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It's easier to quit smoking than lose weight. What's more, the nicotine in cigarettes is as addictive as heroin – so that means one of the most potently addictive drugs is easier to kick than losing weight. And yet chocolate and other fattening foods are not actually addictive (though they may feel like it sometimes). So why do only 4 or 5 percent of dieters succeed, while between 20 to 30 percent of those who try to quit smoking stay off cigs for good?
It's partly because to quit smoking, you just stop, if you can. But with food, it's impossible. You have to eat. Food is something we both use and abuse; abuse in the sense of taking in more than we need, using it for pleasure beyond physical need. That's why so many of us in the Westernised world have a weight problem: food has moved way beyond mere survival.
But our brains still program us for survival, to find calorie-dense food – such as high-fat foods – the most attractive of all. Our brains don't yet know that for us, there's an abundance of such food freely available and if anything, we need to re-program our brains to find healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables equally as attractive.
Big bodies, big bizObesity is now a major health problem for all Westernised countries, making a major contribution towards death from heart disease, strokes and diabetes. And this at a time when the pressure to be thin has never been greater. Americans, for example, spend between US$30-50 billion a year on weight-reduction, yet 90 to 95 percent of people who lose weight put it back on – two-thirds within a year, and the rest within five years. Failure brings feelings of guilt and self-hatred. Ever more desperate means are tried to lose weight, including drugs that may have harmful side effects.
So why is it so hard, given that we know the health benefits to being around the right weight for our height and age? The reason seems to be related to a system far more complex than a simple conflict between energy intake (calories) and energy expenditure (exercise).
For example, the average man or woman between the ages of 25 and 55 gains 9.1kg over 30 years. This represents an excess energy intake of only about 0.3 percent over energy expenditure. It seems that a person's weight is stable around a set point that is defended ruthlessly by a control mechanism in the central nervous system.
Your weight tends to go back on after a diet because your brain works like crazy to make sure it does. And some of us, due mainly to the genes we inherit, have a higher set point than others. Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn't it?
Bluffing your bodyYour set point can be overridden but only by severe calorie restriction combined with rigorous exercise. That's how the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Calista Flockhart maintain their reed-like figures. Excessive exercise. Little eating. But as soon as you stop these measures, the weight will go back on. So those stars will look like real women again the minute they let up!
Far better than dieting is to prevent the extra weight going on in the first place, if you can. But if it's already there, it is best to concentrate on a healthy diet and enjoyable, not excessive exercise. Those who are only mildly overweight are best advised to maintain their current weight with these measures rather than trying to lose it.
There are many psychological reasons that militate against successful weight control. One major way is how our brains program us to eat. It's all done via a neuro-transmitter called dopamine. Neuroscientists still don't have the entire picture of how the chemical soup that is our brains. But they do know that dopamine is responsible for flooding our bodies with feelings of pleasure and enjoyment each time we eat. It's a reward mechanism (we get similar sensations when we have sex because the brain recognises this as something that promotes the continuation of the species).
Without the dopamine reward, or “hit”, we wouldn't have the same desire to eat. There is definitely a psychological reason why it is hard to restrain ourselves from eating and that reason involves neurochemicals. But the story is not yet fully understood.
But what we do understand thus far is that many of our most basic human drives come from the desire to get that natural dopamine “hit” even though we're mostly unaware of it. We just know it feels nice! Because our brains run on chemicals, we can fool them by using chemicals to hijack the process behind our survival drives. Drugs work by mimicking the dopamine hit without doing anything to promote our survival. And that's why some dieters take amphetamines to try and reduce their appetite – the amphetamines increase the dopamine in our system, thereby fooling the brain into thinking we've already eaten, or eaten enough when we haven't.
~Image Source: Weight Loss Miss~
Diet dependenciesAmphetamines, like cocaine and heroin, are addictive and have powerful side effects, such as feelings of paranoia. This is why they tend not to be prescribed for weight control, though they were in the past. However, they are still taken by some for recreational purposes and weight control. Drugs obtained this way carry great dangers as there is no way of knowing their exact contents. But some dieters are that desperate.
This desperation could also be one of the reasons why many young women take up smoking and refuse to give it up – they think it will help them stay thinner. Smoking does increase the body's metabolic rate and nicotine may act as an appetite suppressant. Nicotine may also encourage the heart to beat faster thus burning calories more quickly.
However, a smoking-induced increase in metabolic rate only accounts for about half the difference in weight between average smokers and non-smokers. Smoking can also lower the body's set weight point so the weight gained on stopping reflects a return to the body's natural weight.
Also, it's been found in fact that on average the gain for ex-smokers is at most 2-3kg and those who increase their physical activity after they give up gain only 1.3-1.8 kg. Furthermore, it's been found that the weight gain is most common immediately after stopping. In the longer term, an ex-smoker's weight can return to normal.
Alcohol is also a short-cut to a dopamine high. But if you're of Chinese descent, you may have a problem metabolising alcohol. Whereas Westerners have somehow evolved a series of liver enzymes to metabolise alcohol and its breakdown product, acetaldehyde, Eastern populations have not been so lucky. About 50 percent of Chinese and Japanese people lack the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and so just one glass of wine taken by people without this enzyme gives them a very unpleasant reaction.
Due to the build-up of acetaldehyde they become flushed, dizzy, nauseated and may even collapse. And without any of the pleasant feelings of intoxication.
And in fact, cutting back on alcohol should make it easier to control your weight because as well as alcohol flooding our bodies with useless calories and filling us up with poison, alcohol lowers our blood-sugar levels making us hungrier. This is why we drink appetisers before a meal and also why you can feel so ravenous for food after a night out on a pub crawl.
So if you have the enzyme that lets you drink freely, try not to. And if you're constantly losing the battle to lose weight, why not experiment with cutting out alcohol for a few weeks? It can make a massive difference, for example, singer Robbie Williams said, in his own words, he was really “lardy” until he went into rehab for his drink and drug abuse. The weight fell off when he stopped drinking.
Starving doesn't helpThere's one further main reason why diets don't work: they actually lower our metabolic rate and so make it easier, not harder, to gain weight. It works like this: you start restricting calories and your body think there's a famine going on – which for many thousands of years of human evolution was very likely and sadly still is very likely in many parts of the world. So the dieter's body slows down the metabolism to try and make the most of what food is available. The brain pushes and pushes you to eat more and eventually, most of us can't exist for long on semi-starvation diets so we do what our brains want us to: we resume normal eating. Bang goes the weight back on because our metabolism has been lowered.
Oprah Winfrey once said she had completely ruined her metabolism by constant dieting and bingeing. But none of us should blame ourselves for the inevitable binge that follows the diet. If you go too low on your calorie intake, your brain simply won't let you stay there. The few who can override the constant hunger signals from their brain either become anorexic or go crazy from the effects it takes.
Imagine all the energy Elizabeth Hurley and her Hollywood size 0 friends must use not eating. They fight their bodies every day. They fight the message their brains send out. They become terrified of food. Glorious, wonderful, gorgeous, fabulous food. Seriously, is that any way to live?
Surely the way forward is to become as comfortable as we can with our bodies. To exercise for healthy and enjoyment, not weight control, and to eat for pleasure as well as survival. Many women find that once they get off the diet-binge merry go round, nothing terrible happens. Their weight settles down its set point and they release tons and tons of energy to enjoy life instead of fearing it.
Diets don't work. Evolution is against you. So chuck out the calorie counter and just relax. Food won't kill you. But constantly cutting down on one of the most pleasurable activities known to humans can make life really miserable. Even then, it's unlikely to give you the slyph-like figure you crave. Give it up. Enjoy life.