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An Interview with Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D. on motivating people to eat healthy and book 'Waistland'

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 1st 2007

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Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D.Through her book 'Waistland' and in this interview, Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a Psychologist specializing in Behavioral Medicine at Harvard Medical School, talks about some of the currently prevalent wrong ideas and myths that make it difficult for people to become motivated to lose weight and make healthy food choices. The worst idea out there is that people should trust their instincts when making food choices. This idea is dangerous becuase our instincts were set up during a time in human history when all foods were obtained through active hunting and gathering of naturally occuring food resources. Dietary fat and sugar was very scarce and we evolved to crave these diet elements so as to motivate us to pursue these elements which are necessary in small proportions for good nutrition. Today, fats and sugars are both commonplace (making them too easy to get) and highly refined (which reduces their nutritional content). We are still attracted to these elements, but now they make us fat and often set us up for lifestyle related diseases.

Dr. Barrett illustrates this point with a wonderful example from the study of birds' instinct to sit on their eggs. Apparently, various birds' interest in sitting on eggs is related to the physical characteristics of those eggs. They are attracted to the size of the eggs, and their color, and characteristic spottings. Birds that have the choice to sit on either their own natural eggs or fake eggs with exaggerated size, coloration and spotting will generally choose the fake eggs. In this example, the fake eggs with exaggerated characteristics act as 'supernormal' sources of stimulation for the birds, and this feeds into their fixed instincts and causes them to neglect their own eggs, even though this is not in their interest. In the same way, supernormal fatty and sugary foods like burgers and ice cream are attractive to people even though these foods tend to have bad effects too.

Instead of allowing our out-of-date instincts and food cravings to determine our choices, we need to use our intelligence and capability for rational thinking to override our instincts so as to eat in a healthier way. What is healthy to eat are foods that are similar to foods our ancestors would have eaten, including lean meats, unrefined whole grains, leafy vegetables and unprocessed fresh fruit.

Another bad idea is that changes can be successfully made in small increments. It is actually easier to sustain diet changes wh4en they are made all at once and then stuck to in a rigorous manner than when you eat healthy some of the time and not at other times. You want to get into a healthy eating habit routine and then not deviate from it for best effect.

While it is true that some people are genetically predisposed to store fat more efficiently than other people, this is not the same thing as saying that someone is genetically determined to be fat. Most people would not be fat if they ate healthier diets and exercised more, which is to say that the environmental influence over weight and health is much larger than the genetic influence.

Two forms of psychotherapy are useful for motivating people to get on and stay on diets. Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy can help people recognize and cut through all the rationalizations they use to keep unhealthy foods around all the time. Hypnosis and other imagery techniques can help people to vividly imagine how great it will be when they are thiner and healthier and thereby strengthen their motivation to persist on a diet.

Links Relevant To This Podcast:

About Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D.

Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D.

Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D. is author of the 2007 book, 'Waistland: The R/evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis'. Dr. Barrett is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. She is a Past President of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and Editor in Chief of the journal Dreaming. She is also President of American Psychological Association's Div. 30, The Society for Psychological Hypnosis. Deirdre authored three trade books including The Committee of Sleep (Random House, 2001) and was editor of Trauma and Dreams (Harvard University Press, 1996). Dr. Barrett's commentary on dreams has been featured on Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN, Fox, The Discovery Channel, and Voice of America.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Food and Meaning - Charles Merrill - Feb 24th 2008

I very much enjoyed the informative interview of Dr. Barrett and thought that Dr. Van Nuys asked very good questions.  I was surprised that gradually reducing one's food intake may not work as well as a more radical approach to changing one's diet along with regular exercise.

My experience as a psychologist and educator is that food has meaning and in psychotherapy, exploration of the the meaning of certain foods for the person is usually helpful.  My approach is more existential, but I do see the value of using cognitive behavioral methods to change habits towards more healthy eating.

I strongly agree that replacing high fat and high sugur content in foods and eating those that are natural and not refined would go a long way towards helping one not be overweight.  

Dr. Barrett spoke about our ancestors who were at one time more hunters and gatherers and did not suffer from obesity.  Instinct may play a much larger role than once thought, but our interpersonal world also affects our food choices.



evaluation of book Waistland - johnny e smith - Oct 15th 2007

Book was a relevation of awareness about the consequences of poor nutritional and eating habits; and the effects of poor nutritional habits (overeating, refined food,etc).



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