How our words shape our experience, and why diets don’t work

How our words shape our experience, and why diets don’t work

Have you ever noticed how the words you use to describe an experience eventually replace your actual memories of that experience? For example, I ran the New York Marathon last year. When I got back home, people asked me how it was, so I described it to them. After I told the story a few times, it became fine-tuned, and I settled on the most interesting bits to tell people, and the best words to use to describe those bits. Eventually, this description became so well rehearsed that whenever I think of the New York Marathon, I think of my edited description, rather than the actual experience.

In other words, the words I used to describe the experience became a shorthand for that experience. Rather than digging out loads of memories, my brain is somehow taking a shortcut and playing the edited highlights instead.

The trouble is that these edited highlights are not just a shortened version of events – they are skewed in the particular way that I had chosen to relate the experience to my friends. For example, I left out the boring bits. I downplayed some of the agony. I focussed more on the fun and excitement.

So the words we use to describe our experience not only become a shorthand for that experience, but they can start to define and shape the experience as well. This happens not only to our memories of the past, but to our experience of the present as well.

And that is why the language we use when talking about our experience, behaviour and goals is so important. Take these phrases commonly repeated by people watching their weight:

  • “I’ve been good, I deserve a treat”
  • “I’m not allowed to eat that”
  • “I can’t eat that, I’ve been too naughty this week already”

What do these statements have in common? They’re all childish language, implying the existence of a parental figure who allows and forbids certain foods, rewarding good behaviour with treats and punishing bad behaviour. The funny thing is, in most cases, this parental figure does not actually exist. It’s just a metaphor.

But how does this metaphor operate and what impact does it have upon people who use it? A parent is, of course, responsible for what their child eats. So an adult using parent-child language when talking about their diet is metaphorically relinquishing responsibility for their own eating choices. And this in turn can have serious consequences for their attempts to reach their target body weight.

Metaphors aside, unless you really are a child, then you and you alone are responsible for the choices you make about what you eat. No one else forces you to eat anything. It’s not McDonald’s fault if you eat junk food. And it’s not the fault of an international conspiracy if you consume sugary snacks and drinks full of high fructose corn syrup. You make all those choices yourself.

And it’s not naughty for you to eat calorie dense food, anymore than you’re being good when you eat healthily. Because ultimately you’re in charge, and you experience the consequences of your actions. No one else. Something is only “naughty” if there is a parent figure to tell you off. And something is only a “treat” if there is someone to reward you for “good” behaviour. And there is no such person.

I was discussing this with a friend recently who wants to lose weight. I explained how I choose to eat chocolate on one day a week, because that balances my love for chocolate with my desire to maintain low body fat. She said that was my treat day, and when I explained it was not a treat, she just laughed and said I was “playing with words”. To her it did not matter what I called it.

And of course, I am playing with words, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. In my New York Marathon example, I showed how the words I used to tell my story not only became a shorthand for that experience, but they came to define and shape my recollections of the experience itself.

And this happens with my experiences in the present as well. The language I use to describe what I choose to eat has a profound impact on my diet. By avoiding framing my choices in parent-child metaphors, and instead focusing on how I proactively balance my different priorities to work out what is the right thing for me to eat, I’m shaping my experience in real time, and equipping myself with the self efficacy that I need to stick to my goals.