As an illustration for our lack of free want, binging on hyperpalatable foods always struck me as perfect: It’s relatable. Hardly anyone knows what it feels like to fail time and again to not snort another line, or to finally stay clean from injecting crushed up oxycodone pills into their veins. But many people know what it feels like to diet and to fail. They break their own promises and give into temptation. They seemingly lose their free will, and thus the ability to act rationally. So what’s the difference, really?
Yet we don’t think of ourselves as addicted to food just because we screw up our diet. Only if losing the battle against the urge to overeat takes place outside of our weight-loss attempts, “addiction” becomes a somewhat acceptable term. Compared to alcoholism or heroin abuse though, obesity and bulimia are much more likely to get attributed to a lack of character strength. After all, what it means is essentially breaking your diet over and over again. And since most of us are familiar with dieting, we also know that there is no one to blame but ourselves, right? Drugs might hijack your brain, but food? No. Everyone has to learn to indulge in moderation.
I shared this way of thinking - until I went on a diet for the first time in my life, trying to look better. I failed. Not once, but many times over. If nothing else though, learning why gifted me with a newfound understanding about the inevitability of your biology dictating your behavior - and a whole lot of sympathy for people that I used to blame for this fact.
The question is this: Why don’t fat people just stop eating?
Well, there’s an actual answer to this conundrum. But instead of telling you right away, I’d like to share with you the painful and convoluted story that led me to finding the answer.
The Energy Equation
In accordance with common dieting sense, I withdrew myself from most of the foods I enjoyed and swapped them out for things that I didn’t. Reason being, certain foods make it easier to stay in a window of a negative caloric balance. Keep protein high, so your starving body won’t access your muscles for energy rather than fat, and your good to go. That’s the whole magic behind losing fat.
If anyone tells you otherwise, it’s likely he or she makes a sales pitch for something that promises to circumvent this unpopular fact of life - be it with a drug, a supplement or a book containing controversial and suspiciously more appealing ideas regarding the underlying mechanisms. Of course, if there wasn’t some truth in these things, they would stop selling immediately. So, just for the fun of it, let’s have a look at a random assortment of effective dieting methods which might confuse a person’s understanding of the underlying mechanics. While none of them burn fat themselves, they facilitate your stay in the fat-burning zone - which is all that matters in the end.
Particularly the liquid black variant of this alkaloid solution is practiced and preached as a weight loss aid, conveniently available at every street corner - and although a drug, even at the ones exposed with daylight. So how does it work?
Coffee, of course, contains caffeine. A molecule of the xanthine family, it acts as a mild appetite suppressant and makes you want to move around. In practice, this results in reduced energy intake and increased energy output, a push-and-pull maneuver getting your closer to your weight goals. Its proven safety profile and efficacy is why most readily available dieting pills consist of this white, anhydrous powder as their main ingredient, with their amounts varying strongly between brands. As a general rule of thumb: The more cringy the product design, the more caffeine it contains.
Also good to know: If the package talks about making you ripped, they mean your wallet. Because compared to all other sources (including coffee), the powder is a ridiculously cheap commodity that you can buy in bulk for a fraction of the price. Cutting the middleman is what the sellers fear, so they throw in some vitamins, amino acids, minerals and a whole range of placebo for good measure - gotta make it look like some thought was put into their formula. But reality doesn’t bend so easily: Most of the extra stuff lack the quantity to do anything, while for some of it, there exists no such amount.
Odd as it may seem, there’s actually a magical pill that burns fat without you doing anything. Cause there’s caffeine’s slight increase in metabolic rate and motivation to not stuff yourself with Oreos, and then there’s 2,4-Dinitrophenol. It is perhaps the most effective way to supplement your dieting aspirations - which also happens to be one of the most uncomfortable ways to accidentally kill yourself.
