The Octopus sees nothing but knows all (Weight Part 2)
The second part of a loose series on weight, wellness, and what it all means
The body has two goals, stay alive until tomorrow and, if possible, have a baby. In order to do either one of those efficiently, the body has to know something about the environment. Is there food available, will there be food tomorrow, are there lots of predators, is it really cold out?
But how does the body know anything about the environment? The intellectual knowledge that comes from vision--seeing aisles and aisles filled with food at the grocery store--doesn't get communicated to the body. The body want to know that it's not starving, and not likely to starve tomorrow either.
The body takes its cues from what we eat, and how we eat. Frequently hungry and not eating until you're full? Better start taking emergency action because we're in the middle of a famine. Eating an abundance of sweet and starchy things? Excellent, it's clearly summer time so we can bulk up for the future scarcity of winter.
(Interestingly, another way the body learns about the environment is through our movement or lack thereof. Always sitting at a computer? The body will make adaptations--shortening the hip flexors, lengthening the muscles in the upper back--to make it easier to hold that position for hours on end. And we wonder why we're in pain...)
The Octopus is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
From our perspective, dieting just makes sense. Eat less and move more so that we burn more calories than we take in and therefore lose weight. As they say, it's just simple math.
But from the body's perspective, there's something different happening.
We go on a diet. We're hungry and never seem to get enough to eat. As far as the body is concerned, this is the start of a famine. The body doesn't understand voluntarily eating less when there's food available. If this is a famine, the body needs to protect it's resources as well as give us a kick in the pants to find food.
After some time on the diet--which might just be a single insufficient meal, or maybe a day or a week--we become obsessed with food. We use willpower to stick to the diet, but it's just not enough. Eventually we can't do it any more. We fall face-first into a box of doughnuts, or bag of potato chips, or package or cookies. We binge--because our body is so relieved that it finally is getting some food and isn't starving to death any longer.
Now that the body has experienced starvation, it automatically starts a savings account for rainy days--that is, it devotes resources to building up the fat supply in order to be ready for the next famine. It would be foolish not to, of course, because starvation can kill you, and certainly makes it impossible to have a baby. Since the body will do anything to survive, it stores up fat just in case. And to be prudent, it also leans a little harder on the appetite, making you a little more likely to eat and more likely to eat those efficient, calorically dense foods with sugar and fat and starch. As far as the body is concerned, doughnuts are money in the bank.
Then we go back to the diet. The body recognizes a famine and boots up the same emergency procedures as before. Hold tight to resources (by making us tired so we'll stop burning up energy), and focus all our attention of getting food. The need for survival will overcome the limits of willpower, and we'll find ourselves eating desperately once again.
Rescued from the famine, the body sets about recovering and preparing for the next one.
Our logical brain is ashamed of our constant failure to lose weight and keep it off.
Our body is damned proud of the reserves that it's built up against the next famine, but confused about the mixed signals it's been receiving for years. Or decades. It's kept us alive, despite the constant threat of starvation. Maybe it's even managed to make some babies. It doesn't mind that it's paid for that success with increasingly poor health. As long as we get enough to eat for today, and save up some fat so we can get through the famine that it knows is coming tomorrow, the body has done its job.
The body has no way of knowing that it was never in any real danger of starving, and that it's emergency procedures has caused us both heartache and heart disease.
I don’t want to just flat out end here, because it’s depressing: weight-loss through dieting and willpower is doomed to failure because the body WILL survive this famine, and the next one too.
The thing is, though, that we’re thinking about things wrong. We’re trying to strong-arm our way to health, instead of just… being healthy. I’ll be looking more at what that means, and how we can communicate more effectively with our bodies so that we can work together as a team for both long term and short term health. Stay tuned.