I was recently reminded just how difficult weight loss is when watching Sandra Aamodt’s TED Talk ‘Why Dieting Doesn’t Usually Work’.
Aamodt’s story is a familiar one: on and off diets for 30 years, each time putting back on any weight she lost, and sometimes more. Three and half years ago she decided to stop the dieting and focus on eating “mindfully”. Stopping the constant war against herself has provided the passage for her to develop a healthier relationship with food.
Making this psychological shift was in itself very significant but is not all of the story, as there are very significant physiological elements that hold back our body’s ability to lose weight.
Aamodt herself a neuroscientist points out that the hypothalamus in our brain exerts an extraordinary level of control over our body weight. The hypothalamus it turns out has a set point which it considers to be where our body weight should reside. Thereafter it usually allows deviation of between 5 – 10 kg for most people. In other words, after losing weight through dieting the hypothalamus sets in motion powerful bodily processes (hormonal and neurological) that return the body to it’s range of “normal” body weight.
Another point Aamodt touches on is that due to our evolutionary history where for over 90 per cent of human history, food has been in relatively scarce supply, we’ve adapted to effectively put weight on. Anytime food is in short supply, the cells become “resistant” to burning calories. Insulin which is the hormone that normally carries these calories into the cells, therefore switches to being complacent in having these calories convert to fat. This is a survival adaptation, as calories converted to fat stores can be burned to fuel metabolism in a slower more gradual way.
Over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, we’ve therefore became “hard-wired” to effectively store fat. The problem of course now is that in our modern day, advanced economic societies, food supply is no longer scarce, and more particularly we’re eating more refined foods that rise blood insulin levels high.
When food is scarce the body doesn’t want insulin carrying calories into the cells to be burned, so the cells become “insulin resistant”. The same happens however when there is too many calories in the bloodstream, the cells get to a point where they can’t utilise the fuel, so again they become insulin resistant, leading to fat storage. It should be noted too that excess refined carbohydrate and protein creates a toxic environment which in part explains the protective role that becoming insulin resistant serves.
As the above briefly outcomes, there are powerful neurological and hormonal forces at play, shaped by our evolution that make success dieting not only very difficult but weight gain almost inevitable for many people living and eating in our modern day word.
Adding to this are psychological challenges whereby psychologists classify eaters into two groups. There are “Controlled Eaters” who try to control their eating through willpower, like most dieters and then there are “Intuitive Eaters” who tend to spend less time thinking about food.
Controlled eaters are more likely to overeat and then become more vulnerable to the cycle of binging and then dieting to right the wrongs. Obviously, we’d all like to be Intuitive Eaters, but how possible is that?
Michael Mosley, creator of The 5:2 Fast Diet also drew reference to how one’s psychology needs to taken into consideration in weight management and health in general. Referencing the BBC TV Series “What’s the Right Diet for You”? there are 3 types of eaters;
The “Emotional Easters” were given a standard low calorie diet with psychological support. The “Constant Cravers” were put on the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet and “Feasters” on a high protein, low GI diet. Results were that each “type” benefitted from the above interventions and basically indicate that they brought about more dietary control in each of the groups.
At the beginning of this post, I made the assertion that Sandra Aamodt in coming to a place where she was a “mindful eater” was the ideal for all of us. As detailed above though, getting to that place of mindful eating is a challenge. Whilst our brains may resist any efforts to upseat their control, once physiological and psychological elements can be effectively dealt with, good results follow.
Intermittent Fasting is a method of eating which imposes some degree of dietary control. Certainly it may not be for everyone but it is eating in a manner which is more consistent with how our ancient ancestors ate. As detailed above, this evolutionary history has directly shaped our modern day morphology.
Whilst most of us will have a dominance towards one of the 3 Psychological Eating Types, I think the truth for all of us is that we recognise times when each of the other 2 types are present. Modelling our diets holistically then to incorporate the elements that bring greater control to each of these types, makes good sense.
In end, whether diets are wrong or wrong, will continue to be debated but what I think is indisputable is that working out what is the right diet for you, is a process of self discovery.
What diets have you been on? Did you find them effective? What type of eater are you?