Skip to main content

If you’ve ever failed at a diet, you already know you’re not alone. But you may not realize something more important: Science is showing that our approach to dieting doesn’t work. A recent study of nearly 22,000 people and 14 different diets showed only moderate weight loss after six months – which diminished at 12 months. [1] In this post, we explain how to hack your brain for success.

The old way to solve the dieting problem has been to compare diets, searching for one (such as the Mediterranean diet) that works for most people. Newer approaches involve choosing a diet that matches your personality, body type, or genetic issues. That sounds promising, doesn’t it? Finding a diet that suits you sounds a lot better than a one-size-fits-all approach (although the Mediterranean diet does have a lot going for it).

There’s just one problem with this approach: It’s still based on dieting. And while “dieting” should be a broad term referring to changing our eating habits, it’s not. It’s code for giving up (or seriously restricting) the foods we love. And that’s an issue because it pits us against our brains.

The pink elephant of why diets fail

Let’s try a little experiment in thought suppression. For the next minute, don’t think about pink elephants. Don’t picture them, don’t think about their meaning, and don’t even wonder who came up with that silly idea in the first place. Think about anything else, anything at all. Just no pink elephants.

If you can’t handle this seemingly simple task, don’t worry. You’re not weak or undisciplined. Studies show that thought suppression (trying not to think about a topic) is the most effective way to stay focused on something – even more so than deliberately making it your center of attention. [2]


Daniel Wegner, a pioneer in social psychology, discovered why. When we try to use our willpower to stop thinking about pink elephants, we simultaneously trigger two systems in the brain. One of them considered an operating process, searches for “mental contents consistent with the intended state” – other things to think about in the pink elephant case. This requires considerable mental energy. (If you managed to avoid thinking about pink elephants for one minute, congratulations. But continuing for another five or ten will be a lot harder.)

The other system, referred to as a monitoring process, helps your brain conserve energy by figuring out when the operating process is no longer needed. It does this by “searching for mental contents inconsistent with the intended state”. In other words, it monitors your brain for evidence that you’re thinking about pink elephants. When it can no longer find such evidence, the operating process can stop. This process requires far less energy.

Resisting the cake

Often the two systems work well together, and you get exactly what you want. But if the monitoring process takes over (which it can easily do when your energy levels are low or the task continues for too long), you end up focusing your attention on the very thing you were trying to avoid. [3]

In the case of pink elephants, that’s not so bad. But when it comes to triple chocolate cake, it’s a different story.

Thought suppression simply isn’t an effective way of resisting that cake. And giving in typically leads to more of the same.

How Feeling Bad About What You Eat Makes Things Worse

Once you’ve gorged on all that chocolate, you’re likely to experience some uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. And if you’re like most dieters, you’ll want to avoid them. One of the easiest ways to do that is – you guessed it! – to distract yourself with yummy, fattening food.

Of course, not everyone reaches for food. Chances are smokers will light up, gamblers will head to their favorite gaming site, and shoppers will buy another tiny sweater for their parrot. In other words, we’re likely to self-soothe by engaging in the very activity we were trying so hard to control. Chances are that’s how we got hooked in the first place.

So if you want your diet to succeed, you’ll need to make it a “no-dieting diet”.

What’s a No-Dieting Diet?

It’s a set of brain-based hacks to help you change your diet without “going on a diet”. They come from Kelly McGonigal, PhD, an award-winning psychology instructor at Stanford University, and her book The Willpower Instinct.

Here are the brain hacks:

  1. Shift your focus from the negative to the positive. This breaks the “I can’t stop thinking about chocolate cake” cycle and gets you focused on what you can do. (For example, you can find healthy foods that you like. Eat enough of them, and you’ll find yourself less tempted by the unhealthy ones.)
  2. Give yourself permission to think about the foods that aren’t good for you. Brain activation studies showed that as soon as participants got permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, they became less likely to think about it. As McGonigal puts it, “When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you.”
  3. Commit to a small, consistent act of self-control. It could be anything – using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, not crossing your legs when you sit, saying “yes” instead of “yeah”. According to McGonigal, studies have found that this can increase your overall willpower. She suggests that you’re training your brain to pause before acting. And small, simple actions like not crossing your legs aren’t likely to lead to an emotional meltdown.

