Can't Lose Weight? It’s Not You, It's Your Brain
When I was obese, it totally baffled me that I couldn’t lose weight - because I was capable in so many other areas. I had earned a PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I had good friends, was happily married, and had run a marathon. And still, I found myself many nights in the grocery store paying for food I knew I shouldn’t eat, had vowed not to eat, and, yet, was about to sit in my car and eat. And for years nothing I tried worked.
In the United States alone, 108 million people are on a diet. That number comes from The U.S. Weight Loss and Diet Control Market which only measures people actively spending money on diet-related products and services. It doesn’t count all the people trying to eat less or get healthier on their own.
But here’s the statistic that I want to focus on: among the obese who try to lose weight, the failure rate is 99 percent. Literally, 99 percent do not succeed at getting slim.[i] And for that precious one percent who do succeed, the triumph is temporary. The vast majority regain the weight over the next few years.
Yet the research is very clear—people are genuinely motivated to lose weight.[ii] They’re spending enormous sums of money to do it-over $60.9 billion in 2010.[iii] Few things are more desirable in our Western culture than being trim. So why can’t we succeed? And why doesn’t anybody seem to wonder why smart, capable, educated, motivated people who really want to get slender just can’t do it?
What we need to focus on is that the problem itself doesn’t make any sense. There’s no other field of endeavor that I’m aware of where intelligence, determination, and capability have so little bearing on the outcome.
The reality is that our common understanding of the problem is flawed. And our common understanding of the solution is flawed. They’re flawed because they’re not rooted in brain science.
The real problem is that our brains are blocking us from losing weight.
Our brains have been hijacked by diets high in sugar and flour to block every attempt at dieting. The science is clear: someone who has had the pleasure receptors in their nucleus accumbens down-regulated by sugar cannot just “quit” because an article tells them to, any more than a smoker stops once someone points out it’s bad for him. The addiction is stronger than that.
And the two most common proffered solutions, calorie restriction and exercise, don’t work because, first: exercise drains the cognitive mechanism of self-regulation known as willpower, that thing overweight people are told to just “get more of.” The brain doesn’t work that way. Willpower is a finite daily resource, not a dimension of character. And if you drain yours by pushing yourself to the gym you are more likely to succumb to a high-calorie food choice later. That food choice will be more harmful than the workout was beneficial.
Second: calorie restriction without a daily framework to help us resist our culture’s endless cues to eat will fail.
Again, the hijacked brain demands what it thinks it needs, and it will win.
Here’s what does work: lowering insulin levels permanently to allow the brain to recognize the hormone leptin. Leptin cues us to feel full and get moving, but high baseline insulin blocks it out, leaving us feeling insatiably hungry.
What else works? Moving food choices out of the prefrontal cortex, where they can be debated, and into the more primitive basal ganglia, where they become automatic. Automatic like brushing your teeth. Popular diets right now have people eating six small meals a day. That is too many opportunities for the saboteur in our brains to run the conversation and it undermines automating healthy choices so they take zero willpower. Three meals a day are automatizable. Snacks aren’t.
And finally, it works to have a program that expects you will run out of willpower daily—because you will—and still allows you to be successful. I’m not talking about a diet. I’m talking about a food plan that heals the brain, coupled with daily, ongoing support and systems that make weight-loss permanent.
Science has the information. It’s now our responsibility as researchers to provide it in the form of concrete solutions. Because no one should spend another minute feeling ashamed or mystified that they can’t lose weight, lost in a flood of confusing and contradictory information on how to eat, or suffer in a body that feels like a burden.
It’s clear what we want—we want to be slim and healthy. But everything we want for our bodies begins and ends with our brains.
Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester and an expert in the psychology of eating. She is President of the Institute for Sustainable Weight Loss and CEO of Bright Line Eating Solutions, a company dedicated to sharing the psychology and neuroscience of sustainable weight loss and helping people live Happy, Thin, and Free.
[i] Fildes, A., Charlton, J., Rudisill, C., Littlejohns, P., Prevost, A., & Gulliford, M. (2015). Probability of an obese person attaining normal body weight: Cohort study using electronic health records. American Journal of Public Health, 105(9), e54–e59. doi: 10.2105/
[ii]. Rand, C. S., & Macgregor, A. M. (1991). Successful weight loss following obesity surgery and the perceived liability of morbid obesity. International Journal of Obesity, 15(9), 577.
[iii]. Marketdata Enterprises Inc. (2011, May 5). Diet Market Worth $60.9 Billion in U.S. Last Year, but Growth Is Flat, Due to the Recession. [Press Release].