The Ultimate Guide to Healthy and Sustainable Weight Loss
A scary slide show produced by the US government chronicles the obesity epidemic in America over the past quarter century. In 1994, the first year all 50 states reported data, the map looked like this:
You’ll notice that the key is already out of date: the light blue signifying an obesity prevalence of under 10% doesn’t appear anywhere on the map. By comparison, 14 of the 22 states included in the original 1985 map had single digit rates of obesity. Also, no state in that year reached 15%.
I’ll save you the gradual year-by-year buildup, which you can download from the Centers for Disease Control website and consume while listening to your favorite horror movie soundtrack. Instead, take a deep breath, think happy thoughts, and when you’re ready, take a gander at the most recent map, showing 2017 data:
Where’s the blue? Nowhere to be found. In fact, the dotted green signifying less than 20% obesity has been retired from the map, if not the key. With the exception of Colorado, Hawaii, and Washington, DC, solid green is also gone. The country is awash in yellow, red, and dark red, meaning the obesity rates in those states and territories range from 25-39%.
I hope the mapmakers have another color handy, as West Virginia is closing in on 40%, with Mississippi, Oklahoma, Iowa, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas right behind. Indeed, as this ominous red tide washes over the map, might I suggest as musical accompaniment the soundtrack from The Shining?
Oh, and remember that these maps capture obesity, not plain old overweight. (The US government defines obesity as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater, while a BMI of 25 or more qualifies as overweight.) If we include the overweight but not yet obese in the statistics, we’re looking at 71% of the adult US population with excess fat on their bodies as of 2016.
When I see the enormity of this change, two questions jump to mind:
What’s causing this rapid change in the human form?
What can we do about it?
For the second question, I’m not looking at obesity from a public policy perspective. Instead, I want to explore what you and I can do to avoid becoming overweight or obese, and what we might do to get down to a healthy weight.
Part 1: Causes of the Obesity Epidemic
Let’s start with the classic argument: nature vs nurture. Is obesity genetic, or is it the result of environmental and behavioral factors?
Genetics is a popular answer these days, for some very powerful reasons. First, if we’re overweight because of our genes, then there’s money to be made searching for genetic “cures.” With the “genetic revolution” spurred by the Human Genome Project, and exciting technologies like CRISPR for gene editing, science and industry are furiously searching for one-and-done chromosomal solutions that can be patented, marketed, and reimbursed by insurance. Thanks to the shiny new hammer of molecular biology, every problem now looks like a genetically-caused nail.
Second, in a world of body shaming, people like to hear that their obesity “isn’t their fault.” And genetics is the ultimate “I take no responsibility” card; it’s simply part of the hand they were dealt at birth.
Third, obesity is genetic, at least partly. We see in population research, “twins raised separately” studies, and lab science that obesity runs in families and can be accounted for by material and functional differences in people’s bodies. And we all know (and secretly curse) folks with “hollow legs,” whose manic metabolisms allow them to eat like Paula Deen and look like Twiggy.
The problem with the genetic argument is two-fold. First, it simply doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective. For contrast, consider a different genetic trait, like having opposable thumbs. That does make sense, because it confers a genetic advantage in just about any situation you can imagine. Grabbing, lifting, fighting, planting, climbing, shadow puppetry – the opposable thumb is pretty darn amazing.
But a genetic disposition to obesity? If we’re obese because it’s in our genes, then our ancestors were also prone to obesity. Which means they were more likely to be killed and eaten by predators. More likely to die young of heart disease. Less likely to migrate to safer or fairer pastures.
In other words, far less likely to survive and reproduce.
So how do we square the evidence for a genetic component to obesity with that unassailable logic? In a word, we turn to a simple and profound concept: Mismatch.
Meet the Mismatch
“Mismatch” means that our genetic inheritance, which worked so well in the ancestral environment in which it evolved, no longer serves us because our environment has changed. The traits that once conferred survival advantage now compromise our ability to survive and thrive.
Why would humans have evolved the ability to store fat in the first place? We can store pretty much limitless adipose deposits, but can’t store more than a bladder’s worth of liquid. Or a couple day’s supply of vitamin C. What gives?
