Can’t Lose Weight? Create a Diet That Works!

In previous articles about weight loss, I’ve talked about why will power doesn’t work, that simply being aware of one’s excess weight correlates with gaining even more weight, and my own struggles and victories with weight control.

In this article, I’ll give some examples of why we cannot trust ourselves to manage weight loss and why we need to approach the problem like a nutritional scientist.

In his excellent book, Subliminal, Leonard Mlodinow tells us about a fascinating series of experiments in which researchers manipulated the brain arousal of volunteers, then subjected them to a range of situations in which they made decisions about their relationship with other people, the taste and desirability of different foods or explanations for their opinions or observations.

In one experiment, for example, researchers would show subjects two pictures of randomly chosen people of the opposite sex and ask which was more attractive. Later they would show the subjects the picture they did not choose and ask why they found the person attractive. More than 75% of the time the subjects did not realize the picture experimenter presented them was the one they did not find attractive, but that was not the point of the experiment.

The point was how the subjects would respond when the experimenter asked what they found attractive about the person in the picture. The 75% who did not realize the picture presented was of the person they found to be least attractive identified all sorts of reasons for why they found the person in the picture attractive, even though they had identified it as unattractive previously.

That might be of passing interest, but then researchers repeated the experiment in the context of food.

When food is involved things became very interesting.

In supermarkets, researchers set up taste tests of jams by different manufacturers. Again, they presented two samples and asked for a preference based on taste. They kept track of which brands of jam volunteers preferred and did not prefer, and later gave them a sample that was actually the brand the volunteer did not prefer.

Again, when asked about what they liked about the sample they had earlier stated they did not like, the subjects identified all sorts of characteristics such as taste, consistency, color and sweetness or tartness that determined their preference. In reality, they had already tasted the brand and labeled it as less desirable.

Your Brain and the “Pepsi Paradox”

The Pepsi Paradox has bedeviled soft drink marketers for decades.

The Pepsi Paradox is the fact that in blind taste tests people overwhelmingly rate Pepsi superior to Coke, but a large portion of them prefer Coke when they know what they are drinking.

How can this be?

The portion of our brain that rests directly above our eye sockets is the Executive Center. It is the “mission control” center of the brain where complex networking decisions that coordinates the many different organs of our brain.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) resides in the Executive Center and helps the brain determine whether objects are associated with safe, warm and familiar experiences.

In blind taste tests using some volunteers with damaged VMPC and others with intact VMPCs, both groups preferred Pepsi in the blind condition when they did not know which brand they were drinking. This was no surprise and was no different from what happens when all volunteers have intact VMPCs.

However, the preferences of volunteers with damaged VMPCs were consistent in their preference for Pepsi. The Pepsi paradox disappeared. Regardless of whether they knew what they were drinking, they preferred Pepsi. The lack of a fully functioning VMPC seems to keep previous experiences from influencing judgements about current experiences.

The VMPC is the brain organ that undermines our objectivity, at least when it comes to food preferences.

These have been just a few examples of how our brain can fool us about the most basic of our food preferences and decisions making. There are far more.

The IKEA Effect and Diet Planning

I’ve been talking about how unreliable our thinking and decision-making about food choices can be because understanding our biases and prejudices has a huge effect on strategies for weight loss.

Clearly, successful weight loss requires more than just good intentions and will power. It is important that well thought out planning, an effective strategy and choosing cognitive and behavioral supports long before altering eating or exercise habits.

Why is creating a comprehensive plan so important? Something called the IKEA Effect.

Dan Ariely, a well know social psychologist at Duke University, coined the term to label a cognitive-behavioral trait that all humans seem to have. We value things more if we contribute to their creation, and the more we contribute the more we value the product.

In Ariely’s excellent and very readable book, “The Upside of Irrationality” he tells the story of Pillsbury marketers in the 1940’s trying to popularize various powered mixes for desserts, cakes and pies. Homemakers of the era took great pride in the ability to cook delicious foods from scratch, so marketers of instant food, especially cakes, were facing a serious challenge in convincing women to buy the new instant foods.

A marketing psychologist named Earnest Dicter realized that women who took great pride in creating desserts from scratch might find that simply adding water to a ready-made cake mix disrespectful of their talents. It is another version of technology replacing artisanship and diminishing hard won skills of expertise.

Dicter suggested simply printing an additional instruction on the side of the cake mix box to add one raw egg. The very simple change of adding the egg became a symbol of involvement and connection with the finished cake. That simple gesture resulted in a sudden and dramatic increase in cake mix sales.

Ariely launched a number of experiments exploring why we value things more highly when we have a hand in creating them. What is so powerful, he wondered, about creating something?

In one series of experiments, Ariely had volunteers follow directions to make simple and complex origami swans. He then had the volunteers rate both their own creations and the creations of others. Naturally, he found volunteers rated their own creations higher than those made by others.

However, he followed this with auctions of the origami. Again, he found that the people who created a particular origami swan valued it higher than those made by others did. Furthermore, the more effort put into the origami increased the value people had for their creations. Interestingly, only completed origami was valued; incomplete creations had no value at all.

This is why kits of all kinds are so popular. IKEA has made retail history by not selling completed products, but prefabricated kits the customer assembles. We put more value on things when we put effort into completing them than those that are already complete. Our involvement in creating something gives it value.

Amazingly, animals share this trait.

In the early 1960’s psychologist, Glen Jensen noticed that lab rats would continue to press a bar to get pellets of food even though an effort free bowl of food was available. In a controlled experiment all but one of 200 rats would visit the food bowl, but leave it if a bar dispensing food pellets were available.

Subsequent studies support this conclusion.

Psychologists Brooks Carder and Kenneth Berkowitz performed several animal experiments in the 1970’s finding that rats preferred pressing a bar for food rather than eating “free” food as long as the effort was not excessive (Carder and Berkowitz 1970, 1972):

“Rats were trained to eat free food from a dish, then trained to press a lever for similar food. The free food was then presented while subjects were pressing on several reinforcement schedules. Subjects continued to press for reinforcement when one or two presses were required for reinforcement, and ate little free food. When ten presses were required for reinforcement, rats preferred free food and pressed little or not at all. It was concluded that, when work demands are not too high, rats prefer earned food to free food” (Carder and Berkowitz 1970 Abstract).

In her fascinating, book Zoobiquity: What Animals can teach us about health and the science of healing, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz tells us about the controversial practice in European zoos of “Carcass Feeding”. Zoos in Europe are cautiously exploring the health benefits of feeding freshly killed prey animals to large predators.

Although the animals have to work harder when eating a carcass they become healthier and seem less anxious than when eating their usual fair of ground domestic meat. Even though it takes far more effort to crush bones and chew through ribs and hooves, big cats seem to prefer it.

The idea of putting forth effort for a rewarding experience is not limited to animals.

In his fascinating book Satisfaction, Neurologist Gregory Berns tells of an experiment by one of his graduate students, Cary Zink (Zink, Pagnoni, Martin-Skurski, Chappelow and Berns 2004):

It occurred to Zink that if we value money only because it has value, the pleasure center of our brain – the striatum, a structure in the mid brain at the top of the spinal column – would have a consistent reaction no matter whether an individual perceives they are earning money or simply accepting it.

However, if earning money has value, aside from the value of money, our striatum pleasure center should react more strongly when we perceive we have put effort into earning money.

And that is exactly what happens.

Subjects required to press a button in order to receive a reward generated more activity on the striatum than those who didn’t. Pressing a button in an fMRI machine may seem trivial, but it represents effort. Even that minimal effort generated a large increase in striatum activity indicating a pleasurable experience. The reward is in the effort we put into earning, not strictly in the tangible payoff itself.

What this tells us

First Mlodinow tells us how difficult it is for us to think about our eating habits. We say we like the taste of something, but if we are misled, even just a little, we will make up all sorts of reasons why we like the food that we never said we liked.

The Pepsi Paradox illustrates that we have brain structures that emphasize past experiences and opinions to the extent that we have trouble realizing we like one thing more than another.

