Why do I weigh more (or less) than my mom, best friend, or husband? Why is weight loss sometimes easy, then really hard? Why am I gaining weight? Despite what you may have heard about weight being all about calories or “energy in, energy out”, body weight regulation is really complicated. And if you’ve gained weight when you didn’t really want to, it’s easy to blame yourself for having bad habits or a lack of willpower. But as you see in the illustration below from the Obesity Society, reasons for weight gain are far more diverse and complex.
There’s factors related to age, genetics, where you live, the economy, and what happened for your mom when you were gestating. These form a background to answering the question of “What’s a healthy weight for me?”. But don’t worry, you don’t actually have to calculate a number or endlessly count calories to find your healthy weight. Because your body can find it quite naturally on it’s own.
Let me introduce SET POINT.
Set point is the well-proven concept that we all have an adult body weight at which we are naturally healthy and will tend to maintain over time without any effort. It’s a bit badly named, because rather than one exact weight, it’s more of a small range of your personal healthy weight.
Try this analogy. When you provide your body with the right inputs and environment, your brain is able to regulate body weight just like a thermostat. Have a small deficit in your energy stores today? No problem. The hypothalamus (one small part of your brain) sends out hormones which have a strong effect on increasing appetite, reducing your metabolic efficiency, and reducing your desire to move. In fact, if you’ve been starved for a while, you may even notice you’re cold as your internal weight regulation system tells the rest of your body to conserve energy. On the other hand, if you have a slight excess of energy on board, the hypothalamus helps you in opposite ways: decreasing appetite, increasing your metabolic efficiency, and increasing your desire to move. Ever notice you’re a little warmer, and maybe fidgety after a big lunch? Yup, that’s your hypothalamus at work protecting your set point – your healthy weight.
The problem is, there’s several ways that we can derail our natural weight regulation systems. And if you’ve gained weight without meaning to over the last few years, it’s worth looking to see if you’ve picked up one or more of these habits:
Weight Management Stumbling Block #1: Being Sedentary
We are designed to move. Not all the time, and please rest when you’re sick or injured, but generally, our ancestors moved every day. It’s just part of living life. And our brain-body connection for natural, healthy weight regulation depends somewhat on some regular movement happening.
People who are regularly sedentary lose sensitivity to hunger & fullness signals. Am I hungry? Well, it’s time to eat. Should I stop now? Hard to tell. Maybe I’ll finish what’s in front of me or get a little more to help me enjoy the show.
Ok, so the natural conclusion is that if being sedentary can cause weight gain, then I should exercise to lose weight. Well, that doesn’t really work. Now, movement, including exercise, is healthy and it may reduce appetite. But ramping up exercise alone doesn’t actually change most people’s eating habits. In fact, many people choose to become active but then overcompensate for the energy burn with extra eating.
Weight Management Stumbling Block #2: Restrictive Diets
So, you’ve gained weight. What’s the natural thing to do next in our society? Go on a diet. And sure, it might seem to “work” temporarily. You lose a few pounds or more, start to find it difficult, and then gain all the weight back … and more.
What’s the problem with restrictive diets? Well, following all these external rules, rather than trusting in our own body’s signals, easily drowns out our natural ability to respond to setpoint cues.
In fact, you may have lost sensitivity to your set point cues even without going on a formal diet. This can happen pretty easily in childhood when lots of kids are encouraged to ignore their appetite and instead finish their plate or “take two more bites” in order to earn dessert. There are so many messages out there about what’s “good” and “bad” to eat. If we internalize them and try to follow the rules (and occasionally rebel) instead of listening to our own bodies, our body weight regulation system won’t work as well as it should.
Weight Management Stumbling Block #3: Emotional Eating
Another common stumbling block is learning to use food to numb, distract, or temporarily change how we’re feeling. Of course, eating is comforting, and enjoyable, and sometimes really fun. That’s great, and should be celebrated. But what eating won’t do is solve the fight you had with your friend, make your boss treat you better, or take the stress out of your life.