We store fat so copiously and efficiently because we evolved in an environment of food insecurity. We couldn’t be guaranteed three squares a day. Drought or famine, or just plain old bad luck could keep us hungry for days or weeks at a time.
In such an environment, only those organisms with the ability to store calories against future deprivation made it through the lean times. And passed their genes on to other organisms with the same ability, and so on and so on, until those genes reached us.
In other words, we are all descended from people who stored fat to be metabolized during inevitable periods of scarcity. But when was the last time you were more than ten minutes and two dollars away from food? I can buy Snickers Bars at the checkout lane at Lowes Home Improvement, for heaven’s sake.
And the food isn’t just ubiquitous, cheap, and convenient. It’s also designed to be addictive. Since most of the available food in our evolutionary past was high in fiber and low in calories, we had to eat a lot in order to survive.
Any time we found very high-calorie food (like meat, sweet ripe fruit, and honey), our minds went “Jackpot!” And urged us to consume as much as possible, because who knows where our next meal was coming from (and when).
Pushing Our Evolutionary Buttons
These days, of course, we can do much “better” in the high-calorie food department thanks to modern food technology. We can concentrate calories by removing fiber and water from plant foods, and produce astonishing quantities of animal foods thanks to industrial, factory-style feedlots and slaughterhouses.
We can manipulate flavor and texture profiles to create irresistibly salty and fatty and crunchy potato chips. We can sweeten milkshakes and candy bars so they hit our “bliss points.” We can breed chickens with so much fat in their muscle cells that the concept of “lean white meat” is nothing but a marketing fantasy.
Restaurant chefs know that the key to delicious meals and raving customers is to use copious amounts of butter, salt, and sugar in their cooking. Food company executives trying to increase market share and fulfill their fiduciary obligation to their investors must continue to push our appetite buttons.
So there’s our Mismatch: bodies designed to store fat in virtually unlimited quantities, coupled with powerful cravings for calorically dense foods that were hard to acquire, rudely shuttled into a world of 24/7 smorgasbord of junk.
There’s a second Mismatch, of course: we used to have to expend lots of calories to survive. Now we can sit at desks all day, and on couches in the evenings, and gather our food by driving cars and ordering off of Amazon Alexa.
It’s no wonder the majority of us are overweight, and about a third of us are obese. It’s simple thermodynamics. Way more calories in, and way fewer out.
Failed Solutions for Obesity
Now that we’ve established the cause of the obesity epidemic, we can explore and evaluate the various treatments and solutions on the market. And understand why they are clearly not solving anything.
Let’s start with the most common solution: going on a diet.
Diets for Weight Loss
Dieting is the first line of attack on an expanding waistline. The diets we typically go on have two defining characteristics: they involve some form of restriction, and we stay on them short-term.
These two characteristics are related; in fact, the first pretty much causes the second. We can’t maintain a regimen of restriction for long; depriving ourselves of nourishment in the presence of food goes against every biological impulse we possess.
Going on a portion-controlled, time-restricted, and calorically-limited diet for long is like trying to give up urination. You might be able to tough it out for a few hours, but eventually nature is going to win.
The rational for restriction is compelling if you think of weight loss solely in terms of quantity, rather than quality, of food: “If I’m taking in too many calories, then I need to take in fewer to stop gaining weight, and even fewer than that to start losing weight.”
So we buy 100-calorie snack packs, and practice portion control. We skip lunch. We count calories or points or grams of carbohydrates or fat, so that we can stay under our magic number of 1200 or 1500 or 1800 or whatever we’ve calculated as our daily caloric ceiling.
Diets work. That is, until they stop working. Meaning, most of us have had the experience of starting a new diet, whether Atkins or paleo or keto or Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or any of thousands of variations and spin-offs, and watching the pounds melt away during the first days and weeks.
We attribute our success to the diet itself. And then we start “cheating” more and more frequently and intensely. We try to stick to low-carb, only to find ourselves bingeing on pizza and donuts and French fries again and again. And we regain the weight, often with interest.
Since the diet was working, the only explanation can be our own weakness and lack of self-discipline or motivation. After all, the diet worked as long as we stayed true to it, right?
