A Milkshake Experiment

If there’s one lesson Life has tried to teach me again and again these last few years it is this: people – and their perceptions and world views – are a product of their life experiences. Case in point: much of the time “Happy Calories Don’t Count” is met with incredulousness or confusion. But every now and again, when I mention the title of my book Happy Calories Don’t Count (neither does unhappy exercise), the person with whom I am speaking says something like “That’s genius! What’s so brilliant about it is that you’ve distilled everything down to a single statement!” And later on in the conversation I discover that this person, too, had suffered from an eating disorder.

I don’t like to dwell on the eating disorder piece of my history for several reasons. One, it is not who I am – it is just something I’ve gone through. Two, it was very painful and quite honestly, I’ve managed to block a lot of it out of my conscious memory. And three, since most people haven’t had an eating disorder, they are quick to dismiss what I’ve learned through my journey, somehow thinking that it wouldn’t be applicable or beneficial to them personally.

But here’s the deal: your body is the vehicle through which you experience Life. Feeling good in your body – and feeling good about your body – matters. You don’t need to have been diagnosed as having an “eating disorder” to suffer – to have food, exercise, body image and weight issues negatively impact the quality of your life. And furthermore, the principles I have learned to help me overcome a life-threatening eating disorder are the same principles that can help you feel good in and about your body – regardless of your current size and shape – while you are on the way to creating an optimized state of health, vitality and beauty.

But again, Life teaches me that people are a product of their experiences. I recently had two coffee dates that could not have been more different.

The first meeting was with a personal trainer. I know his type – hard working, driven, always looking for the logical, scientific approach to create results. In fact, I used to be his type – until the logic and the science no longer worked. But in his experience, the logic and science still worked (somewhat). From his perspective, if someone wasn’t getting results it was because they were not following “the program” somehow. Perhaps the client had mental blocks or emotional issues that were keeping them from succeeding at “the program.” But if they worked through that and then followed “the program,” they would get results. Although this guy always conversed with respectful language, there were moments when a glimmer in his eye or the tone of his voice communicated that he believed my “Happy Calories Happy Exercise” principles were a lot of hogwash.

The second meeting was with an executive of a major world wide online retailer. About 20 years older than the personal trainer, this gentleman had more life experience and more opportunities for things to not work out as planned. We had a great, engaging conversation and afterward he sent me an email with a link to a video called “A Milkshake Experiment” to say thank you.

The video for “A Milkshake Experiment” is an NPR dramatization of a research study conducted by Dr. Alia Crum that gives “scientific credence” to Happy Calories Don’t Count. In this experiment Dr. Crum concocted a huge batch of milkshakes. She labeled some of the milkshakes as lower calorie and some of the milkshakes as higher calorie. The milkshakes were exactly the same – only the labels were different. Since people can have a “placebo effect” without taking actual medication, the question was if they could have a similar reaction to food. If people thought different things about what they were consuming, would their bodies react differently? The answer was a resounding yes.

The NPR version of Dr. Crum’s work does make some assertions that are not supported by Happy Calories principles – namely, that you can control your metabolism by controlling your thoughts. And I believe that this is what that personal trainer thought I was suggesting that day when he thought I was full of malarkey and tried to argue the “science of nutrition.”

From a Happy Calories perspective, both sides are missing the mark a bit. The personal trainer was making it all about the food (and the exercise). The NPR interpretation of Dr. Crum’s work makes it all about the mind. But it is really about the body.

Let me offer an explanation by way of an example. Let’s suppose we have four people. One person has perfect vision. One person is color-blind. One person has been blind since birth. And one person lost their vision later in life. And these four people are all standing on a cliff watching the same sunset. The objective sunset is exactly the same. But the subjective experience of the sunset is different for each of the four people. Of course, this seems obvious. But why is the sunset different? It is different because it is the body – specifically the eyes, optic nerves and brain – that interprets the “objective” reality. A person blind since birth can “think sunset” all he or she wants, but that will not help him or her actually see it. And the color blind person can “think orange” all they want, but it will never be the same experience of the sunset as the person with perfect vision.

Sustainable weight loss and well-being is about the body. Dr. Crum’s work shows that it’s not just about the food and the exercise– our thoughts do matter. But it is not as simple as the NPR interpretation of her work would suggest. We have a multitude of thoughts – about food, calories, nutrition, science, our bodies, cultural standards, etc. – that are a product of our life experiences. Creating sustainable health, vitality and beauty isn’t about “controlling our thoughts” – for that is, in fact, impossible. Creating sustainable health, vitality and beauty is about harmonizing our thoughts – it’s about aligning our thoughts with our beliefs and our actions. When we do this, we are congruent and at peace with our highest self. And when we achieve the peace, we have found what we were hoping to gain from all that dieting, exercising, mind controlling and life experience in the first place – freedom and happiness.