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When your brain works against your weight goals

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

When your brain works against your weight goals

Scott Miker

Obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States.  We hear about it on the news, read about it in medical journals, and experience it when we are in our doctor’s office seeing multiple images on the wall pointing to weight control.

While many people want to shed a few pounds, they probably don’t realize that they are up against their body’s natural desire to keep weight on and store fat for future emergencies when it is needed.

It seems that this comes directly from our evolution.  Food wasn’t always as plentiful as it is today.  We needed to be able to keep enough fat stored for days when we couldn’t find an animal or plant to eat.

But today, this isn’t the case.  Whenever we are hungry, we eat.  I haven’t missed many meals in the last 5 years unless something very unusual happened.  Food is available.  Instead of being a good way to plan for the future, like a savings account, this extra weight actually hurts our health in the long term.

In Welcome to Your Brain by Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D, and Sam Wang, Ph.D, the authors explain why our brain is designed to resist many of our attempts to lower the number on the scale.

They state, “Because weight regulation is so important, multiple overlapping systems work toward keeping your weight at the level that your brain considers appropriate, which is sometimes called your ‘set point.’  For example, scientists know of more than a dozen neurotransmitters that tell the body to increase weight, and more than a dozen that tell the body to decrease weight.  When you try to change your weight by eating less, your brain falls back on tricks to keep your weight at its preferred level.  One is to decrease your resting metabolic rate, which is the amount of energy that you use when sitting still.  Another is to make you hungry, so that you’ll want to eat more.”

In other words, we may say that we want to lose weight, but our brain and body regulation systems are working to do the opposite.  They are fighting against our attempts and using everything they can to keep us gaining, or at least avoid any weight loss.

The authors go on to say, “The brain doesn’t like to take fat out of storage for everyday energy needs, saving it instead for emergencies.  It’s a long-term strategy, just as it’s better not to dip into your retirement account to buy gas for your car.”

They then say, “These regulatory systems, probably along with others that are yet to be identified, interact to determine whether your brain detects an energy deficit or a surplus at any given time.”

While this information might cause us to feel helpless, a systems thinker will use this insight to better understand the various systems at play.  Then we can architect a better strategy to get what we really want, not what our brain does automatically.

Systems thinking can find leverage points and areas that we can change.  We can start slow so many of these systems are not fully engaged and resisting what we are doing.  We can change from high calorie foods to low calorie foods that keep us feeling full. 

We can exercise and keep our body moving, instead of having so much sedentary time.  We can find ways to avoid snacking to add on the additional pounds. 

There are many strategies that align with what our brain is focused on doing when we try to lower the number on the scale.  But without understanding the full system, we likely hit resistance due to elements of the system that work against our expressed goals.