Monday, February 20, 2012

Science Says You're Screwed - Work Around It

Science has spent a lot of time and money to figure out why people regain weight they’ve lost. People will lose a lot of weight, and then it all comes back, usually with a bonus.
Traditional “common sense” says that it’s a failure of willpower. But how come someone can eat an utterly regimented 1,000 calories a day for a full year, and then not have enough willpower to stick to 1,800?
It’s not willpower.
It’s not addiction, either, or at least not all of it. The addiction story will get you part of the way. If you’re bingeing, that’s addict behavior. If you’re abusing laxatives, purging, alternating starving yourself with gorging yourself, obsessing about food all the time, or riddled with food triggers, that’s addiction. If you’re using food to cope with your emotions, boredom, etc., that’s addiction. These things need to be dealt with in order to be successful at losing and maintaining your losses, and there are lots of great resources for this.
It’s not just trauma, either. Figuring out why you put on the weight to protect yourself, or as a response to an abuse trauma, or to hide from unwanted male attention – yes, you need to do this. But it won’t get you all the way there.
The last hurdle? The one that remains when you’ve got willpower, your addict stuff under control, and your trauma properly therapized?
Brain damage. You’ve got brain damage.
Hang in here with me – I’m about to tell you what I mean by this and how it’s actually good news. I promise.
Science, in its grand voyage of discovery to figure out why we regain lost weight, has identified a lot of physical factors. Metabolic, hormonal, structural, biological reasons why we regain the weight. After losing a substantial amount of weight, a person who has been obese for a while will have the following changes in their body, remaining in effect for years or permanently:

– 20% higher levels of the hunger hormone that tells you that you need to eat (ghrelin)
– Abnormally low levels of a hormone that suppresses hunger (peptide YY)
– Lower levels of a hormone that increases metabolism (leptin)
– Slower metabolism, so a person who was formerly obese must eat fewer calories than a person who remained at normal weight, to maintain the same weight
– Muscle fibers change, becoming highly efficient “slow twitch” muscle fibers which burn fewer calories
– In response to images of food, brain scans show increased activity in “reward” areas and lowered activity in “control” areas. Your brain gives you stronger cravings and less ability to resist them.
– Lasting injury to the hypothalamus – diet-induced obesity causes permanent brain damage.

All this is working against you keeping it off. That’s the bad news. Your body is fighting you.
The good news? It’s just biology. It’s just your body being an energy-conserving machine that lies to you constantly. You can still win.
You remember when you were losing the weight? How you had to deal with hunger, cravings, and remain vigilant all the time? Now you know – you are going to have to do the same thing in maintenance. There is no “normal” to come back to.
There is NO NORMAL.
With permanent brain damage and all these hormonal/metabolic shifts, there will never come a day when you can chill out and listen to your body for cues about when you’re full. Your body and brain will never tell you the truth about when you’ve had enough to eat.
At some point in here, after you’ve grieved the loss of the fantasy of normal, you can simply get to work. You need a routine – a food plan, calorie tracking, and an exercise routine. You need to know what level of caloric intake lets you maintain your weight. You need to track every bite that goes into your mouth so you stay at that level.
The good news is that that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to therapize the desire to eat away. You don’t have to fix yourself so you’re naturally a person who doesn’t want to eat just a little bit more, all the damn time. You don’t have to make a lot of “should I or shouldn’t I?” choices.
You just make a plan and follow it. You remember that your body and your brain will fight you and try to trick you. You log your food, weigh every day, and do what you need to do to stay in your maintenance window.
So what if science says you’re screwed? Work around it. It can be done.


  1. No, I can no longer eat with abandon. But neither can I spend money with abandon. Yeah sure, I have to do a lot more cooking, food planning, and exercise now than when I was fat...I just don't have a choice. But there's a lot of things I don't give myself a choice about.

    I go to work when I don't want to. I floss my teeth daily. I get my oil changed. I pay my mortgage.

    These are just the responsible things that we, as adults, do, in order for a better life now and in the future.

  2. I was talking to a friend of mine and said - of course I WANT to eat XYZ, but I KNOW what happens when I eat what I want when I went - I get up to 231 lbs.

    I like to acknowledge the cravings, then try to just move on. Or limit it to X days per week. It's an uphill battle, and I know that if I relax too much in my life I will lose.

    Once I get to my maintenance weight I plan to listen to my clothes - if the pants start getting tight, refocus, count calories, etc. It's one of the reasons I tried to lose slowly - creating an eating plan for life, rather than an eating plan for 3 months or 6 months.

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