Why Our Brains Make Us Obese

Why Our Brains Make Us Obese

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Human disposition, lack of time and bad habits cause obesity

Cape Town, South Africa - June 21, 2011: drive-thru

Starvation has killed more human beings in the history of planet Earth than from any other method. You can take war, disease, murder, old age, death by shark attack and add them all up. Starvation out does them all. It was not until post World War II that obesity became a recognized problem. Sure there were some overweight people before then, but they were the rich and royalty. What has happened in the past 70 years to create such an epidemic of fat when in the previous 70,000 years people died because they had no body fat?

WHAT DO WE KNOW?

Everyone knows eating spinach is a good nutritious food choice and doughnuts are an unhealthy option. People understand that daily exercise is a good idea and sitting on the couch all day long will not contribute to a fit, lean body. If we understand what choices should be made for long term health, why do most of us keep making the wrong choices? I believe it comes down to human predisposition to seek pleasure, a lack of time to devote to healthy eating and exercise, and big food companies taking advantage of these shortcomings.

DE-SENSITIZED PLEASURE CENTRES OF YOUR BRAIN

Human beings have a “reward” part in the brain. There is an area in the brain where pleasure hormones are released which allows you to feel good. This section of the brain is important for the survival of man. It motivates someone to seek reward when discomfort is present. If you are cold you seek warmth. If you are hungry the search for food overwhelms your attention. The longer you go without a basic life necessity the more you desire it.

The problem with the modern reward brain is that it has become desensitized. We have hijacked our pleasure response by the abundant consumption of high fat sugary foods available to us. In the past, a piece of fruit would have been a rewarding high sugary treat that would make someone feel pleasure. Today a piece of fruit does not cut it. Today we need a hot molten lava cake with vanilla ice cream to get the same pleasurable release. This desensitization becomes even more pronounced if someone is stressed or depressed. 

TIME

The number one excuse/reason people give for not being active is time. Why is it that no one has any time? In my opinion it is mostly due to finances. Most people find it difficult to make the amount of money necessary to lead the quality of life they desire. In order to send your children to school, buy clothes, pay the mortgage and feed your family, you must spend anywhere from 8-14 of your waking hours working, getting ready to work and travelling to work. This does not leave much extra time for making quality food choices and physical activity.

People are sitting down most of their day in their cars, at work or at home. Next to lying down to sleep, sitting is the laziest position the body can be in. Very few calories are being expended which prevents body fat being used as a fuel source. Pre-WWII, many people made money by working with their body. Post-WWII people made their living working with their mind.

The fast food industry preys upon people’s time disadvantage perception. They make it almost impossible not to eat fast food. Why does the average North American family eat fast food three to four times per week?

– There are hundreds of thousands of locations, virtually on every city block.

– Food is cheap. You can feed a family of four for under $20.

– Food tastes really good. The high fat-sugar-salt combination satisfies the reward brain temporarily.

– It is time efficient. People can eat in minutes without ever having to leave their vehicle.

“If you are cold you seek warmth. If you are hungry the search for food overwhelms your attention.”

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

No one should completely deny themselves of all the foods they love. This can only lead to bingeing. Think of the “Law of Diminishing Returns.” The first two to three bites of chocolate are the best part. Each subsequent morsel tastes slightly worse than the previous. Once you have enjoyed the best part of your treat there is no deprivation. If you continue to eat into your 10th, 20th, 100th bite, you are doing it for other reasons than pleasure. Here are some scenarios:

– Maybe you are eating a whole bowl of nacho chips because you are hungry. In this situation you may not have done a great job eating earlier in the day, missing breakfast or lunch.

– You may eat an entire carton of ice cream in front of the television late at night. This is a habit you have formed over your lifetime. You associate eating with sitting on the couch and watching television. You may not even stop to think if you are hungry or even desire ice cream at that moment. You may be eating subconsciously. 

– Your marital/personal relationships may be suffering. To deal with the depression, chocolate peanut butter cookies may be your temporary feel good solution. Dealing with the root cause of the depression is the long-term solution.

There are a couple of approaches with the time obstacle. First, do not feel you need to set aside a full 30 minutes to get a worthy exercise session done. Particularly in obese people, three 10-minute sessions spread out in your day can be more beneficial. Someone just starting to exercise will have a lower fitness level. They would have a tough time keeping their intensity elevated for a full continuous 30 minutes. They would have an easier time exercising harder for 10 minutes at a time. The overall calorie expenditure would be higher for the same 30 minutes because more can be done in each bout.

Secondly, try to kill two birds with one stone. Spend your exercise time with your children. Take your family swimming, sledding, or kick a ball around. It’s quality time with your kids, exercise for you, and they see an active role model and are in turn less likely to be obese in their adult life. 

You know what the right choice is. Find out the obstacle preventing you from making the right choice. You may need some help from a trainer, friend or family support. It is not impossible to be lean for a lifetime, it is just hard. The hard is what makes it so worthwhile. It would be a shame if you lived an entire lifetime of obesity never knowing what your amazing body could have looked like or done if you just had the willingness and skill to give it a solid effort. 

 
Paul Plakas
Paul Plakas is a well-known fitness expert and personal trainer for more than 20 years. Paul has also been featured on Slice TV network shows "Taking it Off" and "X-Weighted."

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