema Collapse

Hey guys, I’m Sharrema from “Who knows best” just to give you a quick update, I was very sceptical at the start about the things I did with Janet, something’s have worked for me others haven’t and so some of the tapping techniques I have carried on using as well as the pain and pleasure antidote but I’m using a mix of Janet’s methods and exercise because I actually am enjoying going to the gym and there were a lot of things that were filmed that you guys didn’t see. My weight loss maybe slow moving but it is moving and no matter what you have seen the one thing I hope you all realise is that I totally love me no matter what. Just to give you a progress report the reason why my weight loss was slow is that I found out during filming that I have insulin resistance which slows down your weight loss but is in no way an excuse. I have been attending the gym, yoga and classes at least twice a week my motivation is my album lunch in September which is giving me a well earned kick up the butt and also X-factor in which you will see me hold down a dance routine by the pussycats dolls choreographer Brian. Update on Emma is that since filming the show she has declined any assistants from Paul and is not continuing with any of his regime but you know what I don’t blame her instead will now be working with Janet. As for me myself and Janet our still in contact and I’m attending future seminars with her.

Horse training, rats and over-eating

I have two horses and I like them to be well behaved but also really enthusiastic about what we do together (which is not always the case with horses!) I use clicker training (positive reinforcement) where the horse gets a reward (usually food) if it does the right thing. In clicker training, you pair the food reward with a “click” sound so the horse learns that the click means “Yes, that’s right!” This gives you an extremely powerful way to communicate very precisely with your horse.

Here’s my young horse Oto.

(Yes, this is relevant to overeating… read on!)

One of the concerns about training horses using positive reinforcement is that they are very big animals and sometimes they just have to do as they are told, even if they don’t want to, to avoid hurting someone. So, the obvious question is: “Why would a half ton horse do something it doesn’t want to do, for just a piece of carrot or a few oats?” It seems to stand to reason that if the horse wants to do its own thing more than it wants a piece of carrot, you’ll have a problem.

Oto bridge March 2010 00m 10sHowever, surprisingly, it doesn’t work like this. Once the horse is properly trained to do a behaviour, it becomes a habit to do it when you ask for it (i.e. when you give a “cue”), even if the horse has a strong motivation to do something else. So, I have trained Oto to stay with me on a loose lead rope, and the other day he did this even though a motorbike went past at about a hundred miles an hour and scared him. It’s become a habit. He keeps the rope slack without consciously thinking about it.

So, what’s this got to do with overeating? Well, in researching how animals respond to “cues”, scientists at John Hopkins University in Maryland have found that if you consistently show a blue light when feeding a hungry rat, say, pizza, and a red light when feeding the rat ice cream, eventually when you flash a blue light, the rat will eat pizza EVEN IF IT IS ABSOLUTELY FULL. And if you flash a red light, it will eat ice cream. The lights become “cues” to eat and they are followed automatically even if the rat doesn’t really want to eat. Similar responses have been found in humans.

Do you think maybe the food and advertising companies could have taken a special interest in this research?

So, the challenge is that we are bombarded with “eating cues” and we have been “trained” to perform certain behaviours (e.g. finish what’s on your plate). We can end up eating or finishing our plates even when it makes no sense, just as my horse didn’t run away when a big, scary motorbike was coming right at him! We end up eating and we might not even know why. We may not even consciously notice the “eating cue” – perhaps we walk past an advert or we smell something and then we find ourselves eating before we even know what happened. These cues go to the instinctual, emotional part of the brain, which acts very fast and at an unconscious level.

So, are we just helpless victims in all this? I think not. If we make a conscious effort to pause before carrying out “trained” behaviours, we can over-ride them. You are trained to stop at red lights but you can override this if the lights are broken. You are trained to use a toilet but sometimes you have to over-ride this on long walks in the hills!

Eat consciously and avoid going into autopilot whenever you can. Make a conscious effort to leave a little bit on your plate. Train yourself to get into helpful habits, like stopping when you are satisfied, so that this habit is strong enough to over-ride any external cues. And bear in mind that the food companies will be happy to train you to over-eat whenever they can!

