If you believe your willpower will help you power through to permanent weight loss, you had better think again. A recent article in The Atlantic suggests that dieting and willpower alone can’t guarantee that you will shed the extra kilos and keep them off.
It backs what other recent research showed. A study on contestants from reality show The Biggest Loser revealed that most of them – within six years of losing 100 to 200 pounds – had gained back most of it and had significantly slowed metabolisms. This stands as a dramatic example of how the human body fights against weight loss.
Clearly, only willpower isn’t enough to fight back.
Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt asked: “Why is that we can’t just control our body weight? We all sort of think we can. You can decide whether to take that next bite of breakfast right? Why can’t we just keep that going over years? “
Aamodt, who has authored Why Diets Make Us Fat, said the reason is that “the brain, like a number of poorly run institutions, is governed by committee”. The brain’s “reward system” is a part of this committee, and this is what decides that ice cream or chips rank higher as rewards than salad or a green smoothie.
Aamodt also named another “player in the body’s weight loss fighting arsenal”: the hypothalamus. This regulates the body’s “weight thermostat”, which decides the body’s “set point” when it comes to the ideal weight. So if your weight moves too far from the set point, the body automatically adjusts the appetite and calorie use.
The area of the brain that controls planning and decision making also – pun intended – weighs in.
“This is the area of the brain that you tend to think of as your secret weapon for weight loss,” Aamodt said. “Your secret weapon for weight loss takes a lot of vacations.”
The reason why people have so much trouble dieting is “they’re trying to use a system that tires easily to fight against brain systems that are always working, never take a day off”.
But naturally the metabolism slows down and the weight returns. This process can take years, and may keep people riding the yo-yo cycle of weight loss and gain.
A study that followed thousands of preadolescents and adolescents for two years found that those who dieted frequently were more prone to bingeing.
So what can you do? Another study – of people who were normal as well as those who were obese – showed that healthy habits offered the same benefits regardless of weight. The study mentioned habits such as eating five or more fruits and vegetables daily, exercising regularly, giving up smoking and consuming alcohol in moderation. Eating sensibly and listening to your body is key when it comes to weight loss.