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10 mins

Weight Loss Not Working? How the Secrets of Neuroscience Will Make You Stop Dieting Forever

Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt reveals that our brains don't want us to lose weight. Her solution? Stop worrying about weight loss and just be mindful about food.
by Ben Schuman-Stoler | Apr 28 2017

Weight loss may still be the world’s foremost New Year’s resolution, but the dieting industry is struggling. More and more consumers have realized that deprivation doesn’t work and so they’re ditching traditional diet plans for more holistic and common sense approaches.

Enter Sandra Aamodt, a researcher and former lifestyle dieter who wants to shout what she’s learned from the rooftops: according to the leading neuroscience research, your brain has decided how much it wants you to weigh and will keep pushing you back to that weight forever. If you were already skeptical of popular weight loss methods, the ideas in Sandra’s book, Why Diets Make Us Fat, will be empowering.

For the latest episode of Blinkist Podcast, I spoke to Sandra about the science of weight loss, the health advantages of mindful eating, what it’s like to sail to New Zealand, and why depriving yourself of office doughnuts never works.

diets make us fat

Benjamin Schuman-Stoler:
Thanks so mch for coming onto the Blinkist Podcast.

Sandra Aamodt: Thanks for having me.

BSS: So, we’re going to talk about the book, Why Diets Make Us Fat, which came out last year, right?

SA: Mmhmm.

BSS: I sort of separated the main takeaways from the book into these three:

1) The brain has a set point, which is like, a range of ten to fifteen or so pounds that it wants the body to stay at.

2) Dieting won’t lower the set point. In fact, it will probably raise it. And willpower isn’t enough to lower it either.

3) Mindful eating is the best way to accept this set point, possibly lower it, live happier, be healthy. And not the opposite: unhappy and unhealthy, which is what diets normally lead to.

How controversial were those points when the book came out?

SA: So, the actual facts of the matter are not controversial at all. I’ve had nobody complain to me about the scientific information the book is based on. But there’s a lot of controversy about, what’s the best thing to do about it?

So, the idea that weight is actively managed by the brain – that’s in physiology textbooks. The idea that the way that the brain fights back against diets lasts for years – that’s also in physiology textbooks.

But the conclusion that you should just make your peace with those facts, instead of spending your whole life trying to struggle against them: that’s where we get out of the range of facts and into opinions. And there are certainly people who disagree with me on that point.

BSS: So, what did you tell them?

SA: Well, I tell them that if they want to spend their lives struggling against their weight set point, that’s totally up to them. But I have been so much happier since I stopped. And I think it’s something that people should at least consider as a possibility.

BSS: Now we have to give some background, I think.

SA: Yeah, we jumped in pretty deep.

BSS: Yeah, that’s good! I almost—I have quotes from the mindfulness section that I really like, but we’ll get to them later. Let’s start with the basic stuff, the foundation of some your arguments. I’ll read a quote from the book: “Just as the body needs a certain amount of sleep, the brain has a body weight range that it prefers and will defend for each individual.” And in another part, you call it “the set point.”

SA: Yes. Or the “defended weight range,” which is what they call it now in the scientific literature. Because “point” sounds like a single weight and it really is a range.

BSS: So, how does the brain settle on that range?

SA: We don’t know in detail, for sure, but there’s clearly a strong genetic component to it. Most people’s weights will settle somewhere near the weights of their family members. And there are clearly things you can do over the course of your life, or have done to you, that will make the set point go up.

There is very little, that we know of, that can make it go down.

BSS: And that’s where, without even getting into diets, this already can rub people the wrong way. Because we’re constantly told that we can change it. If we just try hard enough, the brain can sort of overcome whatever the body has planned for us. Even though that’s complete nonsense.

SA: Yes, that goes very deep. Especially in American culture. That you are just in control of everything, if you would simply try harder. But imagine, for a moment, if somebody said: “Oh, you’re diabetic? You’re not trying hard enough to control your blood sugar. What’s wrong with you?” When somebody says, “You should try harder to control your weight, they’re talking about a process that is physiologically regulated as strictly as blood sugar. And you know, like blood sugar, there are things—there are lifestyle choices you can make that will slowly send things off in the wrong direction. But it’s just not true that somebody can simply decide to take control of their physiology and change it by sheer force of will.

BSS: So, what does that mean when it comes to—let’s say I have a dream of losing thirty pounds. What is that mean to my dream?

SA: So, if you simply go in with willpower and say, “Okay. I’m going to eat less, I’m going to exercise more, I’m going to lose those thirty pounds, and I’m going to keep it off forever.” You have then taken on a lifetime project. You will be actively putting effort into that project every day for the rest of your life, in order to succeed. It’s not impossible, but it better be awfully important to you.

BSS: Right, because there are a lot of other things I could do with my willpower, right?

SA: Exactly. And your brain will continue to try to push you back to the weight that it prefers as far as we can tell, forever. It’s been measured out as far as six years and after six years, the brain’s response, which includes increased hunger and decreased metabolism and actually making food more rewarding to your brain, that continues—and it’s actually stronger after six years than it was in the beginning.

