Weight loss a challenge of mind over matter

Qualicum Beach coach says brain holds key to a healthy body

This is the first in a series of reports on weight loss and health that will be published by The NEWS throughout January. Look for additional coverage in the Spotlight section each week.

Despite what we’ve all been led to believe at some point, losing weight is not as simple as “eating less and exercising more.” This is a mindset that affects so many in their weight-loss journey, and over the years I have met many people who have cycled through the emotional rollercoaster ride of “yo-yo” dieting. Going through this experience leaves most people with the misconception that they are weak, or lack willpower. This is simply not true.

I hope to give a brief glimpse into the three main causes of weight gain that make the “battle of the bulge” just that, a battle. And by doing so to stop the unnecessary pain people experience from beating themselves up over repeated attempts at weight loss.

Related: Two free weight loss seminars in Qualicum Beach Jan. 15 and 22

First, let’s have a look at the terms obese and overweight. Obesity is the medical term for a person having a Body Mass Index (BMI= kg/m2; a screening tool that compares weight with height) of 30 or more. Overweight is defined as a BMI between 25 to 29. For example; a person (man or a woman) who is 5’ 10” and weighs 210 lbs. or more, would be considered “obese”. If this person weighed 175lbs, he or she would be considered “overweight.” Though, like every rule, there are some exceptions, such as those who have a lot of muscle or are older adults.

Most people, and even some health-care professionals, believe that losing weight is simply a matter of eating less and exercising more. The truth is, losing weight and keeping it off is far more complex. Let’s have a quick look at the three main causes of weight gain; your genetics and biology, your environment, and your behaviours — keeping in mind that eating and exercising are behaviours.

• Genetics and biology:

1) People who have a direct family member who is ‘obese’ are two to three times more likely to develop obesity themselves.

2) Hunger is something people often struggle with. There are a number of hormones and neuropeptides (chemical messengers) in our bodies that tell us when we are hungry and when we are full. Two of the hormones involved are leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is a hormone that signals to the brain that we are full, essentially telling us to, “Back away from the food, you’ve had enough to eat!”

Ghrelin works in the opposite way. It tells our brain that we are hungry. Its message is, “Feed me!” When someone puts on too much weight, especially around the midsection, over time their body becomes desensitized to leptin. Even if your body is making lots of leptin, your brain isn’t getting the message and therefore doesn’t know that your stomach is full. Yet the ghrelin is still in full effect and the only message your brain is getting is, “I am still hungry, feed me!”

This can create a challenge for people when attempting to reduce their food intake, because they continue to feel hungry. Added to that, when a person has some success with weight loss through diet, their ghrelin levels go up, further increasing their hunger.

3) Our bodies each have a weight “set point.” This is typically the highest weight we stayed at for a long period of time. Our bodies get used to this weight, and they like it. If you lose weight, your body will fight a vicious battle against you to regain it. , often plus some. The body pulls out the big guns, and fights using a complex system between your brain and hormones. It will do things such as increase your hunger and slow down your metabolism to make you put the weight back on. Willpower alone is no match for this system.

• The environment:

We live in what is called an “obesogenic” environment. Our environment literally promotes weight gain! We are exposed to food every day that is high in added fat and sugar, cheap, convenient, and served in large portions. We no longer have to hunt, gather, grow, or harvest our food.

• Our own behaviour. In their book Obesity: Evaluation and Treatment Essentials, Steelman and Westman describe obesity as a problem of the brain rather than of the belly. Research is showing that our neurobiology and neurology — the structure and function of the brain that creates our thoughts, emotions, behaviours and habits — play a major role both in why we gain weight, and why it is hard to lose weight. This ties into our biology and genetics.

Of the three main causes of weight gain, behaviour is the one we have most control over. I cannot overemphasize, however, that gaining control over your behaviours does not start with finding the perfect diet. It starts in your brain.

The way we eat is driven by habits, which are learned behaviours stored in our brain . These learned behaviours literally shape the structure of our brain and the way it is programmed. Most often, these learned behaviours and habits were taught to us though our experiences, people who raised us, our peers, and our culture.

Our habits are repeated behaviours, thoughts, and emotions. We do them on an automatic basis, without much thought. As an example, a habit may be putting ice cream or a frozen pizza in your shopping cart every time you go grocery shopping, turning to food whenever you feel sad or stressed, reacting with fear whenever you are given a new challenge, or telling yourself, “I can never get it right.”

When people try to lose weight by starting a new behaviour, the brain fights back; it wants you to keep doing the things it is programmed to do.

Broken down, it becomes clearer that losing weight is not as simple as just eating less and exercising more. Diet and exercise are important when it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, but they are only two pieces of a bigger puzzle.

It is important to get a glimpse into why it is hard to lose weight, in order to help you realize that your struggle is not a reflection of your lack of willpower or weakness. Your biology and genetics, environment, and the way your brain is “programmed” are all at play. Please be aware that there is much more that can be said about each of these causes, but for brevity’s sake, I only lightly touched on a few points. Other factors that come into play include sleep, stress, medications, health conditions, and pain.

My message to you is: You are not weak!

There are many things that make it difficult to lose weight, and even more difficult to keep it off. Weakness is not one of them! I want to leave you with hope, and the understanding that there are many strategies that can help you lose weight and keep it off.

Here are just a few, but worthwhile strategies.

First, you can’t change what you’re not aware of. Become aware of the triggers that make you want to eat, your habits, and your sabotaging thoughts. Clean up your environment by getting unhealthy foods out of your house or workplace.

Second, a couple brief points on diet and exercise. We cannot completely overlook these things. Research shows that there is no one perfect diet that everyone should be following. The right diet for you is one that is healthy, one that contains fewer calories than what you were eating before, one that you enjoy, and one that you can follow for the rest of your life. Take it one step at a time.

When it comes to which produces more weight loss, diet or exercise, Steelman and Westman state exercise typically accounts for about two to 20 per cent of your weight loss. The rest will come from your diet. With that said, exercise is still hugely important for your overall health, for weight loss, for preventing gaining the weight back, and your mental well-being. Trying to lose weight without exercising, or at least some form of physical activity, is like fighting a battle with one hand tied behind your back. For those of you whose body will allow you to exercise, or to at least be physically active for short periods of time, make it part of your weight loss plan.

Some people may also require medication and/or surgery as part of their weight-loss plan. Consider talking to your doctor or nurse practitioner about these options. It is important to note that there is no “magic pill” for weight loss. There are very few medication options, each of which can come with side effects and are not always cheap.

Finally, reprogram your brain. Neuroscience research shows that even simple things such as visualization of your goal, optimistic thoughts, getting enough sleep, and relaxation can literally change the neurology and neurobiology of your brain, and help you to turn the battle into a journey.

— Kirstin McKinnon is a Qualicum Beach-based nurse practitioner, NSHC-certified health coach and BCRPA-certified personal trainer who operates McKinnon Health Solutions. www.weightlossqb.ca.


Clients of McKinnon Health Solutions are greeted by a positive message when visiting the home office of Qualicum Beach weight-loss practitioner Kirstin McKinnon. — J.R. Rardon photo

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