Last week, we had a very brief primer on how pain works. In case you missed it, the basic message is: pain is controlled by your brain. Whether it’s a paper cut, a stress-related headache, or a gunshot wound, your brain creates the perception of pain.
This is sometimes a good thing. It means that your back pain doesn’t necessarily involve any structural damage that needs to be surgically repaired. In many cases, all you need to do is learn to breathe and move better, and your back pain can go away without surgery.
Now, how does this relate to fat loss? Well, I would argue that fat storage is governed by the brain, too.
We tend to think that fat loss is all about calories. You eat fewer calories, you lose weight. Eat too many, and you gain weight.
That is generally true, but why do some people eat “too much”? Why do some people eat a seemingly small amount of food, and still have a hard time losing weight?
In the TED talk I linked a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Sandra Aamodt gave a pretty good explanation in her “thermostat analogy” model of fat loss. Your brain has an idea of how much you should weigh. Let’s say it’s 150 lbs. If you try to lose weight by cutting your calories, your brain may not want to let you lose that weight. It will do all sorts of things to try to get you to maintain your 150 lbs. For example, it’ll make you hungry, so you’ll want to eat more. It’ll make you tired, so you’ll want to move less and exercise less. And when you eventually stop dieting, you’ll probably regain any weight that you lost, and maybe gain some on top of that!
This is not true of all people who go on calorie-cutting diets, but it is true of many people — maybe even most people.
So maybe the real trick to fat loss is about resetting your brain’s thermostat. Instead of being convinced that you sohuld weigh 150 lbs, you want your brain to be convinced that you should weigh 140. How do you go about resetting your internal thermostat?
The truth is, we don’t really know for sure. But here are a few ideas.
1. Eat real foods and avoid most processed food products. Processed food is often carefully designed to taste good in a way that really lights up your brain’s reward centers. When this happens, you will want to eat more often and in larger quantities. For example, one study showed that rats could be made to overeat on a diet containing chocolate-flavored Ensure, but not on vanilla- or strawberry-flavored Ensure. The calorie content of these three drinks is the same, but the flavor of the chocolate Ensure makes rats want to eat more. Anecdotally, I have had many clients and friends say things like “I just ate a whole can of Pringles. I don’t even like Pringles, but I couldn’t stop eating them.”
So the moral of the story is not just to avoid chocolate-flavored Ensure, but to be aware that your brain controls your hunger. If you are overeating, it’s worth examining why you are eating too much. It’s probably not because you are a bad person. It’s probably because your brain is making you want to eat more. Start figuring out what foods make you want to eat more, and avoid those.
2. As a corollary, seek out foods that make you feel full. I don’t know what those foods are for you, because everybody is different. For a lot of people, in my experience, the answer is some kind of protein — eggs, chicken, steak, fish. I’ve had many clients tell me that eating more protein in the morning has helped them stay full longer.
3. Use smaller plates. Your brain relies on all sorts of cues to determine if you should be hungry. Did you know that people with severe short-term memory loss (due to a brain injury, for example) can be tricked into eating several lunches? They’ll eat, and then if you take away the food and bring them another tray in ten minutes, they’ll happily eat another full meal. They can’t remember that they just ate, so their brain tells them that they’re not full. Bring them a third lunch and they’ll eat that, too. At some point they start slowing down, but they’ll easily eat 3-4x the calories that they’d normally eat, if you keep bringing them separate meals.
The moral of the story is that your brain uses a variety of cues to determine if you should be hungry. Using smaller plates is a very easy way of using a visual cue to get your brain to realize that you don’t need to eat any more. If you are truly hungry, you can go back and get more food, but starting with a smaller plate may get you to feel fullearlier.
Now, I won’t claim that following these three simple guidelines is a magic fix for resetting your brain’s thermostat. But they are a step in the right direction, and for many people, these kinds of guidelines lead to more success than counting calories. If counting calories hasn’t worked well for you, give these a try and let us know what you think!