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After a Diet, Your Body Remains Addicted to Food

Why keeping the weight off is so hard, and what you can do about it.

A recent article by Tara Parker-Pope called "The Fat Trap" was a revelation for me as to why I sometimes feel like I'm addicted to food.

Briefly, the article emphasizes what many of us chronic dieters already know-- after you have lost weight on a diet, your body actively fights you to put that weight back on. This research suggests that even if two people weigh the same, the body of the person who has come to that weight as a result of dieting reacts differently in response to food, with stronger appetitive responses at both hormonal and brain activation levels. Essentially, then, the thin person who has been previously overweight needs to have exceptional, almost superhuman, self-control to stay that way.

No wonder so few of us, myself included, can keep the weight off.

The National Weight Control Registry, reports Parker-Pope, undertook the logical strategy of looking at that rare subgroup of people who were actually able to keep their lost weight off, to see if they could provide clues about their success. What they found was that almost inivariably, the people who kept the weight off are likely to keep fastidious track of their eating habits, recording everything they eat as well as exercising regularly. As one of the people interviewed in the article said, "It's my accountability." As I explore in this blog , research does confirm the importance of keeping track of food intake and energy input vs. output more generally.

At the same time, a food/exercise diary is itself a huge exercise in self-discipline-- over and above the discipline required for weight loss. Some people do not have the time or energy to keep detailed track of everything they eat. Additionally, psychologist Steve Neuberg has shown that people reliably differ in their need for simple structure: people high in this quality may be easily overwhelmed by all the numbers, the charts, the graphs-- the sheer amount of data that can be generated by keeping careful track of calorie input and output.

If you are one of these people, one approach that may help you achieve your weight goals might be to try to go for a few principles , rather than for a mountain of data.

A great example of a simple principle is Michael Pollan's now famous "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" (by food, he means here food that is not processed, that our ancestors would readily have recognized as food themselves). However, note that the "Not too much" part of this principle is very hard for someone who has been overweight in the past- precisely because the body and the brain act like they're addicted to food.

Allow me to share one of my principles, presented by the Brachiosaurus in this video from the show Dinosaur Train:

It know it's silly, but it's catchy and I can remember it. You see, many leafy green vegetables are so low in calories (when raw or cooked appropriately) that I can literally eat them until I cannot eat another bite. So, if it's green, it's not only good, but I can actually eat a lot! Another way to think about this principle is "the salad is the main dish," which is the short phrase that Joel Fuhrman recommends in his book "Eat to Live."

The point here is not to advocate for Pollan or Fuhrman, for omnivores or herbivores. Rather, the point is that for someone trying to lose weight or keep it off-- but who is unable to extensively track caloric intake and output-- thinking of a few principles to eat by may be a better strategy. And, in pursuing a goal, a strategy is better than no strategy.

What are some of your weight loss/maintenance principles? Remember, principles are succinct, broadly applicable, and easy to remember. Share them in your comments below; if there is a critical mass, I'll summarize in a future post.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.