Finally, Ariely, Berns and Zink make convincing arguments that we value things we create more than things others create, and that we are hard wired to feel pleasure when we earn something.

Putting this all together, we find evidence to support the idea that we are not very good monitors of our eating behaviors. We are easily misled and confused. Even in the best of circumstances, we are very bad at objectively examining our thoughts and behaviors related to eating and weight loss.

What does this tell us about how we need to go about losing weight?

For one thing, it is clear that we must put far more effort into weight loss than simply following a diet we read in a book or magazine. It’s not that diets in books and magazines are flawed, although many of them are. The biggest problem lies within us – we just don’t do a very good job of thinking clearly about food, eating and nutrition. Finding a good weight loss program is easy. The hard part is removing the unconscious thoughts and behaviors that undermine us.

We have to remove ourselves from our weight loss efforts.

But how the heck do we do that? How can we remove ourselves and still have influence over what we do?

Scientists face the same problem. They are searching for truth, but if they allow their personal biases and prejudices to influence their research, grant money will dry up and professional reputations become tarnished.

So how do scientists do it?

They measure everything of importance, record those measurements and examine them for changes. This is “data collection and monitoring” and it is at the heart of determining why things occur.

Let’s revisit Berns, Ariely and Zink for a moment. Their message seems to be that we have more value for things we have a hind in creating. The more effort we put into creating something the more value we place on it.

That is the IKEA Effect.

When we follow a diet plan like the Mediterranean Diet, we are simply along for the ride. Someone else came up with that diet, and we are just following his or her lead. “Eat more vegetables, and don’t forget the olive oil” is about as invested as we get.

However, when we create our own custom diet, designed for our unique biology, life style and metabolism we will be far more likely to lose weight permanently. This is because we care about the success of our own creation more than the creation of a diet book author.

That is because it takes effort. Not the effort of following someone else’s diet, but the effort of going to the trouble of discovering what works for our individual situation. Learning about how our individual body manages food, and fat, then writing our own diet book with only one reader – us – is the most promising path to permanent weight loss.

It sounds like a huge project, and it is. But like any other huge project if we just take it a step at a time we will eventually get to our destination.

The first step is to educate ourselves about nutrition, eating and weight loss. The fact that you have read this far show that you are already taking the first step. Here are a few other sources of knowledge to digest:

The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body’s Least Understood Organ and What It Means

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight 

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease

Used copies of these books are no more than five dollars; you can get all three for less than $20.00, including shipping.

(Avoid the Kindle versions – you want physical books that will sit on a desk or table reminding you of the highlighted the parts that are most relevant to achieving your weight loss dreams.)

Do it now. Each book has a link to Amazon. If you can afford $20.00, you can afford to start your education on permanent weight loss.

When you’ve started those, it will be time to begin creating your personal diet plan.

Stay tuned.

I’ll tell you exactly how to do that in a future article at and




You can find my previous weight loss articles at, or my blog site,

Ariely, D. (2010). The upside of irrationality: The unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home. New York: Harper.

Berns, G. (2005). Satisfaction: The science of finding true fulfillment (1st ed.). New York: Henry Holt.

Carder, B. (1972). Rats’ preference for earned in comparison with free liquid reinforcers. Psychonomic Science, 26(1), 25-26.

Carder, B., & Berkowitz, K. (1970). Rats’ Preference for Earned in Comparison with Free Food. Science, 167(3922), 1273-1274. doi: 10.1126/science.167.3922.1273

Jensen, Glen. (1963). Preference for bar pressing over “freeloading” as a function of number of rewarded presses. Journal of experimental psychology. 65. 451-4. 10.1037/h0049174.

Mlodinow, L. (2012). Subliminal: How your unconscious mind rules your behavior (1st ed.).New York: Pantheon Books.

Natterson-Horowitz, B., & Bowers, K. (2012). Zoobiquity: The astonishing connection between human and animal health (First Vintage Books edition. ed.).

Zink, C. F., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skurski, M. E., Chappelow, J. C., & Berns, G. S. (2004). Human striatal responses to monetary reward depend on saliency. Neuron, 42(3), 509-517.

How We Ensure a 95% Diet Failure Rate


Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is famous for making significant discoveries about self-control and will power. In his very interesting book, Willpower he leads us through all the hidden challenges of weight loss.

Baumeister tells us that bookies in England, (where this kind of betting is legal), routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss, though people placing bets have control over just about everything. They define exactly what weight loss means, to the pound, they establish the period and they identify the conditions under which they will attempt to lose.

Not only do they have those technical issues under their control, they are also highly confident that they will lose weight, otherwise they would never make the bet.

Yet in spite of all that control and confidence, the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later. No, the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future.

Almost everyone fails.

How can this be? How can millions of people worldwide fail to lose weight? You would think that at least a few of them would accidentally do all the right things and lose a few pounds.

But no.

In a recent meta-study, 78 academic studies of weight loss attempts were reviewed and their results were recalculated and aggregated. (Haynes, Kersbergen, Sutin, Daly, and Robinson 2018). In other words, the authors statistically re-examined the results of 78 academic studies on weight loss and combined them into one huge academic paper.

Some of the insights they gained were quite surprising.

“We examined peer-reviewed literature published between 1991 and 2017 and found strong evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with a higher likelihood of trying to lose weight and moderate evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with greater use of both healthy and unhealthy weight control strategies. However, those weight loss attempts and strategies did not appear to be translated into healthy weight-related behaviours” (p.357).

“…while individuals who perceived their weight status as overweight were more likely to report trying to consume a healthy diet and increasing physical activity to lose weight, there was no evidence to suggest that these individuals were actually more likely to enact these behaviours than those who did not identify as overweight. …there was evidence of no relationship between perceived overweight and healthy eating habits” (p.359).

“…there was strong longitudinal evidence to suggest that perceived overweight predicts weight gain over time, and this was the case across the majority of participant subgroups” (p.359).

In other words, this study found that people who know they are overweight might try reasonable methods to lose weight — exercise and healthy eating — but were not quite able to accomplish serious weight loss. In fact, the strongest predictor of weight gain is the knowledge you are overweight!

That does not give us very much insight into what specifically causes weight loss efforts to fail, but there is one tantalizing hint that might give us something to address:

“Attempts to lose weight by individuals who perceive themselves as overweight may not necessarily translate into the adoption or appropriate implementation of effective weight control strategies. Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating” (p.359).

“Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating”. It’s not the people do not try to lose weight, the problem seems to be they try in the wrong ways. This study seems to find that unhealthy weight control strategies and “disordered eating” are what keep us from losing weight.

“Unhealthy weight control strategies” and “disordered eating” are eating behaviors that are not quite serious enough to be mental health issues like anorexia nervosa or chronic bulimia. Instead, these are things like obsessive calorie counting, binging, late night eating, abusing laxatives, excessive fasting or chronic restrained eating.

These behaviors are not in themselves things that make us gain weight, but they lead to a breakdown of a healthy eating regimen. These are the ways we undermine ourselves, but taken individually and as one time or occasional behaviors they are harmless. However, when we unconsciously integrate them into our lifestyle they undermine our commitment to healthy weight loss.

Cognition, Behaviors and Weight Loss

The way we think about food and eating has a powerful effect on how we use food to either keep us healthy or make us sick. Our thoughts can undermine our goals or improve the chances of achieving them. Our thoughts have this incredible power because they determine our behaviors — the things we physically do.

Psychologists have a name for this interaction of thoughts and behaviors — Cognitive-Behavioral. Cognitive or cognition refers to internal mental mechanisms like thoughts, memories and intelligence. The inner voice you her when reading or talking to yourself is cognition, so is the process of recalling a memory or making a new one.

Behavior is anything you physically do that you or others can observe and count or measure. If someone can count the times they see, hear or feel you doing something, it’s a behavior. People often confuse emotions with behavior, but emotions are an internal sensation. We can’t see emotions like anger or happiness, only the external physical manifestations, like a frown, furrowed brow, or a smile or laughter. We really do not know what other people are thinking.

