Your stomach is a toddler. (A weight loss insight).

Photo: Bridget Coila

If you’re having trouble living up to your weight loss goals, this insight may help: your stomach is a toddler. And you can’t win an argument with a toddler.

First, a little context. I’m currently down 25 pounds over the last several months in a continuing journey of weight loss and exercise. I was old and fat when I started. I am still fat (and slightly older). But I am healthier, which is my objective, and I am on the right trajectory. I will still be fat when I am done with this, but a lot less fat with better habits and lower blood pressure. (If you’re looking for a quick fix or a diet, read some other blog post. This is about getting healthier slowly and permanently.)

In general, one person’s weight loss technique will not work for the next person. (Please don’t bother commenting on this post with what worked for you — it won’t work for me or for the rest of my readers.) But what I know about sustainable weight loss — and from my experience and my stint as the CEO of a weight loss and wellness nonprofit — is that it depends on habits. Become aware of what you are eating, how you are moving, and how you are thinking, then make choice to change those habits and work on establishing that change as permanent.

The problem is that your own body and physiology can undermine what you’re trying to do. Why? Because it acts like a toddler.

Reasoning with toddlers

If you have ever attempted to reason with a toddler, you know how hard it is. Toddlers want what they want. They don’t understand the long-term, and their reasoning skills are flawed.

You have conversations like this:

Toddler: “Why can’t I get the toy train?”

Parent: “You just got a train at the other store yesterday.”

T: “But I want this train.”

P: “You have enough trains.”

T: “Want train. I see the train. It’s right there.”

P: “We have to leave the store now. We are late to meet Grammy.”

T: “Get the train. I need the train.”

[Following by dragging the poor kid right out the door with everyone wondering why you can’t control your kids.]

Toddlers are very closely in touch with their needs and their senses. You can explain. You can distract. You can mollify. But even though you are an educated, mature adult and they are a brand new, inexperienced, unschooled human just out of diapers, you cannot win the argument.

But you can find a way to get past it.

Your stomach acts like a toddler

Let’s talk about your stomach. By “your stomach,” of course, I don’t actually mean the digestive organ in your abdomen where the food goes after you eat it. I mean your appetite, your hunger, and your need and desire to eat stuff. I call it “your stomach” because even if the desire comes from your brain, it feels like it is coming from your stomach.

And if you are attempting to develop eating habits besides than the highly ineffective “Eat what you feel like eating when you feel like eating,” you will find yourself reasoning with your stomach. And just as when reasoning with a toddler, you cannot win the argument.

Stomach: “Want cookie.”

Higher brain function: “We’re not having a cookie right now. We’re limiting sweets.”

S: “Want cookie.”

HBF: “Sweets make you want more sweets. You’ve seen that a thousand times. No cookie.”

S: “Still want cookie. One cookie.”

HBF: OK, one cookie.”

[Eats cookie.]

S: “Want another cookie.”

HBF: “What did I tell you?”

Or . . .

S: “Hungry now.”

HBF: “We just finished lunch. Wait a few minutes. You’ll feel full in a few minutes.”

S: “Still hungry. Need more food.”

HBF: “That was a filling, healthy lunch. You’re not hungry. You just feel like eating.”

S: “Feel like eating. Eating is fun.”

HBF: “Can’t you wait? [Sigh.] OK, here’s another helping.”

S: “Ugh. Ate too much. Too full now.”

Or . . .

S (2:45pm): “Want snack.”

HBF: “We finished lunch at 1. You’re just used to being hungry now. I’m trying to establish a habit of not eating snacks between meals.”

S: “Okay.”

S (2:47pm): “Want snack.”

HBF: “We just went over this. No snacks. We’re establishing a new habit.”

S: “Okay.”

S (2:49pm): “Want snack.”

Or . . .

S: “Take a big portion. Take the whole container of leftovers.”

HBF: “You just feel really hungry now. You won’t after we eat a bunch of this.”

S: “Why leave half a portion? Take the whole thing.”

HBF: “That’s not a normal portion size.”

S: “Don’t waste food.”

[Takes whole portion.]

S: “Eat everything on the plate.”

HBF: “I’m starting to feel full.”

S: “I still see food on the plate. If there is food on the plate, you have to eat it.”

[Eats everything on the plate.]

S: “Wow, feeling very full. Let’s take a nap.”

Why it’s so hard to reason with your stomach

Maybe you have different conversations from these, but I bet you recognize the way they feel. You have rational reasons to want to do something healthy, and your inner toddler brain outsmarts you and you end up doing something you regret.

There’s a reason that you lose these arguments. The reason is not lack of will power — because no matter how much will power you have, sooner or later, your will power will get used up. (Ask any parent whether they ever give in to their toddler.)

The reason is evolution.

The part of your brain that can reason symbolically goes back maybe 164,000 years, to the emergence of the first Homo Sapiens. The part of your brain that reacts to food goes back many hundreds of millions of years. The tree shrews that were your ancestors knew that if they saw food, they’d better eat it, the sooner the better, and the more calories, the better. So did the reptiles that preceded them. The reasoning part of your brain is trying to fight a hundred million years of toddler-level food instincts.

