There are two ways to approach the process of weight loss: one is from the bottom up, and the other is from the top down. Top-down weight loss is easier and more joyful to sustain. Think of weight loss as a triangle (above). Each tier of the triangle is a weight-loss strategy that–according to systems theory– functions as a leverage point. A leverage point allows you to accomplish the greatest change with the least amount of effort. Connecting the strategies at the bottom and top tiers is the key to success.
At the bottom of the triangle are physical interventions. They include everything from watching calories, increasing exercise, all the way to having surgery. These are very labor intensive. They require daily effort to sustain over a long period of time. Even surgery is far from a quick fix, as it requires lifelong monitoring of food intake and habits.
The second tier includes behavioral interventions. These include setting goals, enrolling in structured programs, and working with rules and incentives. Included in this tier are programs designed by nutritionists, highly-structured short-term programs, and rewarding yourself for progress. Since this tier works at the level of behavior and creates an environment geared toward success, it requires less effort than the physical interventions. However, it usually relies on the help of structured programs or professionals. Strictly behavioral programs are best for targeted short-term results, or to jump start a longer-term process.
The third tier includes mental or psychological interventions. Motivation, confronting denial, entrenched habits, and larger lifestyle issues are part of this tier. When you approach weight loss from the higher tiers, you gain insight into your behavior. This insight provides a framework for the physical and behavioral components, and fuels your efforts at change. In this framework, the other pieces (diet, exercise, behaviors) begin to fit together with less effort.
People who plug into the mental tier find lasting weight change through adopting a totally different identity from what they had before. They may become athletes after a lifetime of being sedentary, or passionately embark on a new physical hobby, such as yoga or martial arts. Or, they may wholeheartedly adopt a new dietary lifestyle that becomes part of their new identity–such as becoming a vegan or “eating clean.” The context of their new identity makes the physical and behavioral components fall into place naturally, and with less effort.
However, you don’t need to stop there. The highest tier—spirit—allows us to incorporate the lower tiers with the least amount of effort and the most joy. Tapping into higher spiritual values of mindfulness, letting go, compassion, service, gratitude, and life-purpose provides a profound framework for change. These virtues provide a structure into which the necessary components of weight loss fit. Spiritual values provide a limitless supply of motivation to help with the physical and behavioral components.
When trying to lose weight—whether it is your first time or you fiftieth time—think in terms of leverage, where you can achieve the greatest results for the least effort. Try connecting to a mental or spiritual component to super-charge your weight loss efforts.
Systems theory adapted from Donella H. Meadows (2008), Thinking in Systems.