We don’t even know what we are thinking much of the time. That is one of the biggest challenges in healthy eating and weight loss. Things we are not even aware of can influence our thoughts, and in turn, our thoughts influence our eating and health behaviors.

Even the most unremarkable things can influence our view of idea of how the world works.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Noble prize in Economics for his work in Behavioral Economics — the melding of economics and psychology to investigate how people make decisions about numbers and money. Thinking, fast and slow is his landmark book that covers all his very interesting experiments and breakthroughs. This is a must have book for everyone interested in behavioral economics.

In a famous experiment at the University of Oregon, Kahneman and his academic partner Amos Tversky, built a Wheel of Fortune, similar to the one on the televise game show. Unlike the television wheel, the Kahneman/Tversky wheel would stop only on 10 or 65. After spinning the wheel in front of a group of students Kahneman would ask two questions that students were unlikely to know and would there for be forced to guess.

“Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote?” and,

“What is our best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?”

Amazingly, students exposed to 10 averages 25% for the two questions, and those exposed to the 65 guessed that 45% of countries in the UN were African. Simply being exposed to larger or small numbers influenced students estimates of the national membership of the UN.

Kahneman and Tversky call this the “anchoring effect”. When we are exposed to a high number, we tend to make higher estimates of anything asked of us afterwards. Students exposed to a higher number in the Wheel of Fortune experiment tended to guess that African nations were a larger part of the UN than students exposed to the lower number.

Even though the number was nothing more than a symbol on a wheel and did not represent quantity or anything else.

In a similar experiment, real estate agents were asked to access the value of a house that was on the market. They visited the house and were given a booklet with pertinent facts. However half the agents had a booklet listing an asking price far above the actual price, while the other half had a booklet with the asking price substantially lower than the real asking price.

Sure enough, the agents exposed to the higher false asking price suggested a higher asking price than those who were exposed to the lower false asking process. Given the results of the Wheel of Fortune experiment, that is no surprise.

In an interesting twist, all the agents were convinced the price they saw had no effect on their recommend price. After all, they assured the experimenters, they were professionals who did such recommendations for a living and were practiced enough that an unrealistically high or low would not influence them.

The experiment was repeated with a group of business students. The business students submitted recommendations that were within 8% of the real estate agents. The only difference was that the students admitted the fake asking prices influenced their price recommendations.

This gives you an idea of how suggestible we are. Think about that. The thing that makes us unique among all other animals on earth — our cognitive abilities — is at the mercy of any random number that happens along our path. Our guesses and assumptions about the world are really reflections of our most recent experiences.

The influence of external factors like exposure to numbers or inaccurate information is only one way our efforts at weight loss are undermined. We also have to think about internal errors in thinking– what psychologists call cognitive errors, like recalling information inaccurately or confusing a set of facts with the wrong issue. Even when we get those things right there are many other variables that sabotage our efforts to eat healthy and lose weight.

This might have something to do with why so many people cannot understand why their weight loss efforts come to naught.

We cannot ignore the powerful effect of our own behaviors on the way we think about weight loss.

Recently I was discussing weight loss with a young woman who admitted she was making no progress in her weight loss efforts. She was telling me about her diet and described increasing he proportion of vegetables in her diet. As she was telling about this, she wrinkled her face into an expression of disgust and described vegetables as “rabbit food”.

This was another example of the anchoring effect, except this time with facial expressions and words instead of numbers providing the anchor. This young woman had no idea she was undermining her diet efforts simply by her words and facial expression.

In a famous experiment that opened the door to the relationship between facial expressions and mood, experimenters simply asked subjects to hold a pencil in their mouths while they rated the humor of cartoons (Strack, Martin and Stepper 1988).

In one experimental condition participants held the pencil just with their lips, creating a frown, while in another condition participants held the pencil with their teeth, creating something approximating a smile. Astoundingly, the subjects with the forced smile rated the cartoons funnier than subjects in a control condition without the pencil. Subjects holding the pencil with their lips creating a forced frown rated cartoons less funny than a control group.

This experiment has been repeated many times in many different variations and the results are consistent. We influence our own judgements with behaviors like emotionally relevant facial expressions, speech patterns and body language.

This young woman was creating a barrier to her own efforts simply by her negative word and facial expressions about healthy eating. She will be far less likely to maintain a diet with a high proportion of vegetables when she turns eating vegetables into an unpleasant experience.

So how do we control things as superficial as facial expressions and our subconscious reaction to numbers?

Stay Tuned

I’ll offer some answers here at Medium, and at


Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.

Haynes, A., Kersbergen, I., Sutin, A., Daly, M., & Robinson, E. (2018). A systematic review of the relationship between weight status perceptions and weight loss attempts, strategies, behaviours and outcomes. Obesity Reviews, 19(3), 347–363. doi: doi:10.1111/obr.12634

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(5), 768.

How Poor Sleep, Expanding Intestines and Foreign Microbes Keep Us Fat

Anyone keeping a healthy lifestyle knows that temptation is all around. Convenience stores and fast food outlets alternate on every corner. Marketers pay food psychologists to design sales tactics that overcome our will power and best intentions. Intentional combinations of fat, sugar and carbohydrates, engineered by food scientists, get us hooked on junk food in much the same way we are hooked on drugs.

We are aware of that environment. But there are other environments we cannot see that are attracting the scrutiny of researchers – the colony of bacteria in our intestines, activity within our brains and the weird ability of our intestines to expand and contract.

There is no doubt that night shift work is associated with weight gain and obesity. No one knows exactly what goes on inside our brains to make us fat when we work at night, but we know it happens.

A 2018 meta-study reveals interesting and puzzling details.

Combing the results of 28 studies of weight gain and shift work found that working at night increased the risk of being overweight by 23%, however the increased risk of dangerous abdominal or belly fat was even greater at 35%.

Robert Lusting, in his revolutionary book, Fat Chance, tells us all bout abdominal fat and why it is so dangerous.

Fat comes in a different varieties, and not all of them are bad.

Subcutaneous fat is “healthy fat” laying just under the skin. It is what gives women their curves, provides energy reserves when we are sick and seems to protect against disease. Elderly people without a modest amount of subcutaneous fat get sick more often, die younger and experience more injuries than those with a healthy amount.

Visceral fat – that kind that collects around our middle – it’s what kills us. Visceral fat causes insulin resistance, and insulin is the main player in how we digest our food. According to Lusting, insulin resistance promotes diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and general ageing.

Our body easily turns visceral fat into energy to fuel our muscles and organs. But that leads to one of the very dangerous aspects of visceral fat – it resides near our organs. We can’t see the damage visceral fat does when it surrounds our liver or heart, but that is the essence of metabolic disease.

The only place we can easily detect visceral fat is when we see it around our belly. Lusting cites studies indicating that our waist circumference is the best predictor of risk of death from metabolic diseases. In other words, belly fat is a proxy or symbol for dangerous intra organ fat. But how do we measure it? How can we tell how much risk our visceral fat is subjecting us?

Lusting offers three suggestions.

First is belt size. Anything more than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women is a likely indicator of excess visceral fat.

Another easy way to spot excess visceral fat is looking for darkening, thickening or ridging of the skin around the neck, armpits or knuckles. Lusting says this is excess insulin reacting with hormone receptors just under the skin.

For a more accurate measure, calculate the ratio between waist and hip. Research suggests that ratio less than .80 indicates a healthy amount of visceral fat. (Interestingly, David Buss, a well-known researcher and author of The Evolution of Desire finds that men consistently prefer women with a waist-hip ratio of .70.)

But why would shift work have anything to do with gaining visceral fat?

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, explains the biology behind circadian rhythms in her book Zoobiquity.

All the cells in our bodies contain “oscillators” built by clock genes. These oscillators influence the timing of everything in our bodies – how fast calories burn to when we feel like eating. Plants, animals, bacteria and even single celled organisms manage circadian rhythms.