Yes, and holding in our pee works too, until it doesn’t. But the problem isn’t in ourselves, it’s in the inherently unsustainable diets that don’t satisfy our hunger. After a while, we have no choice but to compensate by overeating “off-plan” foods.
What drives us to eat? That’s easy: our bodies need food and the nutrients it contains in order to survive. A more interesting question is, “What alerts us to stop eating when we’ve had enough?” It’s got a complex set of answers, but we can simplify them without doing too much damage to the truth.
Why We Stop Eating
We have several mechanisms that tell us to stop eating. The main satiety fuse is the stretch receptors in our stomachs. When our stomachs are full, we are no longer hungry.
There are also nutrient receptors that help us consume foods that will replenish low stores of crucial macro- and micro-nutrients. When we’re low in a chemical critical to our healthy functioning, these receptors alert the craving center in the brain and compel us to drink water, or eat a carrot, or take a breath.
So if we are biologically driven to consume to satiety, are we doomed to forever fail on our diets? If our diets consist of foods that give us too many calories and not enough nutrients, yes. If our diets consist of foods that give us too many calories and not enough bulk to fill our stomachs, yes.
That’s why the focus on quantities of food is misguided, and a recipe for failure, frustration, and fatalism.
A specific word about the fad of the moment, the “low carb” diet trend: Don’t.
The Low Carb Manipulation
Whether called Atkins, or South Beach, or Sugar Busters, or paleo, or keto; low carb diets work by manipulating your body into thinking it’s starving by depriving it of its preferred fuel: carbohydrates.
The brain runs on glucose, one of the simplest forms of carbohydrate. A low-carb diet dangerously depletes blood sugars, which the brain interprets (correctly) as a threat to existence.
Since we survived as a species by adapting to overcome common threats to our existence, the body has evolved a secondary pathway to get glucose to the brain in the absence of carbohydrates in our diet. It converts fat directly into ketone bodies, which are a dirty, low-grade fuel that can keep the brain running even as it causes all sorts of nasty side effects.
Now, as a short-term survival mechanism, this is a beautiful thing. And as a short-term bio-hack, it’s a neat form of fasting that can challenge our immune system in positive ways.
But as a lifestyle, low-carb cuts years from our lives, and predisposes us to chronic illnesses at higher rates than those eating a diet that includes whole carbohydrates.
Working Out for Weight Management
We can also manipulate the Demand side of the calories in/calories out dynamic, and ramp up our exercise regimen to burn more calories. More time in the gym, more frequently, and with higher intensity.
Now, you’ll never get me to say a single bad word about exercise (or “Movement,” as I prefer to think of it). And… it won’t solve our obesity epidemic. Here’s why:
Exercise makes us hungry. If we exercise more, we eat more.
Also, if we continue to eat low-quality processed foods and copious amounts of fiber-poor animal products, we won’t feel like exercising. Or not for long, anyway. No Formula One driver would put dirty or substandard gasoline in their fuel tank, because the vehicle’s performance would be compromised. So too with us.
Now, we can lose some weight rather rapidly through exercise. The obese body isn’t a natural phenomenon, as we’ve seen, but a consequence of the effects of modern life on paleolithic biology. It wants to lose weight, and will do so rapidly given even slight improvements in diet and lifestyle.
The problem with using exercise to achieve a healthy weight is the same as we saw with dieting: in the absence of a return to an evolutionarily appropriate dietary pattern, we can’t keep it up for long enough to get the results we want.
Medications and Supplements
Where there’s an ill, there’s a pill, and obesity is no exception. Given the prevalence of overweight in our society, and the media and social pressure to be thin and attractive, the quest for an obesity drug is fueled by visions of the Mother of All Blockbusters.
Weight loss pills typically address two aspects of the metabolic pathway: hunger and efficiency of fat burning.
An any teenager in love knows, it’s easy to have no appetite when your stomach is tied in knots. Nature has given us many mechanisms to suppress appetite; nausea, for example, is our body’s preferred tool to keep us from continuing to ingest poison.
