In the US, 80% of girls have been on a diet by the time they’re 10 years old. These young girls are more likely to gain weight 5 years down the road. In fact, most people have regained the weight and 40% have gained more than they lost 5 years after dieting.

Why is it so hard to lose weight? Neuroscientist and author Sandra Aamodt explains that hunger and energy use are controlled by the brain, mostly behind the scenes, and this unconscious force is stronger than mere willpower. The brain has a sense of how much you should weigh (a biological set point or more precisely a set range), regardless of what you think. You can adjust your lifestyle to move up and down that range, but it’s much harder to stay outside of it. Like a thermostat, Aamodt says, chemical messengers from the hypothalamus gland help regulate hunger, activity and metabolism to keep your weight stable as conditions change. If you lose weight, your brain reacts as if you were starving and will try to push your body weight back to what it considers normal.

Successful dieting doesn’t lower your set range. On the flip side, a temporary weight gain can become permanent if you stay at the weight for too long, in a matter of years. Your brain will treat it as your new normal weight. From an evolutional point of view this makes perfect sense. Starvation has been a much bigger problem than overeating. Our brain therefore is hardwired to protect us from the foreseeable shortage of food.

There are two kinds of eaters: intuitive vs. controlled. Intuitive eaters are less likely to overeat and they think less about food. Controlled eaters are the dieters who are vulnerable to overconsumption of food with the slightest temptation. Aamodt advocates mindful eating. You give yourself permission to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Eating when you aren’t hungry is the main reason for overweight. The bad thing about going on the all-inclusive Cancun vacation is that one tends to overeat as food is abundant and available 24 hours a day. My daughters said they ate so much that it literally hurt. One needs to be mindful of how he feels when he is comfortably full vs. explosively full. Figure out what makes your body feel good. A couple of months ago, when we started baking fish, crab cake, chicken and boiling vegetables, I felt hungry all the time. I’d eat a piece of cheesecake to fill my stomach. After a couple of weeks, I realized that the new way of cooking and eating delayed the feeling of a full stomach by about an hour. So now I don’t need to eat sweets after dinner.

A study that measured the risk of death over a 14-year period based on four healthy habits: eating fruits and vegetables, getting exercise, not smoking, and drinking in moderation reveals that lifestyle choices are far more important to maintaining health than weight. “For someone who is overweight and who practices no healthy habits, the risk of death is high, but adopting just one good habit brings that person back within normal range. (Note that this is true for overweight people, not obese people. For obese people, it takes all four habits to bring them back into a normal range.) And regardless of weight, for those who adopted the four healthy habits, weight makes very little difference to health. The message: if it’s really health you’re worried about, you can take control by adjusting your lifestyle”.

Maybe instead of promoting weight loss, we should focus on adopting healthy living habits and preventing weight gain. That way the foods that once fueled the growth of the human brain can be our friend again rather than our foe.

*Image Credit: http://gamerfitnation.com/2012/05/why-should-you-lead-a-healthier-lifestyle/