For actual emotions and problems in our lives, it’s so much more effective to take care of ourselves properly. Maybe we need to express those emotions, talk them through with a friend, or find ways to relax and recharge. Food can be involved in this, but we can’t really expect eating to completely change how we’re feeling. Expecting it to leads to the problem of frequently eating past the point of fullness or enjoyment and can train us to ignore the normal signals to stop eating.
Weight Management Stumbling Block #4: Chronic Stress and Sleep Deprivation
Chronic stress is such a downer. As mammals, we’re not well equipped to deal with stressors that extend beyond the “fight or flight” response. So we get a constant dose of the stress hormone cortisol, which tries to help get us ready to fight or flee with ready energy (sugar) in the blood stream. Then we have to do something with that sugar, which means higher insulin levels for storing the sugar away as fat. Between the cortisol and insulin, we also get an appetite stimulation effect from the stress.
And sleep deprivation! I included it here because sleep deprivation is essentially a form of chronic stress. For some people, it’s a more fixable form of stress than the daytime demands of their life. And it clearly impacts appetite. Specifically, lack of sleep causes ghrelin levels to rise (stimulating your appetite so you want more food) and leptin levels to fall (so don’t feel as satisfied after you eat). The type of food you want also typically changes towards high-carb, calorie-dense choices.
Weight Management Stumbling Block #5: Industrial Food Products
I really don’t want to demonize any foods. But some types of foods common today don’t activate our weight-control mechanisms as well as the foods we used to eat. So we eat more, gain weight, and set points rise.
“A diet built on a base of whole foods, rich in plants, will better mimic the ancestral diets we evolved with, and best support us in maintaining good health – and a healthy weight regulation system” – Linda Bacon
Here’s the problem: Modern food processing is incredibly efficient at finding the exact combination that does NOT satisfy, so you keep eating more. That’s perfect from the manufacturer’s perspective, because you’re pulled into buying more and more.
There’s three main problems with industrial foods: processed carbs lacking fiber, an excess of added sugar, and sneaky added fats.
Processed carbs lacking fiber
In industrial food production, carbs like wheat, corn, and potatoes are stripped of their filling fiber component. Used occasionally, this may make little or no impact. But when we eat processed carbs in large quantities – with the associated lack of fiber – we get repeated blood sugar spikes. For those who are genetically susceptible, this leads to insulin resistance. Insulin is an energy storage hormone, and if we become resistant, the body responds by pumping out even more of the hormone, leading to increased appetite and increased fat production.
So whenever you can, it’s good practice for your weight as well as chronic disease prevention to switch to whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and pulses (think beans and lentils) to help your system regulate better.
Excess of added sugar
Added sugar is part of the processed carbs problem. Sugar-sweetened drinks, like pop, iced tea and juice beverages have a strong correlation with heavier weights. It’s important to hydrate, of course, but the calories in beverages don’t register as well as calories we eat, so they’re less satisfying. And portions have become larger and larger over the decades, as we continue to finish the container.
Ok, then what about switching to artificial sweeteners? Although they don’t contain calories, they can stimulate your body’s readiness to absorb and use calories, which can lead to more hunger and weight gain.
Sneaky added fat
Fat is tasty and easier to add to processed foods than sugar, and so it’s found in more processed foods. The trouble is, large amounts of fat are very high in calories without creating the satisfying signals we need to feel like we’re done eating. And we can quickly eat quite a bit of fat without noticing we’re about to be full. On the positive side, including a little fat in our meal does slow stomach emptying, leading to a comfortable fullness for longer than a no-fat meal. It’s a matter of finding the right balance. And fast food places probably feed you too much. Tip: between the types of fat, the healthiest ones have the most positive effect on feeling satisfied with your meal.
What to Do Now
So the part of the title for this article was “Habits to Quit”. So if you recognize some of the above challenges in your life, you might be motivated to change them. But it typically isn’t as easy as saying “I”m going to quit…” being stressed out, for example. Whew, wouldn’t that be nice!
So if you need help making actionable plans for positive, sustainable change, let me know. Maybe you’d benefit from a bedtime routine, a commitment to cooking an easy homemade dinner at least once a week, or a journalling practice for emotional balance.
Let me know what’s going on in your life. If you need some help making changes, I’m here for you. Tell me all about it in a free call.