(Some researchers theorize that’s the cause of motion sickness: our bodies detect motion, our eyes don’t, and the crossed signals suggest to our brains that we’ve been poisoned. So let’s puke and get that stuff out of our system as quickly as possible.)
Drugs that trigger our nausea pathway can keep us from overeating.
Other drugs keep us from feeling hungry by hijacking the satiety receptors and their hormonal emissaries like ghrelin and leptin.
Many drugs promote weight loss by speeding up our metabolism. These uppers come with significant physical and mental side effects, but the key issue is the fact that they’re fighting our bodies.
As we’ve seen, we’ve evolved to store fat very efficiently. Forcing our bodies to give up that fat doesn’t come naturally; rather, it requires simulating a state of emergency that over-revs our engines by producing fight-or-flight symptoms.
Just to keep things in perspective, realize that chemotherapy is one of the most effective weight loss tools ever discovered. Remember that despite defining the problem as excess body fat, the solution to obesity isn’t to lose weight by any means necessary.
The goal is a healthy body. Any biochemical manipulation that produces weight loss by compromising health is ultimately counterproductive.
Weight Loss Surgery
Weight loss surgery is the current best practice in trying to save us from ourselves. While there are various types of surgery, they all share a goal of making satiety uncomfortable far sooner than normal.
Whether shrinking the size of the stomach, or restricting its ability to expand, or bypassing sections of the intestines, weight loss surgery compromises our ability to digest food quickly and in large quantities. So we can feel the ill effects of extreme indulgence much sooner, and thereby moderate our eating.
Weight loss surgery is wicked effective, until it isn’t. My co-author of Proteinaholic, Garth Davis, MD, reports that without a significant change in the nature of the diet, most bariatric surgery patients start regaining the weight after a year or two. Often they return for additional surgery – tightening bands, shrinking stomachs further, or opting for the newest high-tech solution that’s bound to solve the problem once and for all.
And weight loss surgery comes with significant risks, including a non-trivial chance of dying from the procedure. It’s challenging for many patients to absorb critical nutrients from food following surgery, so pretty much all of them must depend on supplementation for the rest of their lives. And since the goal of the surgery is to front-load discomfort around eating, it’s not a pleasant way to live.
Part 2: True Solutions to Obesity
So that’s 3000 words on what doesn’t work. Let’s now turn to the evidence for what does.
First, a definition of “what works.” We’re not interested in meaningless weight loss, like that described in most short-term research studies. We don’t care if people who are 100 pounds overweight lost 1.7 pounds on a particular diet and kept it off for six weeks.
Second, we’re not interested in temporary weight loss. Yo-yo dieting with its constant cycle of loss and gain isn’t going to solve anything. We want evidence of protocols that allow people to keep the weight off for years and decades.
Let’s quickly survey the scientific literature to discover the diet that gets people lean and keeps them there for the long haul.
First, I have to explain why I’m going to ignore the bulk of obesity research produced in the Western world over the past couple of decades. This research asserts two untruths that kind of contradict each other: diets don’t really work to help us lose weight, and all diets produce pretty much the same results.
Here’s the problem with this research: the diets it compares are pretty much all the same. Sure, some details are different, but the underlying dietary patterns are so similar as to make comparisons all but meaningless.
One study that made headlines a few years ago was dubbed the “A to Z Diet Study,” as it compared Atkins to the Zone, and threw in the Ornish and LEARN diets for good measure. Basically, it found that Atkins was the clear winner, with participants on that diet losing an average of 10 pounds over 12 months, while the other diets produced weight loss of half to a third of that.
Without going into the details of the study, we can already see a big problem: 10 pounds over an entire year is pretty anemic progress in a world that’s gone from light blue to dark red in terms of obesity prevalence.
When we do peak under the hood, we can instantly see why the outcomes are so disappointing: the diets represent slight variations on the diet that has gotten people fat in the first place. Lots of animal products, lots of processed food, and not a lot of fresh produce.
But wait; isn’t the Ornish diet supposed to be low-fat? Like, really low-fat? Dean Ornish, MD, published studies in the 1990s showing that heart disease could be reversed on a diet consisting of 10% fat or less. Why did the folks randomized to the Ornish diet lose less than five pounds in the A to Z trial?
