The human body is designed to gain weight and keep it on at all costs. Our survival depends on it. 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 behavior. They are at the root of our weight problems. Our bodies 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 behavior were shaped by those times.
Basically – we are genetically designed to accumulate fat based on the days when we had to forage for food in the wild. Ignoring that fact becomes hazardous to both our health and our waistlines.
Furthermore, the food industry and our government’s recommendations are fueling this feeding frenzy. We cannot expect to change our instinctual responses to food any more than we can eliminate a feeling of terror when confronted with danger.
Think about this: We have hundreds of genes that protect us from starvation, but very few that protect us from overeating.
All seems backward, doesn’t it? 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 “lizard,” brain. This is the part of your brain that evolved first, and it’s like a reptile’s brain. It governs your survival behaviors, 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 a bagel. 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 bagel will always win.
One of the most important principles of weight loss is never to starve yourself. The question is whether or not you are eating enough of the right calories, not whether or not you are eating too many calories. What you need is a baseline for how much you have to eat to keep your body from going into starvation mode.
The Reason Most Diets Fail
The reason diets backfire almost all the time is because people restrict too much. That is to say, they allow the number of calories they consume to drop below their resting metabolic rate. This is the basic amount of energy or calories needed to run your metabolism for the day. For the average person it is about 10 times your weight in pounds. This is the baseline daily need for your body to simply exist (meaning stay in bed and don’t expend any energy). That’s not realistic for most of us.
If you eat less than that amount (which is what most diets mandate), your body instantly perceives danger and turns on the alarm system that protects you from starvation, slowing your metabolism. As a consequence, your body goes into starvation mode and triggers the signal to eat. So you start eating and eating, and inevitably, you stop the diet — it’s the classic rebound weight gain scenario.
Just think of what happens when you skip breakfast, work through lunch, and finally return home in the evening: you eat everything in sight. Then you feel stuffed, sick, and guilty and you regret ever entering the kitchen in the first place.
Why would you possibly want to overeat and make yourself sick? Most of us are reasonable people and know that we shouldn’t overeat. We have done it before, wished we hadn’t, and vowed never to do it again.
Nonetheless, time after time, we repeat the same mistakes. Are we weak-willed, morally corrupt, and self-destructive? Do we need years of therapy?
The answer is “none of the above.” The answer is in our genetic programming. This stuff is just too deep inside us to get away from. We are built to put on weight, and our bodies don’t like it very much when we don’t give them the calories they need.
To make matters worse, when you lose weight, only about half of what is lost is fat; the rest is valuable, metabolically active muscle! Yet when someone regains weight, it is nearly complete fat. Remember, muscle cells burn 70 times more calories than fat cells. Therefore yo-yo dieting makes you lose a big part of your metabolic engine.
We all know overweight people who say, “I don’t really eat that much, and I still can’t lose weight.” They aren’t lying. When most people go on a diet, they are generally actually making themselves fatter. Each time they diet, they lose muscle.
The diet usually fails, and when it does, the weight that is regained is fat. If you have been through a number of diets that have failed, your body has been through this process a number of times. In short, dieting makes you fat.
You want to get away from the diet mentality. What you are undertaking is a way of eating, not a diet.
The Problem with Willpower
Whatever happened to old-fashioned willpower? 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.
Remember the old potato chip commercial with the tag line “Bet you can’t eat just one”? Bet you can’t imagine that kind of commercial for broccoli or apples. No one binges on those foods. Yet it’s easy to imagine a mountain of potato chips, a whole bag of cookies, or a pint of ice cream vanishing quickly in an unconscious, reptilian-brain eating frenzy. Broccoli is not addictive, but chips, cookies, ice cream, and soda can become as addictive as any drug.
In the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan championed the “just say no” approach to drug addiction. Unfortunately, that approach hasn’t fared too well, and it won’t work for our industrial food addiction either. There are specific biological mechanisms that drive addictive behavior.
Nobody chooses to be a heroin addict, cokehead, or alcoholic. Nobody chooses to have a food addiction either. These behaviors arise from primitive neurochemical reward centers 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; despite 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.
10 Strategies to Stop Overeating and Lose Weight
Fortunately, a number of tips can help you normalize your eating, so that you neither overeat nor under-eat. Thankfully, none of them involve counting calories (or counting anything!). Among the strategies that have helped thousands of my patients lose weight, keep it off, and reduce their risk for diabesity include:
- Cut out the processed stuff and eat real, whole foods. The single most important thing to lose weight and avoid overeating is to include as many real, whole, unprocessed foods in your diet as possible. Starting right now, make the switch to these foods to lose weight: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, olive oil, organic, range, or grass-fed animal products (poultry, lamb, beef, pork, eggs), and wild, smaller fish such as salmon.
