Sunday, May 5, 2013

Moderation Makes Me Fat ~ Part 1

Hmmmm, is this really true for all of us?

One of the most common ideas in weight loss and maintenance is that you can eat anything, as long as you eat it in moderation. I believe this to be true. You can have some peanut butter, you just shouldn't have half of the jar in one sitting. You can have a cookie, but you might not want to have 15. I've also come to realize that for some of us, moderation is almost impossible. I am about to turn 38 and I've come to the conclusion that I am not a moderate person. My moods are extreme. I am either intensely absorbed by something or completely disinterested.  I am either in a smooth routine or my life is complete chaos. My house is either spotless or a complete shambles. Okay, that last one is a lie; my house is NEVER spotless. But you get the picture. I am either on point with my eating or am having (and giving into) major cravings and binges. When I binge, or just eat more than is necessary to satisfy a typical person's hunger, I wonder "why"? Why am I so extreme? Why can't I stop at one cookie, or a few chips, or a spoonful of peanut butter? Traditional thinking has posited that binges are a maladaptive way to deal with emotional troubles. This can absolutely be the case, however, it is usually not my "why". Luckily, researchers are conducting more and more studies to determine why people binge.  

Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen has done extensive brain research and has shown that for many people, foods (especially sugar) activate the pleasure centers of the brain the same way the use of drugs stimulates the brains of drug addicts. Dopamine and serotonin are important neurotransmitters that affect our mood and feelings of satisfaction. Anything that causes a spike in these neurotransmitters is going to make us feel good. So for many of us, eating certain foods triggers brain activity that mimics drug addiction. You eat, and your brain gets rewarded with a "high". Then your brain sends messages that it wants that feeling again. This provokes a craving and you want more of that food. And just like an addict, our brains may need MORE each time to get the same "high". Studies have also shown that the number of dopamine receptors may be significantly lower in some people, especially obese individuals. This may make it so that they have to eat even more than a typical person to get the same good feelings (He-ll-ll-ooo binge).

Unfortunately for us bingers, it may not even take actually eating the food to trigger our brains to act up. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Labaratory demonstrated that people who were diagnosed as binge-eaters had elevated levels of dopamine in the caudate region of their brains after just smelling their favorite foods. The significance of this study is that the caudate region of the brain is the reward-seeking center of the brain. The binge-eaters' brains were yelling at them to, "Go get the food!" after smelling it. The control group (non-bingers) did not have any elevation in ther dopamine levels (damn them!). I was talking to my friend Jenny about this and we are both convinced that all it takes is seeing food on t.v., or even thinking about it, to make our caudate regions go all dopamine-rush on us.

Another theory has been proposed by a woman named Kathryn Hansen who fought her own lengthy battle with bulimia. She also believes that many people who engage in binge-eating are prompted by a less than ideally working brain. She believes that for herself and many others, the actual act of bingeing is enough to establish patterns in the most base parts of our brains. Especially if this behavior started in childhood or adolescence. In essence, when we first binge, we are teaching our brains that this pattern of eating is normal. Our brains subsequently tell us to keep eating even when it is unreasonable to do so. So for many of us, the binge-eating isn't a symptom but rather, it's own cause.

For some of us, bingeing is a result of brain chemistry and structural activity that isn't working quite right. For me, this was a liberating finding. I am not just weak or repressing some sort of trauma in my past. Trying harder isn't the answer for me. It may not be the answer for you either. In part 2 of this post, I will share my findings on how to deal with this issue and explain my personal plan of attack.