How to flex your willpower

Of course, you can choose something related to your goal. Just ensure it’s easy (think keeping a food diary, not giving up chocolate!). You’re trying to flex your willpower muscle, not wear it out.

  1. When you need more willpower, get some exercise. McGonigal says the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. For example, 15 minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings. But you can benefit from even less. A 2010 analysis of 10 studies found that the greatest mood-boosting effects came from five-minute doses of exercise. So before you try to banish those blues with chocolate, get on your treadmill or try a quick walk around the block.
  2. Stop beating yourself up every time you make a mistake. As explained earlier, we often try to distract ourselves from painful emotions by repeating the very behavior that triggered them. Diet researchers have confirmed this with a fascinating study testing the hypothesis that making dieters feel better about giving in to their cravings would improve their results. [4]

Both groups were given doughnuts to eat, followed by three large bowls of candy. Before eating the candy, one group was given the perspective that, since they’d already broken their diet, the candy didn’t matter. The other group was told not to be too hard on themselves and to remember that everyone indulges sometimes.

The group that was encouraged to forgive themselves ate 28 grams of candy, while the others had nearly 70 grams. So much for using guilt as motivation!

Are you ready to diet without dieting?

If you’re on a diet, or you’re thinking about starting one, why not try a different approach? By shifting your focus and exercising those willpower muscles, you can make the whole process easier and more effective. You feel good about what you’re doing, knowing you’re basing your new approach on what science is showing us about our brains.

Ge L, Sadeghirad B, Ball GDC, da Costa BR, Hitchcock CL, Svendrovski A, Kiflen R, Quadri K, Kwon HY, Karamouzian M, Adams-Webber T, Ahmed W, Damanhoury S, Zeraatkar D, Nikolakopoulou A, Tsuyuki RT, Tian J, Yang K, Guyatt GH, Johnston BC. Comparison of dietary macronutrient patterns of 14 popular named dietary programmes for weight and cardiovascular risk factor reduction in adults: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised trials. BMJ. 2020 Apr 1;369:m696. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m696. Erratum in: BMJ. 2020 Aug 5;370:m3095. PMID: 32238384; PMCID: PMC7190064.
Giuliano RJ, Wicha NY. Why the white bear is still there: electrophysiological evidence for ironic semantic activation during thought suppression. Brain Res. 2010 Feb 26;1316:62-74. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2009.12.041. Epub 2010 Jan 4. PMID: 20044982; PMCID: PMC2822038.
Wegner DM. Ironic processes of mental control. Psychol Rev. 1994 Jan;101(1):34-52. doi: 10.1037/0033-295x.101.1.34. PMID: 8121959.
Adams, Claire E; Leary, Mark R. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology; New York Vol. 26, Iss. 10,  (Dec 2007): 1120-1144. DOI:10.1521/jscp.2007.26.10.1120
Steph Sterner

Steph Sterner

Steph Sterner is a holistic practitioner and the author of No Guilt, No Games, No Drama and other self-help books. She writes about personal development, why we think and feel the way we do, and the nature of consciousness. You can find her on Medium (@Steph.Sterner) or at


This content, developed through collaboration with licensed medical professionals and external contributors, including text, graphics, images, and other material contained on the website, apps, newsletter, and products (“Content”), is general in nature and for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice; the Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Always consult your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, procedure, or treatment, whether it is a prescription medication, over-the-counter drug, vitamin, supplement, or herbal alternative.

Longevity Live makes no guarantees about the efficacy or safety of products or treatments described in any of our posts. Any information on supplements, related services and drug information contained in our posts are subject to change and are not intended to cover all possible uses, directions, precautions, warnings, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or adverse effects.

Longevity does not recommend or endorse any specific test, clinician, clinical care provider, product, procedure, opinion, service, or other information that may be mentioned on Longevity’s websites, apps, and Content.