- Eat breakfast. Skipping breakfast means you’re eventually starving, and throughout the day you eat much more food than needed to feel full. To optimize health and weight loss, you need to eat breakfast, to spread out food intake evenly throughout the day, and to not eat for at least two hours before bed. A recent study found that almost 3,000 people who lost an average of 70 pounds and kept it off for six years ate breakfast regularly. Only four percent of people who never ate breakfast kept the weight off.
- Eat mindfully. We need to be in a relaxed state for the nervous system of our gut or digestive system to work properly. Eating while we are stressed out makes us fat, both because we don’t digest our food properly and because stress hormones slow metabolism and promote fat storage, especially of belly fat. We also tend to overeat when we eat quickly, because it takes the stomach 20 minutes to signal the brain that we are full.
- Moderate or eliminate alcohol. Taking a holiday from alcohol, besides getting rid of additional sugar calories, will help you tune in to your true appetite and prevent you from overeating.
- Become aware of trigger foods. For some of us, that one little soda can set us on a downward spiral to overeating and all of the negative health consequences that come with it. It isn’t just the processed, sugary foods and drinks that become triggers. But even healthy foods, if you have a tendency to binge on them, can quickly become unhealthy. A handful of almonds are perfectly healthy, but if you eat half the jar, they quickly become unhealthy.
- Keep a Journal. Journaling is an excellent way to get in touch with your inner motivations, to break the cycle of mindless eating and activity, to be honest and accountable and present to yourself. We often overeat because something is eating away at us. We stuff ourselves with food in order to stuff our feelings away. We use food to block feelings, but you can use words to block food. You can write in order to better metabolize your feelings so they don’t end up driving unconscious choices or overeating. A diet of words and self-exploration often results in weight loss. You metabolize your life and calories better.
- Get sufficient sleep. Get eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. You’ll find that you’re less prone to cravings and you will normalize fat-regulating hormones. One study found even a partial night’s sleep deprivation contributes to insulin resistance, paving the way for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
- Control stress levels. Most of us fail to notice the effects of the chronic stresses we live with every day: demanding jobs, marital tension, lack of sleep, too much to do and too little time to do it. I am sure the list goes on for many. Chronic stress makes us overeat, not to mention overeating the wrong kinds of food, which ultimately leads to weight gain. Learn to actively relax with meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or any other technique that helps you reduce stress.
- Exercise the right way. You can’t over-exercise your way out of a bad diet, but the right exercise can help you lose weight, maintain weight loss, and control your appetite so you don’t overeat. Ideally you should do a minimum of 30 minutes of walking every day. Get a pedometer to track your steps. Wear it every day and set a goal of 10,000 steps a day. More vigorous and sustained exercise is often needed to reverse severe obesity and diabesity. Run, bike, dance, play games, jump on a trampoline, or do whatever is fun for you. Read this blog for a comprehensive, easy-to-implement exercise plan.
- Supplement smartly. Obesity and diabetes are often paradoxically states of malnutrition. It has been said that diabetes is starvation in the midst of plenty. The sugar can’t get into the cells. Your metabolism is sluggish, and the cells don’t communicate as a finely tuned team. Nutrients are an essential part of getting back in balance and correcting the core problem— insulin resistance.
If you would like to cut-out the processed food, stop mindless eating and learn how to cook delicious, whole-food recipes, then download the sneak preview of my newest book, releasing on March 10th, The 10-Day Detox Diet Cookbook. In addition to the recipes you will also learn about the secret added ingredient that keeps you hooked on junk food! Click here to get this sneak preview now.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD.
Donga E, et al. A single night of partial sleep deprivation induces insulin resistance in multiple metabolic pathways in healthy subjects. J ClinEndocrinolMetab. 2010 Jun;95(6):2963-8.
Farshchi HR, et al. Deleterious effects of omitting breakfast on insulin sensitivity and fasting lipid profiles in healthy lean women. Am J ClinNutr . 2005 Feb; 81( 2): 388– 396.
Gershon M. The second brain: A groundbreaking new understanding of nervous disorders of the stomach and intestine, Perennial. 1999.
David M. The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy and Weight Loss. Healing Arts Press, 2005.