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We have all done it. “Negotiated” with ourselves to give us what we want in the moment, a cookie, a frappucino, a nacho, something that conflicts with our larger goal of losing weight and keeping it off.
When I was obese I couldn’t understand how I could keep my word to myself on every step of my journey getting my Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, but couldn’t stick to a diet. If I got even close to my goal weight, I regained it all, plus extra within months.
Once I finally did get slender and keep the weight off I wanted to understand what had been going on in my brain all that time, what was that voice that compelled me to eat when the rest of me was trying so desperately not to?
Why Can’t I Lose Weight?
It turns out it arises in various parts of the brain and the dangerous thing is, it sounds like you. I call it The Saboteur. The first place the Saboteur arises from is the brain stem, that is the most primitive part of our brain, the part that can’t be overridden. It pumps your heart and makes you breathe.
You can try to hold your breath indefinitely, but at some point, the brain will override you. When the hormone leptin is blocked in the brain by elevated insulin from eating sugar the brain can no longer sense fullness or an urge to move. The brain stem believes that you genuinely haven’t had enough to eat yet and it orders you to eat more. You are literally powerless to stop it.
The other part of the brain demanding you eat is the nucleus accumbens, the seat of pleasure and reward. When the brain has been hit by the amount of sugar Americans consume daily, 22 teaspoons, for as little as three weeks, it responds by taking some its receptors offline.
Meaning next time you need to eat more sugar to get the same feeling from it. The brain responds by shutting off more receptors and soon you’re in the cycle of addiction, needing ever greater quantities to chase the feeling you can never again recreate.
And scans have shown that the brains of obese people are more down-regulated than cocaine addicts.
So you have two parts of the brain, hijacked by sugar, re-wired to demand that you keep eating it. But what that sounds like is, “Go on, have the cookie. You had a hard day, you deserve it, you can start again tomorrow,” or, “You’re so fat, what will one more cookie matter?” the voice may be kind, the voice may ben mean, but the voice will keep talking until you eat the cookie.
You quit sugar and flour. That is how you lower your baseline insulin level to get your leptin functioning optimally again.
That is how you give your pleasure receptors 6 months to replenish and grow back.
That is how you quiet those parts of your mind asking for a treat, cajoling you into breaking your promises and defeating your goals.
I’ve lived in a slender body with a quiet mind for over a decade and I can tell you that nothing is better than when those two parts of ourselves finally work together to make us Happy, Thin and Free.
Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester and an expert in the psychology of eating. She is President of the Institute for Sustainable Weight Loss and the founder and CEO of Bright Line Eating Solutions, a company dedicated to helping people achieve the health and vibrancy that accompany permanent weight loss. Based on cutting-edge research that explains how the brain blocks weight loss, Bright Line Eating teaches people how to get their brain on board so they can live Happy, Thin, and Free. She lives with her husband David and their three daughters Zoe, Alexis, and Maya.