Creatures with complex brains have a collection of neurons coordinating all these oscillators. Located at the point where the optic nerve connects to the hypothalamus is a tiny brain structure about the size of a sesame seed. Called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, (SCN), this tiny organ detects light levels detected by the optic nerve and directs our circadian rhythms – that is, helping us to sleep at night and remain awake during the day.

Think of its job as synchronizing external time signals with our internal oscillators.

When researchers expose mice to constant light, even dim light, they gain weight and carry higher blood-glucose ratios than mice exposed to natural rhythms of light and darkness. We also know that plants and animals living further from the equator have lower levels of sugars in their systems.

The annual switch from standard time to daylight savings time creates an opportunity for research on disruptions to circadian rhythms. Researchers find that depression increases during the switch to daylight savings time, as do car accidents, heart attacks and stoke. And that is just a modest change of one hour.

We know that lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain. In his book Go Wild, John Ratey, MD, points out that sleep deprivation studies consistently show that lack of sleep is associated with weight gain, even though there is no measurable change in caloric intake or energy expenditure.

It is interesting to point out that researchers have a hard time controlling for increased caloric intake when doing sleep deprivation studies. Simply not getting enough sleep causes disruption of hormones that signal satiety, resulting in cravings for sugar and carbohydrates, especially in the evening.

Putting all this together shows us that there is a complicated interplay between light, sleep and the secretion of hormones that affect our appetite, even to the point of causing a desire for certain foods.

But there are even more things that we have very little awareness of, yet can have far-reaching effect on how we gain, lose and carry our weight.

Natterson-Horowitz spends quite a bit of time telling us about our intestines and what scientists are finding in them.

The intestines of many animals can contract or expand. The remarkable ability to change the length of intestines is common among animals that migrate and hibernate. Fish, frogs, snakes squirrels voles and mice all have this ability. The exact mechanism is unknown, but it probably related to circadian rhythms. When stretched out intestines can absorb more nutrients from food passing though. They become more efficient.

It is unsettling to think that is one more thing we can’t control that affects our weight.

However, we are learning far more about our biome – the collection of microbes who call our intestines home. At birth, we have no intestinal microbes – our innards are sterile. This changes as we are exposed to microbes in our environment.

Parents can tell when their babies develop gut microbes – diaper changing suddenly becomes a very smelly affair. By the time we are only a few months old trillions of microbes reside in our mouths, skin, teeth, even our lungs. It is thought that only about ten percent of the cells in our body are human. The rest are little friends we pick up from the environment.

There are two dominant types of bacteria in our biome, firmicutes and bacteroidetes. Firmicutes are associated with obesity and bacteroidetes with leanness. Obese individuals tend to have more firmicutes bacteria in their gut biome than people with a normal weight do.

Each of us has a unique blend of these microbes, which accounts for the differences in how what we eat affects our weight. Some people can eat pasta and wine without giving their weight a thought, while others have to be careful about eating an apple or avocado.

It turns out that bacteroidetes are far more efficient at extracting calories from food than firmicutes are. When obese people lose weight, the ratio of firmicutes to bacteroidetes changes, and bacteroidetes eventually out number firmicutes.

Whether or not we can change the ratio of firmicutes and bacteroidetes and lose weight by taking probiotics is an open question. But not for the weight loss industry. They are taking advantage of the discovery and offer us a range of products designed to increase gut bacteroidetes. How much of an effect these products have on weight is hard to determine.

At this point, you might be wondering whether the controversial practice of giving farm animals high doses of antibiotics has an effect on the humans who eat them. Agribusiness is no longer allowed to administer massive doses of antibiotics for purely preventive measures.

However, the rules are very liberal, and routine use of antibiotics allows animals to get fatter on less food. Exactly why this happens is unknown, but it is possible that some gut microbes like firmicutes are more resistant to antibiotics than others are. The effect that antibiotics administered to farm animals has on the humans who eat them is unknown.

Scientists are making discoveries almost daily showing how intimately interconnected we are with our environment. The more we learn, the better we can make decisions pointing us to a long and healthy life.

Books mentioned in this article:

Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Lustig, R. H. (2012). Fat chance: Beating the odds against sugar, processed food, obesity, and disease. New York, New York: Hudson Street Press.

Natterson-Horowitz, B., & Bowers, K. Zoobiquity: What animals can teach us about health and the science of healing (1st ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ratey, J. J., Manning, R., & Perlmutter, D. (2014). Go wild: Free your body and mind from the afflictions of civilization (First edition. ed.). New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

If you enjoy what you read here, check similar articles at Onward Through the Fog





Why Will Power is Powerless for Dieting

No matter how dedicated people might be about losing weight, they rarely have a detailed plan in place for changing their eating behaviors. For the most part, they rely on will power. Unfortunately, people who rely on will power alone to lose weight will almost certainly fail, either in the short run, or in the long-term objective of staying slim.

Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is famous for making significant discoveries about self-control and will power. In his very interesting book, Willpower he leads us through all the hidden challenges of weight loss.

One especially disheartening hidden challenge of losing weight is that weight is resistant to self-control. Both Oprah Winfrey and Newt Gingrich are unquestionably gifted with more self-control than most people are, yet in spite of that advantage, both have experienced a lifetime of shame and humiliation over their failed weight loss efforts.

The iron will and self-control that brought them success deserted these accomplished celebrities when applied to weight, and left both the center of public humiliation.

In her magazine, “O,” Oprah describes sitting at the Emmy Awards ceremony praying to lose to her talk show rival Phil Donahue:

“I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself by rolling my fat butt out of my seat and walking down the aisle to the stage.”

In her highly recommended book, The Secret Life of Fat, Sylvia Tara reveals that Gingrich has similar sentiments. When interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1995 shortly after his ascension to the top post of Speaker of the House she asked about his biggest embarrassment:

“I’m most embarrassed about my weight,” he said. Not the trumped up ethics investigation, nothing to do with any of the three marriages, not the stunning Republican losses under his tenure as Speaker.

None of that.

His weight.

“I know it’s entirely a function of my personality that I swim, I eat the right things and then either I have the chance to drink some Guinness or eat some ice cream and I cave.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Only recently, has our weight skyrocketed and our efforts to manage it failed so miserably.

In the past obesity a sign of wealth and success. Tara tells us about 19th century men’s organizations that celebrated being overweight and accepted only “stout” men into their membership. Ladies Home Journal featured stories on how to gain weight and maintain “plumpness’ and in 1878 a book titled How to be Plump became popular.

During the Civil War soldiers averaged about 5’8” and weighed around 143 pounds.

By the early 1980’s men were about the same height as the Civil War, but their weight averaged forty pounds more at 183 pounds according to the Centers for Disease Control.

What happened? It seems that as soon as we have food in front of us we can’t help but gorge ourselves. As Gingrich says, just offering the chance to overeat assures us that we cave.

Baumeister tells us that bookies in England, (where this kind of betting is legal), routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss. That is stunning when you consider that the people making the bets – the dieters and their friends – have control over just about everything. They define exactly what weight loss means, to the pound, they establish the period, and they identify the conditions under which they will attempt to lose.

Yet the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later. No, the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future. Almost about everyone fails.

Just like Oprah.

Baumeister got curious about this and set out to explore the challenges of weight loss and how even people with a proven high level of self-control find it elusive.

First, he did a meta-study. In a meta-study, the investigator does not do any experiments of their own. Instead, they look at experiments others have done, combine all the data collected in previous experiments, and subject it to new statistical analyses.

Across dozens of studies, Baumeister found that people with proven reserves of superior self-control did slightly better than the average in controlling weight.

Slightly better.

Baumeister tested this finding by creating a 12-week weight loss program for undergrads at Florida State. He identified students with high self-control and followed them throughout the course. They did slightly better than the low self-control individuals, but not by much, and not for long. As the program wore on their self-control seemed to flag. In the end, there was little difference in weight loss between the high self-control group and the low self-control group.

How can self-control mean so little when it comes to weight loss? It seems to work in other areas of people’s lives. Losing weight is only a little more complicated than eating less and exercising more, so it seems impossible that self-control would be so meaningless.

What’s going on?