DNP blocks energy production on a cell level through inhibiting ATP production. This means the food you eat won’t be stored as energy in your body, but gets radiated as heat - and you really, really hot. But not only because your abs suddenly became visible: If you end up taking too much of this stuff, the only antidote doctors know of is prescribing you an ice bath. Otherwise, with no countermeasures taken, the fate awaiting you is one of burning to death from within. You might say, you don’t care, because that’s what you’re used to doing anyway. So if this way of exiting the game isn’t dramatic enough for your taste, DNP’s explosive properties might do the job.
Then there’s diet gurus and their respective sects. In order to become one yourself, all you need to do is take certain foods or food groups and market them as the new miracle cure. Your bible will contain the instruction to eat nothing else at the expense of every other edible things out there. What makes this so devious? The fact that the effectiveness of such an approach has zilch to do with any magic properties of the food you limit yourself to. The more likely explanation: If you replace everything in your diet, your probably cutting some of the fattening stuff as well. E.g., if a person is only allowed to eat carrots, most people will stop when they’re sated - which they should do in the first place. Of course, this is easier said than done - otherwise, fad diets wouldn’t exist.
In the end, though, they all just reframe this same old principle with some new twist or gimmick, and it continues to happen with any vegetable in the book. As long as there are people who cling onto the hope that some obscure nightshade will get them slim, the cash cow of people's weight aspirations will continue to get milked with this most profane of methods.
By now, it should become clear that whenever one of these fat-loss-methods work, it’s because they acknowledge physics as the authority on the matter. But using the position of the scroll bar on the right as an indicator, it doesn’t look like I believe this is the whole story. It is only the important, but uninteresting part.
Remember Gary Taubes? He has written a few books that attempt to disregard calories as the focal point of any weight loss attempts. And although his hypothesis have been more or less rejected as bad science, he made an important point along the way that not a lot of literature on the topic pays enough attention towards. It goes like this: “Saying people become obese because they eat more calories than they expend is like saying Bill Gates is rich because he made more money than he spent.“
Put differently: If eating less is all it takes, why don’t people do it?
The easy answer that allows people to dismiss this question is that people are insatiable pigs. Apparently, some of them more so than others. However, this is exactly the kind of circular reasoning that halts progress on the front of the obesity debate. So let’s try again:
Before fatty acids get transported in and out of the fat cells, something else causes them to do so. Human behavior. Which makes everything involved in shaping it the cause for fat loss, fat gain and all the pathological manifestations on their respective ends. People do not not fail their diets because they aren’t aware of how calories work. People who are obese don’t. And I didn’t. So let me show you why.
Driven by my ideal, I managed to stick to a low-calorie diet for many weeks: I was eating within a set daily allowance, exercising to broaden said allowance and keeping my muscles entertained so they wouldn’t atrophy from boredom. At around two months in, I looked better than ever. So did the food around me. And what began as an almost perfectly executed journey, soon was sprinkled with various hiccups: A handful of brazil nuts too many a day; impulsive emptying of a milk bottle; grasping an extra banana. Innocent acts of dietary delinquency that weren’t that impactful in the grand scheme of things; but they pointed to a problem larger than their calorie count: My ability to resist these temptations seemed to vanish with every ounce of fat I lost, only to then return with a vengeance. Knowing full well that small deeds add up, my perfectionism - setting me on this road to begin with - wouldn’t allow to see past these occurrences. Letting them pass, my hard work would soon come to mean nothing - and I didn’t even get a photo of the final product yet.
Naturally, I tried to correct any mistake at the next opportunity: One calorie too many today shall equal less calorie the next day as a consequence. All in accordance with the energy-in, energy-out equation, my credo for success. As well as it worked on paper, it somehow didn’t materialise in the real world. Instead, the leaner I got, the faster the frequency increased with which I went over my caloric budget. Which was, of course, completely contrary to my goals and thus quite irrational. Why did I do this?
