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, author of Welcome to Your Brain: The Science of Jet Lag, Love and Other Curiosities of Life and Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, 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 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 — how do we put this politely? — it’s easily distracted. It’s good that you don’t have to remember to breathe when you get caught up in a movie. You don’t forget how to walk because you’re thinking about what to have for dinner.
Your brain also has its own sense of what you should weigh, no matter what you consciously believe
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. That’s a lot of food.This means that a successful dieter must eat this much less forever than someone of the same weightwho has always been thin.
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.
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.
Psychologists classify eaters into two groups
Those who rely on their hunger and those who try to control their eating through willpower, like most dieters. Let’s call them intuitive eaters and controlled eaters.
The interesting thing is that 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.
If I’ve convinced you that dieting might be a problem, the next question is, what do you do about it?
And my answer, in a word, is mindfulness. I’m talking about mindful eating: learning to understand your body’s signals so that you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, because a lot of weight gain boils down to eating when you’re not hungry.
How do you do it?
- 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 took about a year for me to learn this, but it’s really been worth it.