There are many reasons, but one probably familiar to all of us was given the title The What the Hell Effect.

Dieters lured to a taste testing experiment did not eat for a few hours before the experiment. Some were trying to lose weight while others were not. When they arrived at the lab, Baumeisters’ experimenters gave them either a small milkshake to ward off the hunger pangs or two huge high calorie milkshakes. When they finished their milkshakes they were led to a small room with cookies, chips and other goodies and asked to rate the snacks.

The thing that stunned the investigators was that the dieters who received the huge milkshakes ate the most snacks. Experimenters repeated the procedure several times because they were sure they must have made a mistake.

But no, dieters who fell off their diets the most spectacularly were the most likely to subsequently overeat.

The failed dieters seemed to think, “What the hell. In for a penny in for a pound. Makes no difference now, so go for the goodies.”

That is what happens, once the dieting subjects broke their diet they continued to break it with joyous abandon. Still it makes no sense. Any reasonably logical person understands that one five hundred calorie mistake is only compounded by throwing caution to the wind and gorging on whatever happens to be handy.

But that is what we do.

Psychologists call it rationalization. We use arguments that seem rational but really aren’t. It might seem rational that eating more makes no difference after a huge dieting failure, but that simply isn’t true. The more you eat, the more weight you gain, and it doesn’t matter if a subsequent 500 calories comes after a five hundred calorie mistake. It’s still an additional 500 calories.

That’s rationalizing.

Alternatively, as I like to call it, Rational Lies. Sounds rational, but it isn’t.

If Rational Lies were all there were to losing weight we’d all be skinny. It would just be a matter of catching those rational lies when they try to fool us and getting back on our dieting track.

But there is a lot more to it than that.

One of the things Baumeister found was that self-control takes energy. Real energy. The kind you get from food.

I can hear the groans of defeat. If self-control takes energy that comes from food, and we are on a diet limiting our food intake….how the heck is it possible to lose weight? As soon as our body has an energy deficit, our self-control goes out the window and we start eating.

Very true. Congratulations. You just articulated one of the hidden challenges of weight loss.

Baumeister tells us about an experiment in which chronic female dieters were asked to volunteer for a taste test. However, before the taste test they were asked to watch Terms of Endearment. Half the participants were instructed to quell any emotions and the other half were told to freely express their emotions. Following the movie, they were shown to a small room, given several bowls containing varying amounts of ice cream, a rating from, and left alone.

Of course, the experimenters were actually measuring whether subduing ones emotions had any effect on how much was subsequently eaten. Each bowl of ice cream was carefully weighed before and after giving it to the subject.

The dieters in the “suppress emotion” condition ate almost twice as much ice cream as the dieters in the control condition. They had used up their ability to suppress their overeating behaviors by suppressing their emotional behaviors while watching the movie.

Still doubtful? Read on.

In another experiment, female dieters were asked to watch a documentary in one of two conditions: either sitting right next to a bowl of M&Ms or sitting across the room form a bowl of M&Ms. Following the documentary the women were asked to solve some (unsolvable) algebra problems.

Can you guess which group gave up on the algebra problems first?

The ones with the M&Ms tempting them within arm’s reach gave up on the algebra problems first. The group exposed to a lower level of temptation spent far more time on the problems before giving up.

Again, it seems that the ability to resist temptation lessens with over use.

In a twist on this experiment, experimenters added non-dieting volunteers to the mix. It turns out that non-dieters had no effect from snacks, no matter where they were located or what kind of movie they watched. No matter what condition the experimenters placed the non-dieters their performance on subsequent tasks, (like solving unsolvable puzzles), was the same.

Earlier I mentioned that self-control takes energy, specifically, energy one gets from food. How do we know this?

Because when presented with a choice of healthy foods like vegetables and high energy food like candy and fruits dieters subjected to experiments similar to the ones I’ve described invariably went for the quick energy, high glucose snacks. Glucose comes from high calorie foods contacting a high proportion of natural or artificial sugars. Candy, for example.

Resisting temptation takes self-control, and following periods in which self-control is needed glucose becomes diminished. Consequently, dieters expending a lot of self-control to resist breaking their diets set themselves up to crave high calorie glucose rich foods.

Interestingly, we tend to reach for candy to restore our glucose levels, when healthy foods have the same effect. What is that?

Baumeister tells us that when we are in an energy-deprived state we feel our emotions more intensely than at other times. This is what a craving is. When we are emotionally vulnerable, our attraction to the visceral joy of candy is far more intense than other times. This is why we can breeze right through the grocery checkout counter surrounded by racks of candy and not be tempted as long as we are already satiated. On the other hand, when we have depleted our self-control and glucose, we might walk to the store for a sugary fix.

This is why the long-standing advice to avoid grocery shopping when hungry is so effective. This is is a form of structure – making changes in the environment or our own internal states in order to control our behavior.

Creating structure is the key to long-term weight loss, and it is what the next article will cover.

Stay tuned.


Sources mentioned in this article:

Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.

Tara, S. (2017). The secret life of fat: The science behind the body’s least understood organ and what it means for you (First edition. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.





Why Physical Exercise Makes You Smarter and Protects Your Brain

Something I find very interesting is the relationship between brain function and exercise. I don’t mean just the idea that we feel better when we exercise or that our brain works better when our blood is oxygenated. I’m interested in how lifestyle choices can make the brain work better. Things like daily habits that make us more intelligent and creative.

That’s right; our lifestyle has an effect on how smart we are.

Before going, any further let’s pause and review what happens in the brain when we learn something new. I think we all know that our brain consists of neurons – brain cells – with a nucleus in the center and dendrites, stretching like fingers to the dendrites of other neurons. Learning, thinking, remembering — everything we experience — results from one neuron making an electrochemical contact with another.

The more often one neuron stimulates another, the stronger that connections becomes. That is what learning is. Think about learning a physically complex movement, like driving a stick shift automobile.

At first, it seems like an impossible task – 3 pedals, 1 gearshift and a steering wheel, but only two feet and two hands. Give a little gas, let out the clutch slowly and the engine dies. Alternatively, let out the clutch too fast and the car jerks.

With practice, though, you get better and better until you don’t have to give conscious thought to shifting gears.

The more frequently one neuron stimulates another, the stronger that connection becomes. In terms of brain physiology, the more one practices the stronger and more complex the network of neurons controlling that behavior becomes. This is what learning really is – building strong associations between neurons, creating ever-bigger networks of associated neurons.

I learned some very interesting things about my brain when I broke my left foot. After eight weeks in a cast, my calf atrophied, but so had the network of neurons connecting my foot to my brain.

Long after I built back the muscles in my calf, I would occasionally reach for something to my left, and keep right on going because I had no balance on my left foot. That network of neurons in my brain communicating with the nerves and muscles in my foot had atrophied too.

They no longer had strong connections with one another and the complex interaction between sensing balance in my brain and actuating muscles in my foot was lost. My left foot no longer had the ability to balance like my uninjured foot did.

My physical therapist suggested that I go without shoes whenever possible, and I did. Within just a couple of months, I could balance on my left foot for as long as I wanted. The contact with different surfaces – grass, asphalt, gravel – stimulated the sensory neurons on my foot and helped rehabilitate the neural network in my brain.

However, what was actually going on in my brain to allow this to happen? This is where things get interesting.

Most people over thirty probably remember a high school teacher instructing them not to drink alcohol because it destroys neurons, and neurons are not replaceable – you are born with all you will ever have.

It turns out that isn’t true at all. In the 1990’s scientists began identifying classes of proteins in the brain. One was Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) first found in the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. This discovery drew lot of scientific attention and it was quickly established that BDNF is essential to the development of neural networks – that is, brain structures supporting learning and memory.

The thing that is so astonishing about BDNF is that it actually works on the infrastructure of the brain – physical brain growth and expansion. Put some brain cells in a petri dish suspended in nutrients and not much happens. Add a few drops of BDNF and the neurons start growing dendrites and reaching for one another.

In his fascinating book Spark examining the relationship between exercise and the brain, John Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain”.