Here’s a table taken from the published study that pinpoints the problem:
The red box highlights the dietary intake of fat, saturated fat, and fiber by participants in the Ornish diet. Remember that 10% or less threshold for dietary fat prescribed by Dr Ornish? Well, those overachievers in the study tripled it, to 29.8% of fat by 12 months.
The majority of that fat was saturated fat, which comes mostly from animal foods. And their fiber intake was pathetic, at less than 20 grams per day by the end of the year. Meaning that precious few of the Ornish group’s calories were coming from unprocessed plant foods.
What these people were eating had absolutely no resemblance to an actual Ornish-recommended diet. So saying that the Ornish diet didn’t help with weight loss was like saying that Bugattis are slow because you couldn’t get much acceleration out of a Yugo.
So what do we learn from the A to Z Diet Study? That four bad diets produce four anemic sets of results after a year.
Yet this study, and hundreds like it, have dominated the “sober and measured” expert discussion of weight management through diet.
Instead of relying on terrible studies of our existing poor diets, what if we looked at societies where people aren’t obese in large numbers? Sure, we can’t do fancy randomized controlled trials that “prove” cause and effect, but maybe if we take an intelligent look at people who are doing things right, we can discover some clues about the ideal human diet.
Some of the most compelling evidence on the relationship between diet and weight comes from the Adventist Health Studies. The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, are a diet researcher’s dream population: their dietary patterns range from Standard American to pescatarian (fish but no other meat), ovo-lacto vegetarian (eggs and dairy, but no meat), and vegan.
This wide spread on the key variable of interest, diet, means that it’s straightforward to correlate their food intake patterns to various outcomes, including weight status and type 2 diabetes. Here’s a graph that does just that:
As you can see from the chart on the left, only those Adventists who eliminated all animal foods from their diets attained a normal BMI, on average. And just in case you thought that obesity was a problem only of seat belt extenders on airplanes and more X’s on our clothing labels, you can see the stark correlation between obesity and diabetes.
Using Movement to Combat Obesity
We’ve already seen that exercise isn’t a sufficient solution to weight loss, despite the logic of increasing our “calories out” to change our metabolic equilibrium. So why come back to it here, in the “What Works” section?
Because Movement is critical to success in overcoming obesity. Just not in the ways you might think. Let’s look at the real connection between physical activity and weight loss.
Physical activity can help with weight loss in six distinct and inter-related ways.
First, movement confers physiological benefits. When we exercise, our bodies produce a neurotransmitter called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is essentially our own “Limitless” pill. In other words, BDNF makes us smarter.
Why would our bodies couple movement with cognitive ability? Because the brain is a giant energy hog. At 4% of our weight, it gobbles about 25% of our calories. When we can rest the brain to conserve energy, we will.
When we’re laying around the campfire, we don’t need to be that sharp. We’re safe, we’re warm, and everything’s groovy. Brain, take ten.
When we’re moving, things are unpredictable. We’re looking for food, or to evade predators, or to deal with social dynamics, or to defend our tribe from neighboring raiders (or to raid a neighboring tribe ourselves!). That’s when it’s useful to have all our brain cylinders firing.
How does being smart help us lose weight? For one thing, our brains on BDNF typically operate from the neocortex, the part of the brain that takes care of long-term, strategic thinking. It’s much easier to say yes to a salad and no to a bucket of fried calamari when we’re able to weigh the consequences of our actions in terms of important future goals.
Additionally, being smart usually comes with being engaged in what we’re doing, and enjoying that engagement. We’re much less likely to be bored or restless, which are two states from which many of us habitually rescue ourselves with hyper-palatable foods.
The second way movement aids in weight loss depends on also eating a minimally processed, plant-centric diet; it doesn’t work in tandem with the Standard American fare of processed junk and animal-based meals.
It’s this: vigorous movement ramps up our metabolism while we’re doing it and for a period of time after. We burn more calories in less time. As we’ve seen, we will compensate for this increased expenditure by desiring more food. That’s why it’s critical to eat for satiety on filling, calorically dilute foods. That way we don’t overconsume on calories to make up for the exercise we’ve just done.