Showing 7 comments


This is interesting Roz. Do you think the rats and lights researh could be used to STOP eating? if it could i get find myself with a nice little sidline of changing the colour of the light in peoples fridges! or even putting a light in the cupboad where i store crisps and bread! i guess that a colored cloth draped in the cupboard might also work. your thoughts would be interesting.

04/24/2010 10:54 AM
Roz Watkins

Interesting idea, Paul! I can imagine them doing something horrible with electric shocks… Or you could associate a particular colour light with feeling sick – that could be done with NLP. Or, I wonder what would happen if they flashed a green light every time they fed the rats some nice salad or vegetables… You could go around installing green lights in people’s fridges! Joking aside, this would quite likely work. Stranger things have happened on the Derren Brown show 🙂

04/24/2010 12:50 PM
in reply to Paul

the problem i have with leaving a little on my plate is what if i’m really enjoying my food?!

04/23/2010 10:41 PM
Roz Watkins

Hi, yes, this can make it hard to leave some! It’s really just about breaking the habit of ALWAYS eating everything on your plate (if that is a habit for you). If it’s not, and you don’t eat beyond hunger because you are good at not putting too much on your plate, then there’s no need to do this.

But some people never leave anything. If you ever let someone else serve you, this means you are letting someone else decide how much you eat. Research with “bottomless” soup bowls (which fill up from underneath) has shown that some people will just keep on eating pretty much forever if the bowl never empties! If you have this habit, you are inevitably going to over-eat on a regular basis.

If the food is really nice but you are full and there is still some left, why not save it for later when you are hungry again? Often, the need to eat it all in one go stems from dieting in the past because there is a thought in the back of your mind that if you don’t eat it now, you might not be “allowed” it later!

04/24/2010 07:44 AM
in reply to kateab

What about that bread smell in supermarkets? I’m told it isn’t even real bread but a chemical they waft a chemical scent of baking bread. Once you sniff it you can almost feel yourself rushing to the bread counter. Pause and walk on. I bought a bread machine.

04/23/2010 06:05 PM

Roz Watkins

Funny – trains do it to me too! They trigger sleeping and eating…

04/23/2010 11:45 AM

Yes I know this effect – there is something about train journeys that cues ‘eat grab-bag pack of Quavers and a kitkat’ to me … matter how long the journey is! Still at least I recognise this now and sometimes (shock horror) I go on a train and don’t eat anything!


Does dieting really make you eat more?

Various research suggests that going on a diet can actually make you eat more.

When you’re happy with your weight and have never dieted, you rely on your body to tell you when to eat and (crucially) when to stop.

But when you diet, this simple process goes very wrong. My clients often say: “As soon as I decide to go on a diet, I get this desperate urge to eat!”

And, whilst they are “good” for a while and stick to the diet, if they ever break the diet and start eating, then they REALLY eat, wolfing food down like young Labrador retrievers.

The ice cream experiment

Psychologists have investigated the effect of dieting on food intake, using dieting and non dieting students. The students were invited to eat as much ice cream as they liked after being given one of three different “pre loads”: one milk shake, two milk shakes or nothing at all.

The non dieters behaved as expected, eating less ice cream after one milk shake than none, and even less ice cream after two. But the dieters actually ate the most ice cream when they’d had the two milk shake, super sized “pre load”!

According to the psychologists, the effect of the milk shake preload was to undermine the dieters’ resolve, so they temporarily gave up their dieting abstinence. After the two milk shake pre load, the dieters decided the diet had been blown out of the water anyway, so they may as well make the most of the situation, and enjoy the ice cream!

This is a feeling which all dieters must recognise. After succumbing to one biscuit you think: “Oh, sod it, I’ve broken the diet anyway. May as well eat the whole packet, and the diet starts again tomorrow!”

The stressful film experiment

By denying themselves, dieters also make food much more important and give it emotional significance that it does not have for non dieters. For instance, dieters are more likely than non dieters to turn to food when they are anxious or depressed.

At a recent study carried out in London, female volunteers were divided into three groups: the first went on a strict diet, the second underwent a rigorous exercise programme and the third neither dieted nor exercised.

After five weeks, the researchers measured the women’s food intake while they watched a stressful film. Bowls of sweets and nuts were left beside the women and they were told to eat as they liked. Even though none of the women were hungry, those in the diet group ate far more than the others.