According to Ratey, BDNF sends ions to nerve endings, increasing the electrochemical bond, creating stronger and more robust neural networks. It activates brain receptors that make more BDNF, serotonin and other neuron-chemicals that aid the synapses and dendrites in communicating with one another. In short, BDNF is the driver of brain plasticity.

It gets even better.

Ratey tells us that throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s animal studies proved beyond doubt that exercise and volume of BDNF in the brain correlate with one another. Now, consider this – physical movements are usually associated with learning. We learn by interacting with our world, finding puzzling new things we have not seen before and exploring their properties.

Think of how infants constantly focus their attention on one thing after another. Infants are constantly touching, tasting and feeling the world around them. Learning about the world and physical activity are closely related. Even if we are just moving our eyes, we are physically active. A relationship between physical movement and brain activity supporting learning makes sense.

Finally, in 2007 German researchers found that, people learn vocabulary words 20% faster after exercise than before exercise, and that there is a direct correlation between the rate of learning and levels of BDNF.

However, what is it about exercise that has an effect on the brain? What is the mechanism by which muscle movement assists in memory?

It turns out that when we exercise our muscles produce hormones that have effects on how the brain learns and makes memoires.

Ratey tells us that when we exercise muscles produce a hormone called IGF-1. We have known for some time that IFG-1 assists in delivering glucose to muscles in need of energy, but only recently discovered its role in learning. During exercise, BDNF stimulates uptake of IGF-1 in the brain, activing neurons to produce serotonin and glutamate, two neurotransmitters essential for communication between neurons. At the same time, it increases release of BDNF, enhancing neuro plasticity and the formation of long-term memories.

Another hormone produced in the muscles, VEGF, is essential in producing new blood capillaries and has found some success in naturally building detours around clotted arteries. In the brain, VEGF seems to have an effect on the blood-brain barrier, allowing muscle related hormones to more easily enter the brain.

Finally, FGF-2 helps tissue grow and its role in repairing muscles damaged by exercise is well known. Now we know that FGF-2 is also very active in the brain, assisting with the formation of new brain tissue.

Ratey includes many practical examples of how exercise benefits our brains. He quotes one study in which two groups of over 50 year olds took a memory test following either exercise or watching TV. It is no surprise that the exercise group demonstrated much better recall.

The practical takeaway is that no matter what our age cognitive activity should be interspaced with exercise. Not only is exercise good for our bodies, it is good for our minds as well. The earlier we get in the habit of taking care of our brains when we are young the better it will serve us in old age.

All of this is just touching on the fascinating information Ratey presents in Spark. In it, he explores how exercise can affect depression, anxiety, stress, learning and aging. Using different muscles releases different hormones that affect our brain differently. For instance, animal studies indicate that complex motor skills, the kind developed with dance or balance exercises produced more BDNF than aerobic exercise like running or walking.

Take a walk, jog a little, read a book or learn a language. Your brain needs to serve you for a lifetime and you have to care for it every day.

Five ways to use this powerful psychological trick to lose weight.

Losing weight is something requiring more than just cutting calories. Our metabolism is a complex system involving many influences we rarely think about.

Everywhere we go we are confronted with messages about eating, most of them bad. The goal of food producers, marketers and retailers is not to keep us healthy, but to sell us as much high margin food as possible. Supermarkets, convenience stores and fast food outlets do not have our best interests in mind.

We have to look out for ourselves.

Think about what you had for breakfast. Oatmeal, maybe, or pancakes or cereal, right? These are not really foods in the natural sense, but “manufactured edibles”. The closest you will come to cereal trees or oatmeal bushes in nature is a wheat field. Most of these products are just vehicles for getting as many different concoctions of sugar into our bodies.

Why sugar? Because sugar comes very close to meeting the definition of an addictive drug. Robert Lustig, a leading metabolic expert and author if the excellent book Fat Chance, advocates government control over sugar products because they lead to disastrous and widespread health outcomes. Hear his reasoning by listening to the Big Picture Science Skeptic episode Got a Sweet Truth?

You can see how effective sugar marketing has been simply by looking around. It seems like every adult, and tragically, many kids, are inactive and overweight. We are in an obesity epidemic and there does not seem to an end in sight. Even if everyone in the world suddenly adopted a healthy lifestyle this very minute, we will be plagued with the consequences of our addiction to manufactured edibles for a generation or more.

Take a moment to think about all the messages directing us to compromise our commitment to living a healthy lifestyle. Not only is there a concerted and well-funded effort from the food industry, but an almost endless line of other bad influences. The internet is a breeding ground for websites whose aim is little more than to draw eyeballs, and they learned that publishing just about anything related to weigh loss, no matter how silly or far-fetched, brings eyeballs and credit cards.

There is also the influence of our friends, family and co-workers.

Even people close to us unintentionally undermine us. At lunch, friends chide us about ordering a side salad and a glass of water, instead of the 800-calorie chef salad and a sugary carbonated liquid to wash it down for an additional 250 calories. We tell them we shoot for about 1200 calories a day to maintain our weight and are quick to remind them that we are the world’s expert on our body before they contradict us.

So how do we stay on a healthy track in a world dedicated to undermining the healthy habits we strive to turn into permanent lifestyle changes?

I have found five things that help me stay on track, and they spring from a wonderful word from the world of psychology — salience.

Salience is the extent to which something is present in our conscious mind. For example if you are an apartment manager and want to encourage residents to keep the property clean you put garbage cans in prominent places where people cannot help but see them. That, along with signs encouraging people to throw things into the garbage cans, and maybe a word in a newsletter would all go to making the garbage cans salient, or in the forefront of the minds of residents.

We can use the same principle to keep ourselves aware of both general goals and specific behaviors we want to integrate into our lifestyle.

Tip #1 Weigh yourself every day

Weigh yourself at the same point in your morning routine every day. Make sure you do it at a consistent point so that you aren’t also weighing your morning cup of coffee. When I started doing this, I was concerned because of the wide variations from one day to the next. Then I found out that my morning cup of coffee weighed almost exactly one pound.

It is also a good idea to get a digital scale. Most analog scales give you a general idea of what your weight is, but they also allow “fudging”. “I almost lost a pound” becomes I lost a pound”. On the other hand, when a digital scale says you are still four tents of a pound from your goal it is much harder to “almost” your way into deceiving yourself.

Another nice thing about digital scales is that they usually have built-in body fat analyzer. The scale does this by running a small amount of electricity — so small you will not even notice — from one of your feet to the other. The resistance is than used to calculate body fat. Remember that scales tend to measure the fat found your middle, while hand held analyzers measures fat in the upper body.

Many people are resistant to weighing themselves every day. I think there are two possible reasons for this. First, they don’t really want to lose weight. The want to talk about food and eating, and thinking about their excess weight and the health issues it will cause makes them uneasy. It is more rewarding to obsess over food than to do whatever it takes to lose weight and get healthy.

Just weighing yourself every day makes your weight more salient — something you are aware of and remember when you think about eating and health. Something as simple and easy as weighing yourself every day puts the issue of weight and healthy eating in the forefront of your mind. If you know how much you weigh you will probably be less likely to eat between meals.

Tip #2 Put your weight on display

Also, remind yourself of your weight. You can post little signs reminding you of your weight. If it is higher than yesterday, it becomes a reminder to focus on eating. If you’ve lost a bit, it becomes a celebration of your victory and a reinforcement to continue your good habits. You can put little post-it notes around your home, create a screen saver for your computer or instruct your computer to send you messages throughout the day. The idea is to keep the issue of weight in the forefront of your consciousness.

Does this sound like obsession? It is.

How badly do you want to weight? How serious are you about living a healthy lifestyle?

Obsession in pursuit of health is no vice… and moderation in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle is no virtue.

(Apologies to Barry Goldwater.)

Tip #3 Use software to analyze your weight

Something I still do that is very helpful for me is to record my weight on my computer using software designed for tracking weight. I use something called Diet Organizer, but there are many different versions, including mobile apps.

