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Coaxing your body and brain into going along with your diet

Thomas Secrest's picture
Thomas Secrest

We've been building up to this part of the series on Weight Loss and Dieting and now it’s time to discuss how to get your body and mind to work with you while you lose weight. Links to all previous articles are listed at the bottom of the page.

In a previous article we talked at length about how your body has thousands of years of experience resisting weight loss. In the past it was critical for survival and we are the product of generations of survivors who passed this talent on to us. Even though our world has changed dramatically, our body’s physiology hasn’t.

So we understand that our body will resist our efforts at weight reduction through calorie restriction. Diets that focus on calorie restriction almost always fail. Our brain has the ability to alter our mood and behaviors and make us miserable until we start to eat normally again.

In yesterday’s article we discussed how a tiny bit of exercise can dramatically change how your body reacts to weight loss. To emphasize this point here is a fact you may not know. Researchers studied the eating habits of those with normal body weights and those who were overweight and here is what they found.

FACT: Those that had normal body weights eat about the same number of calories as those that were overweight. However, there was a difference in the amount of exercise the two groups got. Those that were overweight got much less exercise.

Therefore we can say that being overweight is not caused by over eating but by under exercising.

We also talked about getting your BASELINE information. With this information you will be able to make some changes in your diet to enhance your weight loss.

Understanding your metabolism

Like some of the topics before, this will be a little technical, which is why most diet books and plans don’t bother to talk about them; they also assume you have the attention span of an ant -- something that I DON'T assume. As I like to say, knowledge is power and power equals success. Your body is going to resist your diet using some very, very sophisticated biochemistry and if you want to win the battle of the bulge, you’re going to need to understand the basics of how to fight back.

We briefly discussed metabolism in a previous article, but now we need to take a closer look. Your body uses the food you consume in two main ways. The first is to produce the energy you need to power all your body functions. This is everything from thinking, to keeping your heart beating, to walking to across the room, to staying warm in a cool room or cool in a hot room. The second use for the food you eat is to build things your body needs to function.

The foods you eat are complex molecules and your digestive track breaks them down into simple molecules: i.e. carbohydrates into simple sugars; proteins into amino acids and fats into fatty acids. The process of breaking complex molecules into simpler ones is called catabolism.

As I mentioned above, your body can either use these simple molecules for energy or it can build them back into complex molecule that are specific for humans and specific for your particular needs. The process of building complex molecules from simpler ones is called anabolism.

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Have you ever wondered how a vegetarian can build muscle mass without eating muscle (i.e. meat)? They simply take plant proteins (abundant in beans and grains), break then down into amino acids, then build the amino acids back into human muscle protein. This works because plants use the same set of amino acids as humans.

Absorptive state vs. Postabsorptive state

For most of you, the word ‘fast or fasting’ refers to an extended period (a day or more) without food. For us physiologists, ‘fast’ is used in a similar way, but the time period is often much shorter. It means we can talk about fasting as the time between meals. Since we’re not going to talk about fasting for days, from this point on, unless specified otherwise, ‘fast’ or ‘fasting’ is simply the time period between meals, regardless of how long the time.

Now let’s discuss the Absorptive and Postabsorptive states

Your absorptive state (fasting state) usually begins while you are eating your meal and it continues until all the food from that meal is absorbed from your digestive tract. Depending on what’s in your meal, this can last from 3-4 hours to about 6 hours. During this time your body has a constant supply of glucose coming from your meal and it uses this glucose to power your body. Therefore, during the absorptive state, no fats are being burned for fuel, only the glucose from your meal.

Your postabsorptive state begins when the last of the nutrients from your meal have been absorbed and your body must now change its metabolism to accommodate this. These changes will remain in effect until your next meal, when your metabolism will change back. It is during the postabsorptive state that your body burns its fat for energy production.

During each day your body cycles back and forth between these 2 states. The longest time in one state is usually at night when your body is in its postabsorptive state from 4 hours after dinner until you eat breakfast. Of course, this is how break – fast came to be known as breakfast.

I bet you’re starting to appreciate the first way we want to coax your body into working with our diet. Our goal will be to get our bodies to spend more time in the postabsorptive state, without making the brain interrupt it as starvation. If not for that last part, fasting would be a great way to lose weight. But as we know, the brain very quickly interprets fasting as starvation and begins to slow down your metabolism and increase your food obsessions.

Tomorrow we will look at the hormone Insulin. You most likely are familiar with it as the hormone associated with diabetes, which it is. What you may not know is that it is also the hormone that has huge control over you absorptive and postabsorptive states. If we can manipulate insulin we will gain some measure of control over how our body reacts to a small reduction in calories.

After that we will look at the final piece of the puzzle. We will look at how mild exercise lets us get even more control over our metabolism. Enough control to almost totally convince our body and brain to let us continue on our weight loss program without interference.

With these two things under our control and a good handle on how many calories we eat each day and a continuously updated BASELINE, we can diet slowly for as long as we want with no pain and no diet induced misery, hunger or general food craving. If we can do that, then it is no problem to accept that the weight is going to come off slowly over time. Week in and week out the scale will tell the story of our weight loss and the changes we’ve made are changes we can EASILY live with. Plus soon enough, those changes become new habits. This means when you reach your goal, you don’t have to worry about the dreaded yoyo. Your new habits will protect you and keep you where you want to be, because, at the end of your diet, there are no huge changes -- just some little ones, so that you diet diet to oblivion.

Again I want to thank those who have taken time to write and ask questions and offer suggestions. I hope to hear from more of you as time passes and we build our little community of people losing weight the smart way. There are still more articles to come, so stay tuned.

Links to previous weight loss and diet articles

If you would like to email a question or suggestion for a future weight loss article, you can reach me at: Thomas Secrest