Third, movement confers concrete psychological benefits. Studies have shown that exercise is at least as effective as medication to treat depression – and comes without negative side effects. For those of us who remember soothing our broken hearts with a couple of pints of Ben & Jerry’s following a breakup, it’s clear that making healthy choices is easier when we’re in a good mood.
Fourth, engaging in regular physical activity can trigger a significant mindset shift: we can begin to see ourselves as human athletes. Whether we compete or simply walk or run or play tennis or swim for the joy of it, we begin to value our ability to perform physical feats.
That shift is profound – now we eat in order to move powerfully and joyfully, rather than exercising in order to burn off calories. It’s the difference between driving your car in circles so you can buy more gas, vs filling your tank so you can go on a fun and exciting road trip.
Once you’re eating to fuel movement, rather than to stop being fat and sick, it becomes much easier to stick to your eating plan. You’re now motivated to chase and maintain something you want (high performance), rather than avoid something you don’t want (obesity and disease).
Fifth, engaging in vigorous movement provides a template for a crucial skill needed for stickig to a new, health-promoting diet: the ability to resist cravings and postpone comfort.
Because the foods we want to eliminate from our diet are everywhere, and hyper-palatable, and because we’ve used them to manipulate our moods and “get high” for so long, they will continue to sing their siren song to us even after we’ve decided to say goodbye for good.
The ability to ride out cravings is crucial, and nothing trains us better than engaging in uncomfortable levels of physical exertion on a regular basis. When we move so our heart is pounding and our breath is labored, it can feel yucky. To persist for another 10 seconds, or minute, or 20 minutes, is a practice that builds the same muscle we use to say no to onion rings, chocolate cake, and alcohol.
Sixth, engaging in natural human movement keeps us sane. Imagine a bird whose wings are clipped, or a fish that wasn’t allowed to swim, or a pig or chicken in a cage too small for it to turn around. We wouldn’t expect those animals to be happy, well-adjusted, and mentally stable.
It’s the same for us. Being human is being a bipedal animal – the quintessential walker and runner. We are the beasts who can run for miles. Reclaiming our authentic heritage as bipeds makes it much easier to eat the foods that are natural for us as well.
Getting Started with Movement
If you’ve been relatively sedentary for a while, getting started moving may be challenging. It’s supposed to be; remember our ancestral environment, full of challenges and dangers and sometimes low on calories?
You better believe it took a lot of strenuous physical effort to get ‘er done in those days. We wouldn’t have had a ton of energy to spare, and we needed ready reserves for those emergency situations where we had to run like crazy to avoid a predator or a wildfire.
So our default movement strategy became: Don’t.
If you can grab some rest, do it. If you can chillax, you’d be nuts to run around in circles or jump up and down for no reason. (If those sound like jogging and exercise class, that’s on purpose.)
You’re going to have to override that desire to lay back if you want to start a movement habit. You’ll have to remind yourself that back in the ancestral day, movement wasn’t optional. As WellStart Health co-founder Josh LaJaunie poetically puts it, “Either you moved, or you ended up a lion turd.”
Moving When Heavy
Starting an exercise habit can be challenging for anyone. If you’re heavy, you’ve got some special issues to deal with.
The biggest thing to remember in getting started on movement is to begin as safely and gently as you can, especially if you are starting cold. Have faith in your (body’s) ability to make progress, and know that if you just begin, you’ll increase your capacity and performance and weight loss and all the other positive outcomes you want over time.
You don’t need special gear, or shoes, or clothes, or electronic trackers to go for a walk. You just need to move your body from place to place. If you’re in a wheelchair, go for a “roll” instead: use your arms to move yourself around. Just start exerting a little bit more than you’re used to, and guess what? You’re a human athlete doing what comes naturally.
Go slow, and give your body time to adapt. Walking or running when heavy is an unnatural activity, as our bones and connective tissue and muscles were designed to support and move a light human frame. Land as lightly as you can on each foot, taking tiny steps to do so if necessary.
Aim for discomfort, not pain. If you experience swelling, or discoloration, or aches that don’t go away after a few days, dial it back. Check with a physical therapist or other healthcare professional to fix whatever movement patterns are causing the problem.
