From Diet to Mindful Eating

Posted on May 15th, 2014

In the US, 80% of girls have been on a diet by the time they’re 10 years old. In this honest, raw talk, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt uses her personal story to frame an important lesson about how our brains manage our bodies, as she explores the science behind why dieting not only doesn’t work, but is likely to do more harm than good. She suggests ideas for how to live a less diet-obsessed life, intuitively.

Hunger

Hunger and energy use are controlled by the brain, mostly without your awareness.

Your brain does a lot of its work behind the scenes, and that is a good thing, because your conscious mind is easily distracted.

Your brain also has its own sense of what you should weigh, no matter what you consciously believe. This is called your set point, but that’s a misleading term, because it’s actually a range of about 10 or 15 pounds.

You can use lifestyle choices to move your weight up and down within that range, but it’s much, much harder to stay outside of it. The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body weight, there are more than a dozen chemical signals in the brain that tell your body to gain weight, more than another dozen that tell your body to lose it, and the system works like a thermostat, responding to signals from the body by adjusting hunger, activity and metabolism, to keep your weight stable as conditions change.

If you lose a lot of weight, your brain reacts as if you were starving, and whether you started out fat or thin, your brain’s response is exactly the same. We would love to think that your brain could tell whether you need to lose weight or not, but it can’t.

If you do lose a lot of weight, you become hungry, and your muscles burn less energy. Dr. Rudy Leibel of Columbia University has found that people who have lost 10 percent of their body weight burn 250 to 400 calories less because their metabolism is suppressed.

This means that a successful dieter must eat this much less forever than someone of the same weight who has always been thin.

From an evolutionary perspective, your body’s resistance to weight loss makes sense. When food was scarce, our ancestors’ survival depended on conserving energy, and regaining the weight when food was available would have protected them against the next shortage. Over the course of human history, starvation has been a much bigger problem than overeating.

This may explain a very sad fact: Set points can go up, but they rarely go down.

Successful dieting doesn’t lower your set point. Even after you’ve kept the weight off for as long as seven years, your brain keeps trying to make you gain it back. If that weight loss had been due to a long famine, that would be a sensible response.

Changing the food environment is really going to be the most effective solution to obesity.

Sadly, a temporary weight gain can become permanent. If you stay at a high weight for too long, probably a matter of years for most of us, your brain may decide that that’s the new normal.

Intuitive eaters are less likely to be overweight, and they spend less time thinking about food. Controlled eaters are more vulnerable to overeating in response to advertising, super-sizing, and the all-you-can-eat buffet.

You can take control of your health by taking control of your lifestyle, even If you can’t lose weight and keep it off.

Diets don’t have very much reliability. Five years after a diet, most people have regained the weight. Forty percent of them have gained even more. The typical outcome of dieting is that you’re more likely to gain weight in the long run than to lose it.

Diets

Doctors don’t know of any approach that makes significant weight loss in a lot of people, and that is why a lot of people are now focusing on preventing weight gain instead of promoting weight loss.

If diets worked, we’d all be thin already.

Diets may seem harmless, but they actually do a lot of collateral damage.

Weight obsession leads to eating disorders, especially in young kids. Teenage girls have learned to measure their worth by the wrong scale.

Even at its best, dieting is a waste of time and energy. It takes willpower which you could be using to help your kids with their homework or to finish that important work project, and because willpower is limited, any strategy that relies on its consistent application is pretty much guaranteed to eventually fail you when your attention moves on to something else.

Mindful Eating

Learning to understand your body’s signals so that you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.

A lot of weight gain boils down to eating when you’re not hungry.

Give yourself permission to eat as much as you want, and then work on figuring out what makes your body feel good.

Sit down to regular meals without distractions.

Think about how your body feels when you start to eat and when you stop, and let your hunger decide when you should be done. It can take a while for you to learn this, but it is worth it.

Questions or comments? Send me an email