April 2, 2015

Is behaviour all about biology?

You see this fitness and weight-loss
mythology everywhere.  It only leads
to depression, self-loathing, and weight
gain once the person doesn't achieve
their fitness / weight goals. Instead of
blaming the faulty promises of the fitness
and diet industry (promises based upon
faulty science), we can blame the 
person's "willpower muscle".

I used to believe that eating and exercise behaviour was driven by our emotions or even (dare I even say it) "will-power".  If one was having a hard time getting our for a walk or passing on the sweets, they just didn't have the will power or self control needed to get 'er done.  I would like to take this time to publicly apologize to those people for even thinking that...I was wrong. There's no such thing as "will-power" or "self-control". These are very judgey and very problematic terms that help sustain the belief that eating and exercise is all about individual responsibility.

Sure, there are still loads of people out there who believe it is up to each of us to eat less and exercise more.  Just yesterday I met a first year nursing student who was positive it was all about will power.  Health coaches, personal trainers, nutritionists, doctors, and the like continue to press the point that self-control is the answer.  All we need to do is push ourselves from the dinner table sooner and burn off those calories doing something other than sitting on our bums in front of the screen.  If it were that easy I do believe more people would be successful at weight loss.

But it is not that easy.

Take the person who has successfully lost 100 pounds recently (I'm sure you know one or your sister knows a guy who's brother's wife lost a ton of weight lately). I know of a woman right now who has dropped over 70 pounds so far and continues to lose fat.  She is doing it through one of the many weight loss gimmicks out there and I know...as I sit here in my skinny jeans dreaming about the moment I can slip into sweatpants....that she will gain it all back within the next few years (five maximum if she's lucky).  Researchers now understand that once you lose a percentage of body weight, the brain does whatever it can to influence you to gain it all back (what a backhanded dirty bitch that brain is, eh?).  Through the lowering of metabolism to the craving or searching out food, the brain will win most of the time...and we gain the weight back.  To avoid this one would have to continue to pay strict attention to their diet (reducing the number of calories they eat now) while they experience stress, depression, life events, lack of sleep, and aging. No more emotional eating, treating yourself, adding more of the fun foods back, or enjoying "cheat" days. Sound realistic? See the "Understanding the Biology of Weight Loss" on YouTube for more information on this (again...it's worth the time).

Hormones also play a huge role in weight maintenance and gain over time.  Leptin, released from the fat cells, announces to the brain that we are full and promotes us to step away from the nachos.  Grehlin signals that we are hungry and need to search out food as soon as possible.  Interestingly, researchers are suggesting many of us or resistance to the influences of leptin (due to an increasing amount of sugar in our diets) and, in a nutshell, that ain't good.  We aren't receiving the signals we are full...and we keep on eating.  In addition, research has noted the influence sleep deprivation has on ghrelin...this "hungry hormone" becomes elevated as we search out more food on the days we had no sleep...and it usually ain't the salad with the balsamic on the side. 

Now for those who are well versed in biology...please forgive my simple-minded overview of these factors that influence our eating habits.  If you would like more detailed information I do suggest you read Robert Lustig's book, "Fat Chance" or look him up on YouTube.  It's worth the time.  It was his work that influenced my own beliefs about what drives our behaviour.  From hormones to mental health (stress, depression, and the like) we are strongly influenced by all of it.  It isn't about will-power or self-control, it's about the neuro-biology and the hormones circulating in my body, it's about the dopamine release every time I bite into that donut. It isn't about sloth and gluttony, it's about the biochemical changes in my brain relating to depression or chronic stress that influence whether I'm exercising today. 

For health professionals to keep touting the same messages about behaviour change, with all we are starting to understand about the underpinnings of obesity and health behaviour, suggests - to me - that they are the ones who are to blame for keeping the false beliefs alive.  Without the belief of individual responsibility we wouldn't have weight loss programs, diet products, and gym memberships.  This belief keeps economies alive and well (as they continue to promise results that will never materialize).  I'm sure, by now, there is a reader out there saying..."that's not true, I lost a ton of weight exercising and watching what I eat" and that's great.  There are a very small percentage of people out there who have done so and kept it off for the rest of their lives...but very small.  For the rest of you, give it time.  For those who have been successful...please don't judge the majority who are constantly challenged.  It happens.

So now what? What if the obesity researchers are right? What now? I have a few ideas but they relate to therapies that I strongly believe could increase the level of happiness and health without a focus on the body.  That's another blog post for another time.  For now...refer to the post below...body appreciation is the first step to life long (good) health, happiness...(...and P.S. chances are good you will lose the weight....).



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