Mind over matter: psychology over calorie-counting
Interesting idea of how to lose weight relatively effortlessly without counting calories (warning: you still have to watch what you eat) by letting your own body dictate how much you eat. Seems pretty sensible and worth a try.
by Michael Graziano (is a neuroscientist, novelist and composer. He is Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University in New Jersey. His latest book is Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013). Edited by Ed Lake | 18 January, 2016 | Aeon
The hunger mood
Hunger isn’t in your stomach or your blood-sugar levels. It’s in your mind – and that’s where we need to shape up…
…If weight were a matter of calories in and calories out, we’d all be the weight we choose. Everyone’s gotten the memo. We all know the ‘eat less’ principle. (Read Why diets don’t work and what you can do about it and Diets and exit strategies.) Losing weight should be as easy as choosing a shirt colour. And yet, somehow it isn’t, and the United States grows heavier. It’s time to consider the problem through an alternative lens.
Read also How to keep fit over 30.
Whatever else it is, hunger is a motivated state of mind. Psychologists have been studying such states for at least a century. We all feel hungry before dinner and full after a banquet, but those moments are the tip of the iceberg. Hunger is a process that’s always present, always running in the background, only occasionally rising into consciousness. It’s more like a mood. When it slowly rises or eases back down, even when it’s beneath consciousness, it alters our decisions. It warps our priorities and our emotional investment in long-term goals. It even changes our sensory perceptions – often quite profoundly.
You sit down to dinner and say:
That tiny, little hamburger? Why do they have to make them so small? I’ll have to eat three just to break even.
That’s the hunger mood making food look smaller. If you’re full, the exact same hamburger looks enormous. It isn’t just the food itself. Your own body image is warped.
When the hunger mood rises, you feel a little thinner, the diet feels like it’s working and you can afford a self-indulgence. When satiety kicks in, you feel like a whale.
Even memory can be warped. Suppose you keep a log of everything you eat. Is that log trustworthy? Not only have you drastically misjudged the size of your meals, but you’ve almost certainly forgotten items.
Depending on your hunger state, you might snarf up three pieces of bread and after the meal sincerely remember only one.
One recent study found that most of the calories people eat come through snacks between meals. But when you ask people, they deny it. They’re surprised to find out just how much they snack…
…Let’s say you decide to cut back on calories. You eat less for a day. The result? It’s like picking up a stick and poking a tiger. Your hunger mood rises and for the next five days you’re eating bigger meals and more snacks, perhaps only vaguely realising it…
… I’m not denying the physics here. If you take in fewer calories, you’ll lose weight. But if you explicitly try to reduce calories, you’re likely to do the exact opposite. Almost everyone who tries to diet goes through that battle of the bulge. Diets cause the psychological struggle that causes weight gain.
Read also Why diets don’t work and what you can do about it.
… Let’s say you try another standard piece of advice: exercise. If you burn calories at the gym you’ll definitely lose weight, right? Isn’t that just physics? Except that, after you work out, for the rest of the day you’re so spent that you might actually burn fewer calories on a gym day than on a regular one. Not only that, but after a workout you’ve assuaged your guilt. Your emotional investment in the cause relaxes. You treat yourself to a chocolate chip muffin. You might try to be good and decline the muffin, but the exercise revs up that subtle hunger mood lurking under the surface and then you don’t even know any more how much you’re overeating. Meals grow bigger while seeming to grow smaller. Extra snacks sneak in.
Read Diets and exit strategies …
…But the most insidious attack on the hunger mechanism might be the chronic diet. The calorie-counting trap. The more you try to micromanage your automatic hunger control mechanism, the more you mess with its dynamics. Skip breakfast, cut calories at lunch, eat a small dinner…
be constantly mindful of the calorie count, and you poke the hunger tiger
All you do is put yourself in the vicious cycle of trying to exert willpower and failing. That’s when you enter the downward spiral…
Don’t put a plastic bag over your head. Likewise, don’t eat the super-high death-carb, low-fat diet. Don’t micromanage your brainstem by counting every calorie. You might be surprised at how well your health self-regulates.
Michael Graziano is a neuroscientist, novelist and composer. He is Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University in New Jersey. His latest book is Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013).
Why diets don’t work and what you can do about it