If you are drawn to other forms of exercise, by all means go for it. If you used to be a dancer, you might enjoy Zumba, or NIA, or a modern dance class, or just going out dancing and letting it all shake.
If you used to play football, you might feel more comfortable in the weight room. Start there. Any form of movement is better than none, so start anywhere.
That said, don’t discount the fact that you are a human, and humans are born to run – and jog, and walk. True, in this society you may not need to cover ground to earn your daily bread and defend your territory. But as we’ve seen, your body, brain, and mind still require frequent doses of bipedal locomotion to stay healthy and balanced.
Mental and Emotional Health
The physical aspects of weight loss are pretty straightforward: eat better, move more.
If you could just follow those four words of advice, you’d be set. The trouble is, simple ain’t always easy. And both of those directives fly in the face of our evolutionary programming to prefer calorically dense foods and avoid physical exertion whenever possible.
We can decide to do both of those things, and the more we practice them, the easier they become to maintain. What compromises both our decision-making ability, and our ability to follow through on those decisions, is unmanaged stress.
How Stress Affects Weight
When we’re in the grip of stress that we aren’t equipped or trained to handle, we’re prone to make poor food choices and ditch our exercise. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with us. The opposite is true: our evolutionary programming is just doing its job.
Here’s why: while we think of stress as a mental and emotional phenomenon, it’s actually a physical one. We have the ability to get stressed out because that response helped us survive in our ancestral environment.
Stress is how our body responds to the threat of mortal danger. It's not a decision; it’s not optional; and it’s not gradual.
The first thing a body wants to do, before the danger is imminent and we’re faced with a full blown life or death situation, is stock on calories. After all, who knows when we’ll get the chance to eat again? Because we’re preparing for an emergency, we want to make sure we eat the most calorically dense food we can. In our modern society, that means junk.
Since stress is a response to a danger in the environment, we wisely focus on that environment when we’re stressed out. It’s no time for navel-gazing when the lion is prowling in the tall grass.
This means we become “mindless” of our bodies, and their needs. In this state, it’s easy to “stress eat” and not pay attention to cues like satiety, or even taste.
Finally, stress feels bad. This is a good thing; if we enjoyed the experience of stress, we wouldn’t be so motivated to act. And we might end up a lion turd.
Being motivated to act is fine if we’re in a situation where fight or flight are reasonable options. Most of our modern stressors can’t be solved by beating something up or taking to our heels. Traffic jams, passive-aggressive emails, surly children, and mortgages aren’t amenable to brute force or running away screaming (believe me, I’ve tried).
Instead of acting in accordance with our biological programming, we stew. We worry. We fear. We think unkind thoughts about ourselves, others, and the universe.
We know from experience how to make those bad feelings go away, at least in the very short term. We eat ice cream, and buckets of fried chicken. (As well as dozens of other coping mechanisms.) And we feel instantly better, for a little while.
Chronic stress also undermines our exercise regimen. Thinking we’re under constant threat of attack is exhausting. Our endocrine system keeps pumping out fight or flight hormones, and eventually the system burns itself out.
How to Bust Stress
We can’t solve the obesity epidemic, globally or for ourselves, until we train ourselves to become stress-proof. There are many approaches that have merit, including cognitive behavioral techniques and meditation, but the quickest and most direct route to handling stress is to deal with it on a physical level, through breathing and muscular tension and relaxation.
As we’ve seen, stress is primarily a physical phenomenon that primes us for action. While we lack conscious control over most aspects of the stress response, we do have control over two key areas: breathing and muscle tonus.
Breathing to De-Stress
When we experience stress, our breathing gets shallow and quickens. We draw breath in sharply and suddenly. (If you don’t believe me, sneak up behind someone and pop a balloon three inches behind their head.)
We determine the threat level in any situation not only through the five external senses, but through a monitoring loop within the body itself. The brain notices, “Breathing is rapid and shallow,” and determines, “this must be a dangerous situation.”
That is, we can reinforce a stress loop by allowing our body to go into fight or flight. And, more hopefully, we can short-circuit a stress loop by consciously choosing to breath in a way incompatible with danger.