There was this sense of a cosmic rearrangement of priorities that preceded every food craving and subsequent binge. No matter how convinced I was to restrain myself beforehand, minutes later an overwhelming want made me completely indifferent to doing anything but giving in. After which I was overcome with a dreadful sense of failure and the painful stings of cognitive dissonance. This should become evident in the terrible quality of rationalizations I made up in order to indulge. “Screwed up, might as well continue.” became the standard excuse I defaulted to - which made astonishingly much sense in one moment, only to be scaringly inconceivable after the damage was already done.
With my appetite irresistible drawing me towards overeating, it didn’t take long before I ran out of enough hours in the day in order to compensate for my wrongdoings. Atonement for these caloric sins became an increasingly difficult feat to pull off, for its scale reached proportions I wasn’t aware I could ever commit to. While the first few instances of overeating were in the ballpark of acceptable, one such mishap was not: One time, I ran out of anything remotely healthy to binge on - a dangerous situation to be in when a food craving hits you. In a manic attempt to calm the insatiable monster inside me, I combed through the kitchen drawers of a family who couldn’t care less about the dangers of white bread. I used to condemned them for not doing so. But right now though, my hedonistic impulses delighted in their non-compliance.
Expecting to celebrate the switch to the dark side with a bunch of delicious junk, I was stunned that, for once in this life, this house was lacking any food at all. All I was left with were the most basic kitchen ingredients, my creativity and a down-regulated disgust center. (Mind you, no cooking skills on this list.) Necessity begets ingenuity, or at least willingness to lower your definition of acceptability - which would more adequately describe what I did next: Reducing my tongue’s taste standards to disaccharides and water-in-oil emulsions - read: sugar and butter.
Congratulatulations if you never had to find out yourself - but in the depths of hunger, you stop discriminating where calories come from - they will taste amazing on their own. Which will make the most efficient routes of delivering them also the most rewarding ones - like, say, eating ounces of butter with a spoon. While my pancreas and gallbladder probably still suffer PTSD to this day, my brain didn’t care: It got a taste of gustatory bliss that can only be achieved in times of severe enough caloric deprivation, hooking me with the blessings of ultra-palatability.
Having developed this strange habit of sending the hedonistic hot-spots in my brain into overdrive with the most crude of food components, I started thinking: The obscenely high caloric density of butter is just another instance of men’s habit to take something innocent, and concentrate its rewarding stimuli in order to get more pleasure, faster. Take the coca plant, for example: While chewing its leaves is mildly habit forming, snorting cocaine a money sink and smoking crack a good excuse to start a commune, shooting the pure compound into your veins quickly makes any other activity fade into pure tediousness - even snorting cocaine.
While dieting, I lost my understanding for how the mere texture of something edible wouldn’t suffice to fulfills each one of the gustatory wishes a person could have. In fact, I began to develop a sense of contempt for people’s snobby demands for a certain quality of food: They insisted on luxuries like milk, meat, herbs and so on I seemingly could max out my enjoyment by simply eating what my philistine reptilian brain deemed the most energy dense. Things didn’t have to taste “good” anymore in order to make me gorge on them. In fact, food tasting good started to sound like tautology - if it tasted at all, I was a happy man.
My capacity to enjoy foods expanded proportionally to the surface area of my gut. I knew I had outdone myself once more when, - after one late night binge - it felt difficult to move from point A to point B without feeling as if endangering the structural integrity of my intestines. Forced to remain in a state of immovability, I executed a Google search to calm myself down. This worked only moderately well - there were find a handful of cases of people dying of an exploding stomach. It surely didn’t take much more for me to become a NCBI entry as well. As horrible as the abdominal cramps were horrible, they were no match for the psychological pain of knowing that it became physically impossible to continue eating. I still wasn’t full.
Surprisingly not having signed my own death sentence that night - a testament to the latex like properties of the human stomach - the feeling of utter self-defeat made doing so a tempting alternative: Thousands of calories queued up to be either stored externally visible on my abdomen or to be combated in a pain-inducing session of aerobic exercise - the pain of which was little compared to the knowledge of wearing my pledge of failure for everybody to see. Thus, running at 3 AM became opportunity I was eager to take - even though I was well aware that an hour of intense cardio exercise could only rid me of a fraction of the excess energy about to get stored into my body.
