Weight Loss Articles

The Powerlessness Of Willpower…

I write this month’s article whilst at a departure gate in a Texas Airport Airport. I  have been  out here  at a  conference and  I’ve  been able

to spend a little time sight-seeing and food-spotting. It’s astounding just how many opportunities there are to develop obesity here!

The real challenge is this: the human body is designed to gain weight and keep it on at all costs. Until we acknowledge that scientific fact, we will never succeed in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

Doctors and consumers alike believe that overeating and gluttony are the causes of our obesity epidemic. Science

tells a different story: it is not completely your fault you are overweight. Powerful genetic forces control our survival behaviour They are  at  the root of our weight problems. Our body’s weight control systems were designed to produce dozens of molecules that make us eat more and gain weight whenever we have the chance, not to lose   it.   We have   evolved over hundreds of thousands of generations under conditions  of food  scarcity,   not overabundance. Our genes and molecules that control our eating behaviour were shaped by those times. Basically, we are genetically designed to accumulate fat from when we had to forage for food in the wild. Ignoring that fact becomes hazardous to both our health and our waistlines.

Think about this: We have hundreds of genes that protect us from starvation, but very few that protect us from overeating. If we remain genetically engineered to gain weight, then it would seem that we are wired incorrectly.

Why would we be designed to overeat and grow fat? It all comes down to  the oldest and most primitive  part  of our brain, our limbic, or ‘reptilian’ brain. This is the part of  your  brain  that evolved first, and like a reptile’s it governs your survival behavior, creating certain chemical responses that you have no conscious control over.

While you might think you are in complete control of your mind, the truth is that you have very little control over the unconscious choices you make when you are surrounded by food.  The key to a healthy metabolism is learning what those responses are,  how they are triggered, and how you can stop them. You don’t want to put yourself in the position of resisting the lure of that chocolate cake. Your drive to eat it will overwhelm any willpower you might have about losing weight. It is a life-or- death experience in your mind, and the chocolate cake will always win.

‘I have no willpower’… I hear this again and again from patients about to start treatment at one of our clinics. Everybody knows that the obesity epidemic is a matter of personal responsibility. People should exercise more self-control. They should avoid overeating and  reduce their   intake of   sugar-sweetened drinks and processed food. There are no good foods or bad foods; it’s everything in moderation. Right?

This sounds good in theory, except for one thing: New discoveries in science prove that processed, sugar, fat, and salt-laden food  –  food that  is made  in a plant rather than grown on a plant –      is biologically addictive. Broccoli is not addictive, but crisps, biscuits, ice cream and fizzy drinks can become as addictive as any drug.

Unfortunately, there are specific biological mechanisms that drive addictive behaviour.  Nobody chooses to be  a  heroin addict,  cokehead,    or alcoholic. Nobody chooses to have  a  food addiction either. These behaviours arise from primitive neurochemical reward centres in the brain that override normal willpower and, in the case of food addictions, overwhelm the ordinary biological signals that control hunger.

Why is it so hard for obese people to lose weight despite the social stigma, the health consequences such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and even cancer; and despite their intense desire to lose weight?

Not because they want to be fat. It is because, in the vast majority of cases, certain types of food – processed foods made of sugar, fat and salt combined in ways kept secret by the food industry – are addictive. We are biologically wired to crave these foods  and eat  as much of them as possible. So next time you cave into that piece of chocolate cake, don’t blame your willpower, blame evolution.


Weight Loss Articles

An Addiction Like No Other.

If you’ve ever tried to cut back on junk food, you may have realized that it is easier said than done.  We tend to get cravings, the brain starts calling for these foods.

Even though our rational, conscious mind “knows” that they are bad for us, some other part of our brain seems to disagree. Some people don’t have this problem and can easily control the types of foods they eat.  Other people don’t seem to have any control whatsoever.

Despite their best intentions, they repeatedly find themselves eating unhealthy foods, even when they have previously decided not to eat them.  While some people think this is caused by a lack of willpower, the situation can be much more complicated than that.

The fact is junk foods stimulate the reward system in the brain in the same way nicotine, alcohol and drugs, like cocaine do.  For susceptible people, eating junk foods can lead to full-blown addiction, which shares the same biological basis as addiction to drugs.

Simply put there is a system in our brain called the reward system. This system was designed to “reward” us when we do things that encourage our survival. This includes primal behaviours like eating.

The brain knows that when we eat, we’re doing something “right,” and releases a bunch of feel-good chemicals in the reward system, such as the neurotransmitter dopamine – interpreted by our brains as pleasure. The brain is hardwired to seek out behaviours that release dopamine in the reward system.

The challenge with processed junk foods is that they can cause a reward that is way more powerful than anything we were ever exposed to in nature during human evolution. Whereas eating an apple or a piece of steak might cause a moderate release of dopamine, eating a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is so incredibly rewarding that it releases a massive amount of dopamine.  This can lead to tolerance and withdrawal.

When people repeatedly do something that releases dopamine in the reward system, such as smoking a cigarette or eating a Snickers bar, the dopamine receptors can start to down-regulate. When the brain sees that the amount of dopamine is too high, it starts removing the dopamine receptors in order to keep things “balanced.”

When you have fewer receptors, you need more dopamine to reach the same effect, which causes people to start eating more junk food to reach the same level of reward as before. This is called tolerance.

If you have fewer dopamine receptors, then you will have very little dopamine activity and you will start to feel unhappy if you don’t get your junk food “fix.” This is called withdrawal and withdrawal is one of the hallmark of all physical addiction.

Multiple studies in rats show that they can become physically addicted to junk food in the same way as they become addicted to drugs.  Being a lab rat can’t be much fun, particularly if you are unlucky to be in the group that gets the crack cocaine, not the group that gets the Ben and Jerry’s.

This is a drastic oversimplification, but this is basically how food addiction and any addiction works.

My conclusion, having talked to hundreds of patients about food addiction is that it’s like no other addiction.  In so much as you can not avoid food, you have to eat.

I am yet to hear an addiction professional give advice to a drug addict of, “just cut back your crack cocaine use, try and cut down to once a day”.

Yet that is the advice given to so many food addicted overweight people.  I have seen a letter from an NHS dietician giving the following advice to a 25 stone patient;

‘You need to make small changes, for example you told me you have a stuffed crust pizza on a Friday and Saturday night, try ordering a thin crust pizza instead’.

 If you are struggling to understand why, despite your best efforts, you find it very difficult to lose weight and not sabotage your efforts.  Remember it’s highly unlikely to be a lack of willpower, it’s evolutions way of making you eat for your survival.  Don’t be too hard on yourself.