Do you have a really hard time with your weight loss goals? Do you continuously blame yourself for "falling off the wagon"? If you do, then it's prime time to realize that it's not your fault... blame it all on your biology! You've been fighting against a system that's been rigged right from the start!
Now while this may seem like a great reason to throw in the towel and go eat a pint of Funky Monkey while watching The Notebook, it's the exact opposite. While we may not have the power to instantaneously change our own biology, we do have the power to change how we respond. Losing that weight is definitely doable after all.
That said, here are the top three biological barriers to weight loss, along with three solutions to overcome them...
Problem #1— Our behaviors are conditioned.
As a species we have been hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain from the very beginning. Back in the cave dweller days, certain behaviors were reinforced in order to ensure survival. Over time, our brain circuits began to adapt to predictable patterns to keep us safe.
While we may not fear the threat of ferocious tigers anymore, not much as changed in terms of how our behavior is conditioned. Think of the foods you eat and the repetitious ways in which you eat them. Many times you may even be driven to certain foods without even knowing it. This explains why you may get halfway through a donut in the break room without noticing that you even picked it up, or why you might find yourself at the Starbucks drive through window without realizing how you got there. Anything you do repetitively reinforces neurological pathways. This is what drives your behavior. So chances are that the donut eating and the Starbucks run weren't a first go-around.
Solution #1— Make a swap.
Remember that anything you do repetitively reinforces the neurological pathways that drive you, so replacing a negative behavior with a positive one is huge. Plus, anytime you take something away from your diet it is paramount that you add something back in to fill the void. This will give you something to reach for when you feel compulsively driven towards unhealthy foods that you’ve consumed in the past. It goes something like this:
recognize the unhealthy behavior --> replace it with a healthy behavior --> repeat healthy behavior = brand new hard-wiring
Of course "repeat" doesn't imply one time. You've got to do it over and over again, just like the unconscious donut eating. Make it easier on yourself by choosing a replacement behavior that's doable; you don't have to conquer the world in a day. Let's say that every time you want to make a mid-afternoon Starbucks run, you treat yourself to a fresh juice or smoothie instead. Or maybe you go for a half an hour walk to get re-invigorated. I'm not going to lie, it's really challenging to begin changing your habits. But once you start new ones, and continuously make the decision to repeat these instead, you'll never look back!
Problem #2— Those damn endorphins!
When sugar or sweet things hit our tongues it triggers the release of chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Can you take a guess what these guys do? Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to increase feelings of euphoria and reduce our perception of pain. Enter, pleasure seeking!
And it doesn't stop there. Since endorphins are similar to the mechanism of drugs such as morphine and codeine, we can also eat sweet things to give us a "high" or a rush. Brain imaging techniques have actually found that the brains of obese individuals and the brains of habitual drug users are very similar.
I mean, really, if I can eat that donut to release endorphins, which will reduce my perception of pain, and I am in pain, why wouldn’t I? Well, I probably would! It's no secret that people all over the world are using sweets to ease the pain of broken relationships, poor self-esteem, unpleasant co-workers, and so, so much more.
So how does one stop using chocolate and ice cream as therapy?
Solution #2— Do something that makes you feel good (other than eating).
It's clear that we often use food to make us feel better, to deaden our pain, or to avoid something that may be difficult to face. Here's when the replacement strategy comes into play once again. When you feel compelled to eat food to make you feel better, reach for a pen and paper instead. Write down what you are feeling and experiencing. Keep writing until the strong compulsion has dissipated. Not only will you have averted the food binge, you will have also helped to clarify what it is that you are trying to soothe, feed or avoid. Now that you know, you can consider some more positive ways to fill those same needs.
For example, you can get a rush of euphoric endorphins by:
- Exercising— A vigorous workout can release more endorphins than a leisurely one. Instead of eating, go for a long walk.
- Smelling Vanilla or Lavender— Vanilla is claimed to be an aphrodisiac, which can promote feelings of love and connection. Keep a lavender sachet with you to sniff when a sugar craving or an urge to eat hits when you are not hungry.
- Laughing!— Even if you don’t feel like it, studies have shown that even "fake" laughter can alter chemical responses in the brain and stimulate the release of endorphins.
- Eating More Spicy Foods— Spicy foods that contain cayenne pepper or hot chili peppers are known to release feel-good chemicals that can actually stimulate a more positive outlook when eaten in large amounts. They also decrease our pain response. If you eat because it soothes or eases your pain, reach for a healthy dish rich in spice instead. I'd go for some Indian food any day!
- Thinking Happy Thoughts— Don’t take yourself so seriously, especially those negative thoughts. Shift into positive thinking as frequently as possible. Thinking positively boosts feel-good chemicals and science has now proven that the way you think is the cornerstone to happiness and fulfillment. Consider for a moment, are your thoughts mostly negative or positive?
Problem #3— "Do-it-again" dopamine.
Another reason we crave sugar is because when you eat something sweet or highly pleasurable, a sensation shoots straight up to your brain and “tickles” an area called the dopamine center. When the neurotransmitter dopamine is released your brain likes it very much and will command you to do it again... and again... and again. This heightens the possibility of reaching for something sweet when you are not even hungry, or taking just one more bite when you are already sickeningly full. Your weight loss goals are suddenly zapped from your mind!
Any highly pleasurable food can tickle your dopamine center. In fact, the food industry has discovered that the combination of sugar, fat and salt are the ultimate dopamine tickling trifecta so they purposefully design foods to keep us coming back for more. Notice that this is why you “can’t just have one”.
Solution #3— Make your own!
Dopamine that is. This neurotransmitter is made from the amino acid tyrosine. Eating a diet high in tyrosine will ensure you’ve got the basic building blocks needed for adequate, natural dopamine production. No donut needed!
Here are healthy food choices that are high in tyrosine:
- Animal proteins
- Dark chocolate
- Green leafy vegetables
- Green tea
- Lima beans
- Sea vegetables
- Sesame and pumpkin seeds
Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchee and raw sauerkraut are rich in natural probiotics, which can also increase natural dopamine production. New studies have also shown that healthy bacteria like probiotics are conducive to leanness while unhealthy bacteria may contribute to obesity. Isn't it crazy to think that your intestinal flora can impact the production of your brain's neurotransmitters. Pretty amazing!
Exercise, meditation, taking up a new hobby and even music also give the brain a dopamine tickle that can take the place of food. Often we eat because we do not feel fulfilled. Taking up a new hobby or doing something we love fills our needs at a much deeper level. When you know how to find happiness outside of food, you know how to lose weight.
Change your behavior, change your mind.
Between our hardwired instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain, our biochemical reactions, and the deceptive food industry, we are up against a lot. But when you choose to fully acknowledge that this combination is the perfect storm for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, hopefully you will begin to make changes in your lifestyle.
Regardless of what you do, you always have a choice. Weight loss doesn't always have to be an uphill battle. Every moment that you choose to replace a negative behavior with a positive one is a major victory! Our cavemen ancestors would be impressed 🙂
For more information behind the biology and psychology of eating and weight loss, check out my book Good Decisions... Most of the Time. Because life is too short not to eat chocolate!