“It’s just not true that somebody can simply decide to take control of their physiology and change it through sheer force of will.”

BSS: So was this what was sort of at play when there was that quite depressing news cycle about all of the Biggest Loser contestants years later? Many of them had gained the weight back. Is that what was happening?

SA: Yeah, that’s the best evidence. There have been other papers reporting the same thing but that is the best study by far, because the scientists actually went in and did individual physiological measurements on all of their Biggest Loser candidates before they lost the weight and then again after they lost weight and then again six years later, when most of them had gained much or all of that weight back. And so they had, within individual comparisons across time, after massive weight-loss and after they had regained, on average, 70% of their weight and at that point, their metabolism was still quite suppressed.

Watch Sandra Aamodt’s TED Talk “Why dieting doesn’t usually work”

BSS: It’s cool that you bring up metabolism because this is something I—well, when I watched your TED talk and read your book, but the metabolism thing is something I’m still not totally clear on. But from the study by Dr. Leibel, we have to eat much less than other people to make up for the metabolism after weight loss, is that correct?

SA: Yes, so if you have lost a lot of weight, and kept it off, your body will actually burn less energy than the body of somebody who’s the exact same size but whose brain is happy with that weight.

BSS: Ah, I see. And so, does this connect to the thermostat analogy?

SA: Yes, that’s one of the two mechanisms that the brain uses to strongly push your weight back up to where your brain thinks it should be, into your defendant range or your set point.

It turns out, actually, according to some research that has come out since I published the book—also by Kevin Hall, the scientist who did the Biggest Loser study; he did a clever study where he was able to actually measure the increase in appetite among people who had lost weight—and what he found out was that in calorie terms, the increased appetite was about three times bigger than the decreased metabolism.

And his subjects had no idea they were eating more—that’s the really interesting part. The increase in appetite which led to an increase in eating was totally unconscious.

BSS: But so, what does that mean? Is that because the brain—like, because of this thermostat which, in the same way a thermostat brings the temperature back to the temperature you set it at, they didn’t know that they were eating more because the brain was somehow setting the course back to the target weight? Back to the defended weight range?

SA: Yes, so when you lose a lot of weight, your metabolism goes down and your appetite goes up. And as a consequence, most people naturally take in more calories and burn off fewer calories. And that’s what leads them, in the overwhelming majority of cases, to gain back the weight that they’ve lost.

And that’s a thermostat, right? When the trigger is, you should have a certain amount of body fat—oh oops, you don’t have enough, let’s change the circumstances to encourage you to put on more. It’s a controlled, feedback-loop-regulated process.

BSS: And this is a process that willpower, as we started talking about at the beginning—willpower is pretty much helpless to fight against, unless you’re willing to use all of your willpower and resources on just this, forever.

SA: Yes, so weight loss is a particularly tough job for willpower. So let’s contrast it with, say, exercise. If I decide I’m going to exercise everyday and I’m going to use my willpower to do that, I have to use my willpower if I’m good at it exactly once, which is that moment when I put on my exercise clothes and walk out the door and go running or go walking or whatever it is that I’m planning to do. And then it’s done: you don’t have to think about it again until the next day.

In contrast, when you’re talking about weight loss, when you’re talking about trying to eat less, most people make two hundred to three hundred food-related decisions per day.

BSS: Which is insane by the way!

SA: So, how many times, how many individual times, when you’re sitting in a meeting with a plate of doughnuts in the center of the table, do you have to make the decision to not reach for a doughnut? And every one of those times uses willpower. And if you are successful 199 times and the 200th time you grab the doughnut, you’re in exactly the same position as the person who grabbed the doughnut on the first try, in terms of calories.

BSS: You say in the book, the quote: “When we try to use willpower to maintain a weight loss, we’ve chosen the wrong tool for the job.” And this is because the system that sort of uses willpower has limited resources, but the system that sets up good habits—that habits are the answer, is what you say. Why is that?

SA: Just what you said, that the system that controls willpower only has a limited amount of willpower to offer you over the course of the day. And it’s not just for your eating decisions, but for all kinds of other things that are probably important to you, like getting that work project finished or being a good parent to your kids. It’s not clear, for most of us, that fitting into our skinny jeans is the single most important contribution we could make to the world using our willpower. I really hope that’s not true for most of us.

BSS: Well, but doesn’t it take some willpower to start a new habit? This was something I was also not totally clear on.

SA: It does. Now, there’s a clear difference: It absolutely takes willpower to start a habit or to break a bad habit. But in contrast to the use of willpower for weight loss, once the habit is going, it doesn’t take willpower to maintain it. But if you use your willpower directly on trying to lose weight, you have to do that forever.

“Most people make 200 to 300 food-related decisions per day.”

BSS: As editor of Nature Neuroscience, I guess you read many, many neuroscience papers—in the thousands, probably. And I was wondering where the book came from, actually: if the research was just standing in front of you and you were like, “Oh my God, I have to tell people about this!” Or if it came from this moment in your own life, where you’re like, “Oh my God, I have to tell people about this! But first I have to find the research to support this.”

