Weight Loss: Why is it so hard?
“I’ll never lose weight. I’ve tried – god knows, I have – but I have no willpower.” Could this be you? I hear it all the time, I’ve even said it a lot in the past. My answer is always the same: “No, it’s not you, it’s your body chemistry.” And that body chemistry gets manipulated by the food environment we live in. It really isn’t you. So, here’s how it works.
It starts with dopamine
We are hardwired to fulfil two tasks in life really: to eat and to procreate. Our genes programme us for survival – not necessarily OUR survival as an individual, but THEIR survival. We only need to live long enough to pass on our genes.
Back in the early days of humanity this was quite a job: You had to avoid early death by finding sufficient food and not get killed. In order to survive, we are programmed to seek pleasure (food, sex), avoid pain, and preserve energy.
Dopamine – a neurotransmitter in the brain – is hormone that makes us feel good and is thus behind motivation: When we enjoy our food, when we have sex, dopamine is secreted and as it locks on to its receptors in the brain we feel pleasure. So that hopefully, we’ll do that same thing again. That’s motivation.
There are some substances that are able to trigger unusually high amounts of dopamine, literally flooding the brain, for example cocaine, alcohol and other drugs. They trigger a ‘supernormal stimulus’. The extraordinary amount of dopamine secreted in response to drugs gives us pleasure we haven’t known before, and of course we are going to seek that feeling again. We’re designed to. Not only that: With drugs, this dopamine rush is achieved with much less effort than with food. It’s hard to resist! The problem is that over time, we develop ‘tolerance’, meaning that you’ll need more of the substance to get the same effect.
But not just drugs, sugar and other carbohydrates can do this, too, and we have all experienced it. We are meant to seek out those foods, because when we were still cavemen, they were hard to find, yet they are excellent sources of energy – so the dopamine rush gives us the motivation to eat them when we can find them. However, in nature, the sugar we’d be able to find would be limited: fresh fruit – when in season, roots, wild honey. That’s it. Those natural high-carb or sugary foods also come with a lot of other nutrients: vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre. It’s a whole package.
How different is our world now? Sugar is everywhere! It is extremely difficult to avoid. And if you do manage to avoid sugary foods, you may fall at the next hurdle: refined carbohydrates. Eventually, all starchy foods – even complex carbohydrates – end up as glucose in our blood stream, driving our insulin levels up. Unlike natural foods, sugar and refined carbs come without any useful nutrition. During processing, they have lost any nutritional value, and what we are left with is just the energy – and the supernormal stimulus.
Make no mistake: The food industry knows that, too. These foods are designed to be irresistible. A lot of money has gone into research, testing and marketing. How could we possibly resist? We are not meant to!
Insulin – the fat-storage hormone
The glucose coming from carbohydrate foods and sugar raises insulin levels. Too much glucose in the blood stream is toxic and has to go. It is insulin’s job to remove it by helping it enter or body cells for energy. It’ll then top up our glycogen stores (a form of starch) in our liver and muscles for emergencies. Any glucose left after that will be converted into fat and stored around the middle, either as abdominal fat that we can see … or visceral fat, the fat around the internal organs that we can’t see.
This happens fairly quickly, resulting in hunger not that long after we have last eaten. As our body cells have used up the glucose from our last meal and are looking for more, insulin has cleaned the place out and put it all away as fat. There is no more sugar left for energy. It’s a blood sugar drop.
Low blood sugar is not good, so the stress response is triggered. The stress hormone cortisol and another hormone – glucagon – are able to access those starch stores in the liver and muscles. At the same time, our brain receives a signal about low blood sugar levels: We experience cravings. And we will most likely crave the same kind of sugar, carbohydrate-rich food that got us into this situation in the first place. So the vicious cycle begins again, and all the time our fat cells are growing.
Leptin – the satiety hormone
Fat cells produce hormones, too. One of them is leptin, a hormone that is meant to regulate energy balance by regulating appetite. If leptin is low, appetite is high. When you’re full, leptin levels are high and you won’t want to eat any more. Leptin also communicates to the body how much body fat we have. The more fat we carry, the more leptin we produce. You’d think that should stop us wanting to eat, but unfortunately, just as chronically high insulin levels lead to insulin resistance, chronically high leptin levels end up causing leptin resistance. The brain just stops listening and doesn’t get leptin’s message – “Stop eating” – anymore.
Is there any hope?
It looks like a hopeless situation: dopamine, insulin, cortisol, and leptin seem to all be working against us. Hormones are powerful chemicals; our own willpower barely comes into it. But, yes, there is hope. You can jump off this merry-go-round by ditching sugar and refined carbohydrates, cutting back on carbs altogether. Go back to eating real food: meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds and you’ll soon reign in those hormones. Try it, it’s amazing!