The virtual gastric band: is it possible to think yourself thin?

Weight loss requires willpower and effort, although there are some hypnosis treatments that might help

Alan Gilchrist has been practising hypnotherapy in Belfast for almost three decades. Since then, he has seen it all, and helped people with everything from Troubles-related trauma to phobias about false teeth and spiders.

Five or six years ago he started getting requests for a new form of treatment: the virtual gastric band. Instead of opting for the real thing – a drastic form of surgery for weight loss, in which a silicone strap is clamped around the top of the stomach, reducing the amount of food the patient can eat – you could bypass the cost, the pain and the risk by persuading yourself, under hypnosis, that you have actually had the operation.

“It’s simple really,” says Gilchrist. “You trick the mind into thinking it can’t eat a big meal.” Now it is one of his most requested procedures, and, according to Gilchrist, it can be done in one 30-minute session.

Confident, personable and tanned from his frequent work trips abroad, Gilchrist likes things to happen fast.

“When I started, I worked in the area of analytical hypnotherapy, regressing back to childhood,” he says, “but then I developed my own techniques, focusing on people’s current problems. That’s where my fast-track hypnosis comes from: people want to get over their problem as fast as they can and get on with their lives.”

Depending on the nature of their difficulty and how deeply embedded it is, patients usually attend between one and four sessions with Gilchrist.

On the couch

A large black leather couch, low to the ground, dominates his clinic. His voice is soothing and reassuring. It is not hard to imagine being lulled into a profound state of relaxation, a pleasant dream state in which the mind becomes open, porous and susceptible to change.

It is one thing though to alter bad habits, such as smoking or nail-biting, by implanting positive suggestions in the unconscious, but I’m struggling with the idea of fooling your body into believing – quite literally, at a gut level – something radically false about itself. It seems almost too good to be true: a fast and easy solution to obesity with none of the risks.

Clinics across Ireland offer similar treatments, and there are numerous self-help versions of the “virtual band” hypnotic process.

Davina Taylor, from Co Wicklow, is a believer. "I have always struggled with my weight, so when my sister suggested hypnotherapy, I thought I'd try it. Afterwards, I did something that's never happened before: I went to get some chocolate from the kitchen and came out with a bowl of chopped fruit instead.

“At work, I have a drawer full of goodies in my desk, but I found I didn’t want to take anything from it. It motivated me to exercise more, too. After three weeks, I’d lost 9lb.”

Did she believe she had actually undergone the operation? “No, I didn’t think of it like that. It was a physical thing. It was like your mind telling you that you didn’t need all that food.”

However, Taylor found that the effects of the treatment wore off with time. “I think for it to work, you would really need weekly top-ups, but I have no doubt that if I had stuck to it, I’d be a size eight today.”

Paul Hughes, a hypnotherapist in the south of England, argues that quick-fix techniques do not get to the bottom of a person's relationship with food, therefore cannot be expected to solve the real problem.

“People get overweight for a reason, and it’s largely because they are emotionally dependent on food,” he says. “Weight loss takes effort on the part of the client, and the virtual band removes that responsibility. People need to find out why they allowed themselves to get into that state.”

Gilchrist measures his own success in testimonials. The walls of his waiting room are filled with handwritten hymns of praise from former clients, stories of the kilograms dropping off, week by week.

However, as he points out, while many prospective clients come in asking for the virtual band procedure, the vast majority opt for his standard weight- control programme, which uses visualisation techniques to promote a healthier approach to fitness and vitality, and implants the idea that low-calorie foods are more appealing.

Whether your gastric band is real or imaginary, it seems there is no answer to weight loss that does not involve effort and willpower. The mind may be powerfully suggestible under hypnosis, but it’s still up to you to do the work.

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