SA: Yeah, so the research definitely came first. And I wish I had been smart enough to put it all together myself, because I had a lot of the pieces from my neuroscience training. But once I did figure it out, I really had this intense evangelical feeling of, “Why didn’t someone tell me about this? I must tell other people!”

BSS: And it’s also interesting that the book seems to pivot and becomes about mindfulness. How did that happen? What is mindful eating and where did that come from, in a book that starts out with, why diets make us fat and why the brain sets out weight? Yeah, where did that come from?

SA: So, that was the part that grew out of my own experience. That I really didn’t expect and didn’t know about when I made the decision to stop dieting. I was completely focused on weight as the outcome when I stopped dieting. Would I be able to maintain a stable weight? Would I not gain weight?

And what I discovered, to my considerable joy and surprise, was that my whole relationship with food started to shift. And you know, I’m able to enjoy food in a way I never did when I was dieting. Because even at moments when I was eating something really amazing, back in those days, there was still always the part of my mind that was saying, “You shouldn’t do that! You’re going to get fat. That’s bad. That’s sinful!” It really does, sort of, become a moral issue for people.

And what I found out, as I went through it myself, was that once I stopped thinking about eating as fundamentally about weight, I was gradually able to take a much more comfortable relationship with it. To trust that my body actually knew how much I should be eating and would adjust seamlessly for whatever splurges I occasionally made on really good food. And so the mindfulness part, the idea that the best way to approach food is by relaxing and enjoying it and really paying attention to what your body wants from moment to moment, and trusting that people have been maintaining stable weights for hundreds of thousands of years before anybody ever invented that little scale that you use to weigh chicken breasts. That was revelatory.

BSS: But then, of course, it’s not only about mindfulness, because it’s also about lifestyle changes, right? What’s an example of a lifestyle change?

SA: Okay. So, yeah, when I talk about a healthy lifestyle, I’m talking about getting regular moderate exercise, roughly a half-hour per day. If you want to be really at the top of your game, an hour a day. Anything beyond that, you’re not really gaining much health benefit from. And then an approach to food that maximizes whole foods and minimizes junk food. The biggest thing is to eat a lot of vegetables and not too many empty calories.

BSS: And also, like, to stop smoking, right?

SA: Yeah, I mean, if you smoke, the number one thing you can do for your health is quit smoking.

“Your brain will continue to try to push you back to the weight that it prefers forever.”

BSS: But yeah, okay, so these kinds of lifestyle changes really have a better health benefit than weight changes?

SA: Yeah, so, in studies where they’ve directly compared the two, what they tend to find is about a tenfold bigger effect of having a good lifestyle. First of all: losing weight is the hardest possible intervention compared to exercising everyday or making sure that you eat a lot of vegetables. And it’s also the least effective. So, why are we getting so focused on weight loss as the first line of defense against poor metabolic health as opposed to doing these things that are, as I said up top, you only have to use your willpower to do them once a day, as opposed to having to constantly intervene, to try to defeat this brain regulation.

BSS: Okay, cool. We’re going to run out of time. But Googling you and stuff, I saw that you sailed to New Zealand from California, is that for real?

SA: Yeah, that’s for real.

BSS: You made it, you’re alive. Right?

SA: Yep. Yeah, it was boring a lot more often than it was scary.

BSS: My girlfriend, we are talking about it at breakfast this morning, my girlfriend was like, I couldn’t take it, it would be too boring: you’d wake up and see the ocean, like, everyday. And I was like, you’re not bored because you’re going to die and you can’t be bored, you have to stay awake. I really—I mean, I don’t came from a very boat-y family, or a sailing family, I guess—I guess, if you couldn’t ride a bicycle and you heard of someone biking one hundred kilometers, or something, you would also think that it was crazy. But, how long did that take?

SA: So, it was a total of fourteen months and out of those fourteen months, we spent about five months actually on the water and the rest of the time visiting various harbors, like French Polynesia and Tonga. We spent five months in New Zealand where we bought a car and drove around all over the place. I love that country and I still don’t feel like I got to see everything I wanted to see there.

BSS: That’s so cool. Sorry, last thing: what did you do all the time on the boat, then?

SA: Well, there’s a bunch of, you know—running-the-boat things that need to be done.

BSS: Not dying, that’s a big one, right?

SA: Not dying isn’t something that you take an enormous fraction of your time taking care of. But you know, making sure you get fed and the boat’s going in the right direction. And stuff like that. But then there really are hours where you’re just sitting out there, looking at the water, hopefully being mindful.

BSS: Cool, I just had to ask you that, thanks for indulging me. Well this was great, I’m glad we could do this interview. And I hope that people get the message. Because when I shared the document around Blinkist, with the plan of what I wanted to talk to you about, it probably got more comments and more really interested responses than some of the other interviews we’ve done. Because people are just like—it seems to connect with a lot of people, in a sort of intuitive and yet, difficult way. And those seem to be the most important ideas.

SA: Yeah, I find a lot of people keep coming back to that again and again and going a little deeper each time. Because it is a hard idea to get your mind around at first.

BSS: So, that’s fantastic. Then have a great day and hopefully we can talk at the next book.

SA: Alright, thanks!

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