The great thing about these programs is that they generate all sorts of reports. You can track your weight, any number of nutrients like carbs, oils and potassium, and then watch a graphic display of the relationships of these variables over the course of a week, month or year.

This is a great way to learn about nutrition. I never could keep all that dietary biochemistry straight, but after looking at the reports in Diet Organizer, I started to realize how everything works together.

These programs will also export their data to and Excel spreadsheet for extended number crunching. My doctors continue to look forward to my visits because my software can generate such informative reports.

Tip #4 Keep others informed of your weight

Public commitments are easier to keep. When you make commitments public, you open yourself to a tremendous amount of motivation. This is why we make wedding vows in front of friends and family and sign our name on business agreements. There is a powerful social need to be seen by others as reliable and trustworthy. We can use that need to help us become the people we want to be.

Robert Cialdini talks at length about using social tools to help reach our goals in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini explains how Weight Watchers uses this principle in their weekly weigh in. In front of everyone else in your group, you step on the scale and your loss or gain is on display for everyone to see. Alcoholics Anonymous uses the same strategy with their 12-step program. Members make a public commitment to the twelve steps to their mentor and others in their group, and report their progress on a regular basis.

There is no need to announce your weight loss goals and progress to the entire world. Informally sharing with friends and family works just fine. Do what you are most comfortable with, but remember choose your commitments and the people you make them to wisely. You are looking for support, not throwing out an invitation for criticism.

Tip #5 Try on your skinny clothes

I can’t put into words how thrilling it was to put on a pair of jeans I had not been able to wear since the 80’s. I discovered them in the bottom of a footlocker not long after I decided to do whatever it took to lose weight, and they became an icon that kept me motivated — a concrete symbol of what I wanted to become.

Naturally, there were times I tried on my skinny cloths and it was obvious that I was not losing weight. That when I went back to the nutrition data I was keeping and figured out where I could have done better. That was a motivator, too, because it was a reminder that I was in charge of my weight. There were reasons for my weight fluctuation, and I could figure out what they were and change my eating behavior.

Because I was monitoring my eating behaviors, I could change them.

As I lost weight I bought clothes that were just a little too snug, and each item became a motivation that I could see and hold in my hands. When I tried them on, I could actually see my progress, and when I was finally able to wear them comfortably, I felt pride. I also made a point to wear these clothes in public places. People didn’t need to know it, but I was showing off.

So there you have it. Five things I did that helped me lose forty pounds.

Here ae the books mentioned in this article:

Cialdini, R. B. (2006). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Rev. ed.). New York: Morrow.

Lustig, R. H. (2012). Fat chance: Beating the odds against sugar, processed food, obesity, and disease. New York, New York: Hudson Street Press.

Five Things I Learned From The Secret Life of Fat

Sylvia Tara, PhD has given the frustrated world of struggling weight losers a bushel of gifts in her new book, The Secret Life of Fat.

Like many of us, Tara has struggled with keeping fat at bay most of her life. The experiences she describes are the same ones that I have been facing my entire adult life. Through years of experimentation, I find that I have to keep my caloric intake around only 1400 calories in order not to gain weight. Panicked friends make a habit of telling me that I’m starving myself and no good can come from eating so little.

It turns out that Tara has come to the same conclusion about her weight and maintains the same daily input that I do. She is a trained biochemist, which vindicates the ways I have been keeping my fat at bay all these years. It’s also one of the reasons Tara is so good at explaining the latest research on fat and diets in a way that lay people can understand.

Here are five “takeaways” from The Secret Life of Fat:

1. Eat the Pulp, too.

Have you noticed that the Juicing craze has lost its luster? The juices of most vegetables are loaded with naturally occurring sugars that are absorbed right through your intestinal wall and into your bloodstream, which carries it to your pancreas. The pancreas reacts to this onslaught of sugar with a ton of insulin. The insulin converts the sugar into fats, including dangerous triglycerides, that ends up sitting around your vital organs.

It turns out that the pulp of most fruits and vegetables is fibrous, and fiber absorbs water. If you eat the whole food as nature intended the fibrous pulp releases its natural sugars only gradually as it travels through the intestines, avoiding the shock to the pancreas because that is the natural way for the body to digest sugars.

Interestingly the idea of eating as nature intended applies to polished rice. Polished rice has the external coating of rubbed off making the carbohydrates inside each grain of rice easier for your body to digest quickly. Since our bodies process carbohydrates into sugars almost immediately, eating rice that without the external coating polished off is probably not a good idea.

2. Sleep Well

After reading Tara’s book, I was surprised to learn that my life struggles with insomnia contribute to the challenge of losing fat. It turns out that lack of hormones have a lot to do with the way we experience feelings of fullness and satiation. Lack of sleep lowers the hormone leptin and increases ghrelin, a combination researchers find that leads to metabolic changes leading to overeating and obesity.

Additionally, being awake late at night is associated with eating and drinking. For one thing, there is not a lot to do at two or three in the morning and the temptation to eat a little something can be overwhelming. If you find yourself awake try reading or writing and avoid computers and TV — the wavelength of electronic displays tends to keep us awake.

Also, there is a certain logic in drinking alcohol to force sleep, even though it is notorious for putting on weight. Yes, alcohol is a depressant and will put your to sleep, but it won’t keep you asleep unless you drink until you pass out. Drinking alcohol to go to sleep just ensures that you will awake up in a few hour later more wide-awake than ever.

The iron clad rule must be no eating or drinking, (aside from water), after dinner.

3. Intermittent Fasting

Fasting will result in weight loss, and that is no surprise. After all, fasting is simply not eating for an extended time. When no calories are entering the system there is nothing to be turned into fat, so even the most modest of everyday activities results in fat loss.

The problem is that extended fasting is not a good long-term fat loss strategy. Not eating for days signals your metabolism that times are hard and your body reacts by hanging on to every bit of nutrition that comes its way. You might be encouraged when you see you weigh less while you are fasting, but as soon as you start eating again — no matter how gradually — your body will turn everything it possibly can into fat.

What about intermittent fasting, that is, eating for only portions of the day? This weight loss strategy is quickly catching on and has the backing of nutritional research. The idea is to fast only for portions of a day.

For example, your daily fast might begin right after dinner and last for 18 hours because you skip breakfast. By skipping breakfast, the “eating day” lasts only from about noon to six or seven in the evening.

Not eating anything for 18 hours might sound like a daily dietary water boarding session, but it is not that bad. It is simply extending the “fast” we naturally experience while we are sleeping.

And…well…there is a trick that makes it very easy to integrate intermittent fasting into your life.

For some reason it is a lot easier to fast for 18 hours a day if your body is not processing loads of carbohydrates. I’m not sure why this is, but I found that I could routinely fast on a daily basis only when I had already reduced carbs and replaced them with oils and fats.

This brings a word of caution. Avoid the temptation of eating carbs after you have successfully reduced them in your diet. Like addictive drugs, carbs start a cascade of biochemical changes that are an invitation for fat to return.

4. Mind your Biome

Most people have a vague idea that their intestines digest food, extracting nutrients and distributing them throughout the body while anything that unusable turns into waste. That the basic idea, but there is a lot more to it.

Think of the digestive process as one huge biological process operating at the level of cells and hormones. Our intestines are filled with a colony of bacteria that digests our food. This colony was not there when we were born — viruses and bacteria from the environment created it when we started eating solid food when we were babies. (This is why the stuff that fills a diaper does not smell bad until after weaning.)

We do not naturally have enzymes that can break down complex sugars called polysaccharides, but we pick them up in the food we eat as babies. These polysaccharides are a kind of bacteria that convert complex plant based sugars into simple sugars our digestive system can turn into energy.

You might think that your skin or lungs are the biggest organ exposed to the external environment, but it is actually your digestive tract. Our digestive tract is about 30 feet long and averages a little more than an inch in diameter. I did the math and was astounded at the surface area. The number I got was so impressive I will not share it here. You do the math. (Hint: about the same square footage as a “tiny house”.)