To reverse stress, simply breathe deep and slow, and spend more time on the exhale than the inhale.
Relaxing Muscles to De-Stress
We also can achieve conscious control of the tonus, or tension level, of the large motor muscles of our bodies, as well as those of the face. One of the first instinctual manifestations of the stress response is what is called “turtling,” or protecting the vulnerable head and ventral (front-facing) organs.
Imagine going from an open, upright posture to an instant fetal position, and you’ll get a sense of the motion and quality of turtling. This shift is accomplished by muscular tension in the face, neck, shoulders, arms, back, hips, and legs.
We can arrest a stress response by learning how to relax these muscles on command. The easiest way is a method called Progressive Relaxation, which paradoxically starts with tensing muscles on purpose.
You can find lots of videos and articles about Progressive Relaxation online. For now, get started by tensing your right arm and hand to about 50% tension while you inhale through the nose. Now exhale through the mouth while you let all the tension go. Repeat twice more.
You’ll discover that you can relax more deeply after purposefully adding tension to the muscles. Once your arm is more relaxed, spend a few moments getting familiar with that new state. You’ll want to return to it again, especially when you feel tension creeping in again through the stresses of life.
Repeat with the other arm, and with the other muscle groups in your body. If you lay down and spend 10 minutes doing a full Progressive Relaxation sequence three times a week, you’ll start training your body to response to excess tension by relaxing.
The Key Element: Community
We’ve looked at obesity, and how to overcome it, largely through the lens of our evolutionary biology and psychology.
We’ve seen that we’re driven to consume the foods that were most scarce and valued in our ancestral environment, foods that are now ubiquitous, convenient, and cheap. We need to override that programming to survive and thrive in this modern environment, and purposefully choose foods that mimic what the bulk of our diet used to be: whole, unprocessed foods of plant origin.
We’ve seen that movement which used to be required for survival is now optional, and that we have a bias toward conservation of energy that can discourage us from exercising. We need to override our desire to lounge around and move as if it were still keeping us alive.
We’ve seen that unchecked stress can undermine our food and exercise intentions and ability to follow through on those intentions. We need to train our bodies to turn off the stress response when it arises in the absence of physical threat.
What we’ve left out of the picture is perhaps the most powerful aspect of our evolutionary heritage: our need for community.
It’s almost impossible to do this alone, because of our inherent social programming. Back in the old days, the best way to stay alive was to do exactly what everyone else in your tribe was doing.
If a bunch of them start running, you didn’t stop to ask why – you ran first and asked questions later (or not at all).
If you wandered away from the tribe, you were easy prey – and more likely to wind up a lion turd.
As a bunch of slow, claw-less, fang-less, naked apes, we relied on strategic cooperation to protect ourselves from predators and divide labor in a way that got everyone fed and cared for. So if you were kicked out of the tribe for threatening the group’s norms, you were fated to die.
All of which is to say, changing the way you eat and move and think can be hard enough. But doing so while everyone around you keeps doing things the old ways is nigh on impossible.
That’s why it’s crucial to find and align yourself with a community of like-minded and like-acting people who are already doing what you aspire to do, and who are achieving what you want to achieve.
Community provides role models – people whom you can look at to silence the doubts you’ll naturally feel when you move away from the herd.
Community provides support – others who are doing what you’re doing, so you can feel good about your choices. After all, you’re not in this alone.
And community provides guidance and advice, in the form of experts and teachers and coaches: sherpas who are intimately familiar with the terrain and the journey, and can help you prepare and pack and climb the mountain safely and efficiently.
If you’re ready to get off the weight loss industry merry-go-round of hyped promises and impossible outcomes, and take charge of your own weight and health destiny, please check out WellStart Health’s 12-week On-ramp to Health program.
You’ll find a community of experts and guides who have themselves achieved dramatic health improvements by adopting positive lifestyle habits. Who understand the difficulties, doubts, and dreads that go along with making a big change. And who have lots of experience as weight loss sherpas, guiding you on your own journey of empowerment and success.
Find out more at WellStartHealth.com.