Can’t seem to lose weight and still crave decadent foods?
Why we are programmed to fail
Everybody knows how to lose weight and keep it off. It is simply a matter of eating sensibly and participating in regular exercise. But for some reason obesity is on the rise in our society and we spend billions of dollars on weight loss programs that never seem to work. The reason why we cannot do the sensible thing is that human beings are not programmed that way.
Our brains contain a neurotransmitter called dopamine which is also a neurohormone produced by your hypothalamus. The dopamine in our brain causes us to crave things and is sometimes known as the addiction hormone. It can be responsible for all types of addiction such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex and even food addiction. However, with food there is a double whammy because not only does the dopamine cause us to crave sumptuous delectable delights but once we have satisfied that craving we get a second hit from the hormone serotonin which just mellows us out and makes us feel so comfy and satisfied.
The desire to eat fatty filling foods is natural because our ancestors were predators who never knew where and when their next meal was coming from. Once we settled down to farming and raising livestock we were more in control of our food supply but we still had the urges.
Think of the heady ribald days of King Henry in England having a feast with his fellow hunters in which the killed animal is cooked and without any utensils they rip the flesh from the cooked carcass and feed themselves while pouring plenty of ale and wine. What about the Romans with their feasts involving food, wine and decadent sex; all things craved by their bodies.
The other evening I watched a television show produced by a chef known as Anthony Bourdain called “Food Porn.” While showing extremely delicious decadent meals being prepared and eaten, he described the sensation as similar to sex. His opinion is that as we anticipate the food our blood vessels become engorged and build until that final moment when we take that first bite and then experience a type of culinary orgasm. The problem is that he is probably right and that may be one of the main reasons we cannot stay away from the yummy chocolate cake.
There is a great book called The Happiness Hypothesis by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. His book explains why you cannot resist the chocolate cake. He uses the analogy of a person riding an elephant. You think you are in charge until you decide to go one way and the elephant decides to go another. The elephant is a lot bigger and stronger and when he really wants to do something you’re no match for it.
The rider is the conscious, reasonable (and far newer) part of the brain. The elephant is the emotional, automatic part that’s wired for pleasure, fear, guilt, lust, chocolate cake and all that other primal stuff. It reacts much faster than the rider to threats or opportunities. It craves those little bursts of dopamine that make you feel so good when you take that first bite. These parts of the brain have developed through natural selection to guarantee our survival. That’s why you can’t fight the elephant, and you can’t do without it. You can only try and train it and work with it to go your way.
We live in a very modern rational society that believes that we have the ability to set goals and use the tremendous amount of information at our disposal to succeed at these tasks. We control our own destiny. We are the ones driving the car and we can make it go in whatever direction we want.
It sounds like a great theory but why doesn’t it work? Why do we sometimes feel that we have no control and the car is on black ice just skidding away from us? It is because we are still very primitive people, always trying to harness the wild animal (the elephant) that is within us.
Modern social policy is actually about taming the elephant. How do we get people to eat sensibly and not become obese? How do we persuade them to get off the couch after a hard days work and make the time for exercise? We know it’s in our best interest. That’s why we go on diets, get a gym membership and start buying more fruits and vegetables. The basic advice never changes; eat better, walk more, cut back on salt and junk food. Simple! Now all you have to do is convince the elephant.
We think we are doing the right thing when we demand more labeling on prepared foods, more calorie counts in restaurants, less trans fats and salts and more nutritional education in high school. In theory that should help us to make better choices and become a healthier society. But we are not! And it is all because the elephant is always trying to steer us the other way.
What human beings need is more impulse management. We must learn to be in control of our own destiny and then we will succeed. There is a very famous experiment in which a four- year- old is introduced to a man who has some marshmallows. Once he determines that she likes marshmallows he shows her a plate with one marshmallow and a plate with two marshmallows and asks her which one she would rather have. (Of course she wants the one with two.) He says he has to leave the room for a while but she can have the plate with two when he gets back. If she doesn’t want to wait, she can ring a bell and he will come right back and give her the plate with one.
This experiment was conducted on a bunch of four- year- olds in 1970. It had extraordinary predictive powers. The children who were able to resist temptation the longest wound up in the best universities. They had learned how to tame that wild animal that exists in your brain.
If taming the elephant was so easy then we would all be thin, fit and rich. But we are not! Because every once in a while the elephant goes on a rampage and makes you eat the juicy piece of chocolate cake.
The answer is a compromise. I have always felt that you can succeed with your dietary goals if you allow yourself to break the rules once in a while. The key is to never give up your lust for strawberry ice-cream or blueberry cheese cake but to eat it on rare occasions only while eating sensibly most of the time. That way you can achieve your goals and still keep the elephant satisfied.
It means that the next time you hit the black ice you should be able to regain control of the car. Eventually, over a long period of time you may learn to tame the elephant.