And early humans evolved in an environment where food was scarce. They were a lot more likely to die of starvation than hypertension or cholesterol-laden arteries. Their toddler instincts used to be an evolutionary advantage.

Now you are surrounded by high-calorie, high convenience foods that appeal to your evolutionary desire to maximize consumption and minimize effort. In fact, food scientists at food and restaurant companies are doing their best to to create foods that appeal to your instinctive desire for sugar (fast energy), fat (high caloric values), and salt (electrolyte replacement). They have science. All you have is a brain that can reason, but can’t outlast the cravings of a toddler-level animal instinct.

If you can’t outsmart your stomach, what can you do?

You can’t win the argument — at least not every time. But you don’t have to give up and lose, either.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Educate yourself. While we are surrounded by unhealthy food, we are also surrounded by excellent information. Because nutrition is complicated, I don’t recommend any particular book and I certainly don’t recommend any diet, because once you give up the diet — and you will! — you will go back to failing. I recommend working with registered dietitian. Dietitians can help you see the truth and find ways to cultivate the habits that are right for you. (Here’s mine, Kerri Hawkins.)
  2. Remove temptation from sight. If the foods your stomach wants are in plain sight, of course your stomach toddler is going to say “Want that! Want that!” Get that stuff out of your pantry. Don’t go to that coffeeshop or lunch place with pile of pastries at the checkout. Out of sight is a lot easier. This may require reasoning with your family or your coworkers, but reasoning is what you do to protect your toddler from harm, right? (I once had to convince my boss that bringing the team a dozen doughnuts once a week was like exposing me to heroin — they would be hard to resist and would feed my addiction.)
  3. Taste your food. Think about the last meal you had. How did it taste? Did you notice it at all? I have cultivated a habit of never reading or looking at screens while eating (which is a pretty damn hard thing to do). Now when I eat, I taste what I am eating. As a result, when I get to the end of a meal, my stomach toddler has gotten a nice reward and is satisfied. When you don’t taste what you eat, your stomach toddler is far more likely to want more, since it didn’t get to enjoy the food it wanted.
  4. Delay and distract. A lot of our problems come from the feeling of satiety (that is, the feeling that you ate enough) coming on too slowly. If you are hungry at the end of a good meal, that is what is happening. Give in, and you’ll soon overeat — and later, feel over-satiated. The solution is to wait. But toddlers are very bad at waiting. So go do something else. This is when to play a game on your iPad, check out Instagram, call a friend, check your email, take a short walk. Ten or 15 minutes later, your stomach toddler won’t notice that you distracted it, and will no longer want to eat.
  5. Promise to give in later. This is a suggestion from my dietitian Kerri Hawkins. Take a smaller portion and give yourself permission to go back for seconds if you need to — and you might find you don’t need to. When you want something unhealthy, first eat something healthy — an apple, some carrots, some nuts — and see if you still want that treat later. Toddlers will often forget that they wanted something if you promise to give it to them after they do something else. The same strategy may work with your stomach toddler.
  6. Create habits. This is your ultimate goal. And it’s a funny thing about toddlers. If they always have a nap at 3pm and a story before bedtime, they get very used to the idea that that’s how it is supposed to be. If you can establish a habit, your stomach toddler will get used to it, and eventually, you won’t have to argue with it about every little thing.

You’re not going to win every argument with your stomach, any more than a parent wins every argument with a toddler. But you don’t have to outreason your stomach toddler, you just have to outsmart it. Use that giant sapiens brain of yours and realize that it’s a toddler you’re doing battle with. In my experience the stomach toddler tends to keep using the same old dumb but effective strategies — desire and persistence — while your reasoning brain can keep getting smarter. Eventually, you will figure out how to win.

If you put your mind to that, you might get what you want in the long run, even if your adversary is as wily as a three-year-old.

A note about comments: These types of posts tend to attract people suggesting (or selling) diets and books and the like. I will delete those comments and block you. I know you are trying to help, but as I said at the top, the solution that works for one person likely doesn’t work for the next one, and this is not a diet marketplace. On the other hand, if you’ve had success outsmarting or distracting your stomach toddler — or if you found value in this formulation — I look forward to hearing from you.

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  1. Remove temptation from sight.” Or at least out of reach. Desk workers who keep their snack jar within reach eat more than desk workers who must rise from their chairs to reach the jar.

  2. I laughed heartily at the 2:45pm, 2:47pm, and 2:49pm stomach toddler. Yup, yup, yup. There’s zero amount of logic that wins with that one. I love the idea of doing something else. I can sneak in a 10 min walk around the block and maybe the distraction works and extra steps.

  3. Toddlers like physical play so some mention of exercise might also be appropriate. Since retiring I now jog/walk three times a day. Have lost 40 pounds over two years a little at a time. Eat a little better but still enjoy cocktail hour. Did cut out the beers. Cheers to your success!

  4. I whole heartedly agree with reducing snacks at home. I often felt hungry for snacks, but when I rembered I only had fruit quickly available, suddenly the hunger went away.

    Another thing that worked for me: researching new meals and learning to cook them. I was a picky eater but researched and found some salads and soups which I really enjoyed. They were just as tasty as junk food, and this made dieting much easier.

    Some of my co-workers even praised the look of my salads and I ended up making lunch for our small team!