One last biome related surprise courtesy of Sylvia Tara:

As amazing as it sounds, recent nutritional research finds that a virus found in chickens can cause the biome to change resulting in obesity. Yes, it is possible to become obese by catching a particular virus from a chicken.

5. Schedule sleep, exercise and meals

If you have read this far it should now be obvious that eating whatever seems appealing no matter what time of day with no regard for future consequences is a great way to gain weight and eventually become obese. Creating and maintaining structure is vitally important if we want to stay healthy and control weight.

There is an interesting psychological aspect to creating a daily structure around eating, nutrition and exercise. Many people object to the idea of creating structure because of issues of control — they feel as if they lose control over their lives if they follow a strict routine.

However, their lives are already out of control. If they had control of their lives, they would not be doing the things that make them fat and uncomfortable. Creating structure is not lack of control; it is a method of exerting control over our bad habits, poor decision making and impulsive behaviors. It seems to me that is the definition of control.

Creating structure is just a matter of creating habits, and habits are easy to establish. Just do the same thing every day for a month and a habit will appear. Go to bed at the same time every night, eat meals at the same time every day, and establish an exercise regimen for the same time every day. Do that for a month and you have a structured routine.

Of course, routines always get interference, but a well-established routine can weather occasional interference.

Develop an evening routine before going to bed as well. Repeat that evening routine every day and you will find sleep comes faster and deeper. We all have the occasional sleepless night, but we can usually power through the next day.

Eat only at meal times, (you are supposed to be hungry right before lunch or dinner), get exercise at the same time every day. It is a good thing to incorporate change into the routine as well. Maybe you will do cardio and strength training on alternate days, or eat fish on Mondays and Fridays. We are omnivores and that means variety in all things.

Buy it at Amazon: The Secret Life of Fat

How I Lost Forty Pounds and Kept It Off and Why You Probably Can’t

Losing weight is easy. It’s an easy concept anyway. I lost over forty pounds and have kept it off for 20 years. You can live your dreams if you are willing to pay the price to make them come true. Unfortunately, the price of losing weight is simply too high for most people. I’ll tell you how I did it and maybe you can join me.

Before doing anything else you will need to educate yourself about food and nutrition. Don’t worry. It’s easy! All you have to do is start reading nutritional labels. The law requires that any packaged food must have a nutrition label listing things like calories, carbohydrates and fat.

When I started reading nutritional labels, one of the first things I learned was how incredibly small a serving size is. This is the first shock for many people taking the first steps to controlling their weight. Part of the problem is that we do not use plates and bowls for their intended purpose.

A portion of cereal is one ounce, about a quarter of a cup. The first time I dumped a quarter of a cup of flakes into a soup bowl intended for three cups of soup the flakes looked ridiculous. Just a little dab of color in the bottom of the bowl. That same amount of corn flakes in a cereal bowl looks more like a serving. At least it did when I got used to eating only one serving at a time.

As I learned more about serving size, I realized that we humans need very little food to stay healthy and even less to lose weight. When I cut down on portions and calories, I found myself becoming very pragmatic about the foods I eat throughout the day. I started thinking more about foods that satisfies hunger in small portions. Lunch consisting of avocados and sardines is an excellent choice. It packs lots of nutritional value, keeps me satiated, is inexpensive and discourages thoughts of second helpings.

Whenever I heard about diets and weight loss, I also heard about exercise. Most people think exercise is a key to losing weight, but it isn’t. I found that exercise did not make as much difference in weight loss as reduced calories. Decreasing caloric intake is the most effective way for me to lose weight, but exercise is important also.

Exercise does two things that go along with losing weight. First, it keeps you generally healthy. It’s a good idea to have strong bones, clear lungs and highly oxygenated blood. Exercise also makes you look good, which is one of the main motivations for losing weight.

Think about it…you might lose the blubber on your belly, but if the underlying abdominal muscles are soft and saggy you will still look fat. So get on the floor, slide your feet under the dresser and start those sit-ups.

Unlike exercise, changing my diet didn’t take any time. In fact, since I spend less time eating I have more time for other things like exercise. There are all sorts of guides and standards telling me how much time to exercise every day but none seem to agree with one another. So I decided to spend about an hour a day alternating between strength training and aerobics. As time passed, I found I liked walking and increased my exercise time to about two hours a day.

That is about all there is to losing weight, at least for me. Read nutrition labels, cut calories and carbohydrates by about half and spend an hour a day — less than 5% of a 24-hour day — exercising. I did these things for only a couple of weeks and started seeing lower numbers when I got on the scale. When I got to the weight I wanted I ate just a little more. With a little experimentation, I found I could easily maintain my desired weight.

I know what you are thinking. “If losing weight is that easy why are so many people overweight? He’s not telling us everything.”

Well, yes there is one thing I have left out. It has nothing to do with the biology of losing weight. The “Eat Less and Exercise More” principle really works.

What I have avoided until now is why none of this works, at least for most people.

We get fat because we live a lifestyle of constant overeating. Not only do we need to drastically reduce the amount we eat; we need to eat a wider variety of more nutritious foods, like fish and fresh vegetables.

The only path to permanent weight loss is permanent lifestyle change. Adopting a new lifestyle is a daunting and scary task for most people. Few of us are willing to make that change, and for very understandable reasons.

Losing weight means losing our friends and maybe our jobs.

Imagine walking into the lunchroom at work. A conference table creaks under the weight of bagels, cream cheese, plates of cut sausages, cheeses and snack meats. All the delicious garbage food that made you fat. Your coworkers are delighted to see you and invite you to join them. But there is no way you are going to eat anything they put on the table.

Maybe you sit for a few minutes munching on your apple slices, then excuse yourself and spend the next 45 minutes on a brisk walk at a nearby park putting in your hour of aerobic exercise. For the rest of the afternoon you feel energized and focused while your co-workers complain about drowsiness and tight clothes. They notice the difference.

That evening you go to a Mexican restaurant with friends. They order delicious traditional Hispanic fare like beef burritos stuffed with cheese and whipped cream and chicken tacos bathed in melted cheeses washed down with imported beer.

You order a chicken breast and salad, finish your meal and sip water while your friends gorge themselves. Likely they will insist you join them in their gluttony and when you don’t they resent it. It is not your intention but you have brought their attention to their poor eating choices.

You see the problem. You might change your lifestyle, but your friends and co-workers will not. The very reason they are your friends and co-workers is that you once shared very similar lifestyles. That is why they are your friends and co-workers. We like people who are most like us.

When you make drastic changes to the way you eat, you no longer share in the eating and exercise lifestyle of others. Simply being successful in changing your eating habits creates feelings of guilt and shame in people with whom you previously shared unhealthy habits.

At the beginning of this piece, I said that you could dream dreams and make the sacrifices needed to make them come true.

Do you really think you will be able to prepare dinner for your family, and then retire to the living room while they eat? How will clients and colleagues respond when you ignore the catered fare and eat a side salad during a working lunch? Will friends and family be disgusted when you eat sardines right out of the can?

These are the sacrifices for making your dreams come true.

This is the hard truth about losing weight. If your dream is to become slim and healthy you cannot allow anything — ANYTHING — to compromise your efforts.

It does not matter that your friends drift away. Your new lifestyle does not allow you to sit around with them overeating. Get new friends who share your dedication to a healthy lifestyle. Join a gym or an outdoor activity club, find a new hobby and build a new social network. Do whatever it takes.

It does not matter that it is 1AM and raining. You have to do that daily one hour of aerobic exercise. You don’t feel safe in your neighborhood after dark? Then do whatever it takes to feel safe — hire a bodyguard, get a big dog, find a 24-hour gym — whatever it takes.

Your new lifestyle means big changes. Welcome those changes and do whatever it takes to allow for them or forget about losing weight.

If you are willing to make the sacrifices, you can live the dream of a slim body, and create a healthy lifestyle guaranteeing you keep your new body for a lifetime.

If you like this article I highly recommend Sylvia Tara’s book The Secret Life of Fat. Tara is a microbiologist who is gifted at writing about science in a way lay people can understand. Read the book and let me know what you think