Helping me deal with the psychological aftermath was swearing to never do it again. Sadly - as anyone who ever did something regrettable knows - this belief’s expiration date is rather short lived. Sure, I might have absolved myself from yesterday’s mistakes, but come the next, it didn't take long for the same behavioral algorithm to be set in motion again. Telling myself that this was the last time became just as much a part of the routine as the overeating itself and the aerobic exorcisement of my bad conscience.
All of a sudden, I had to deal with a much larger problem. I somehow became a notorious binge eater.
Enjoy Your Meal
Not only did I manage to tick every box of the DSM’s requirement for eating disorders, growing impulsivity made me a candidate for its segment on drug addiction as well. In fact, the scope of a drug addict's impetuosity seemed very similar to mine - so much so that any distinguishment to binge-eating-disorder felt superfluous: I was eating food in secrecy, compromised social activities to deal with the aftermath of a binge and felt truckloads of shame. Not to mention the obligatory, declining dose-response curve, attestable by the ever-increasing volume of food my stomach could contain. All caused by the compulsive and irresistible need to indulge in my vice of choice.
Truth be told, this was a period that looks foggy and anachronistic every time I think about it. I guess that’s just what happens if you do the same thing all and every day - your brain encodes these repetitive memories in a space efficient manner, and instead of remembering different days, you remember one day and the fact that you repeated it for 6 months. The one I remember consists of me eating the most outrageous amounts of things and engaging in similarly absurd activities to rid myself of the consequences my impulses afforded me.
You might not understand why I didn’t simply stop - or any addict, for that matter. But that’s what defines an addiction - ‘cause I myself couldn’t grasp my own irrationality. The desire to eat and eat and eat was a feeling that swept everything else away. It wasn’t that I didn’t knew about the consequences - they just lost their emotional weight when I was confronted with the urge. It seemed as if the more primal parts of my brain hijacked my reasoning capabilities, conspiring against my conscience and shutting dow my rationalty down, so the rest of my body could continue to gorge.
Something had to be done. But complete abstinence - which I had gladly chosen - wasn’t viable. It might be the best antidote to addiction - but being addicted to something your life depends on obviously complicates the whole affair: You can not simply quit eating. Instead, a food addict has to taste blood just to deny it to himself - because he won’t ever become satisfied anyway. So I decided that the situation was serious enough to warrant a pharmacological intervention. Because having learned anything in life, it’s that the answer for most of its problems can be found in some obscure drug. (To be fair, some of its causes as well.) Naturally, there exist a lot of drugs for treating obesity. While I wasn’t obese, my brain sure as heck had to start resembling the one of somebody who is. And I greeted any chance for redemption with a warm heart, no matter its side effects.
A New Hope
My independent research led me to avoid the psychiatrist’s office like the plague. In all likelihood, all they would have offered me was some kind of garden variety antidepressant. But I wasn’t overeating because I was depressed; I was depressed because I was overeating. Explaining this seemed like a lost cause, so I decided to take it into my own hands. I chose the traditional route: Next to a panoply of other neurological effects, the poster child of stimulant drugs - amphetamine - has a hardly matched power to suppress your appetite. An Information I stumbled upon per accident, about which I already talked at length.
Let me tell you, self-medicating worked brilliantly: The drug became integral to conquering my newly-acquired eating problem. The ravenous appetite was gone for most of the day and the frequency of binges reduced to a manageable degree. However: While my hunger signals were certainly turned down a notch, this effect alone didn’t explain why it worked so well for me. In fact, the appetite was still there. But when the desire to overeat announced itself, I could let my better-knowing-self make a decision about whether to let it in or not. That’s a huge distinction. It was less like I didn’t want to eat, and more like the drug’s hallmark effect of increased motivation translated into an ability to resist my gustatory urges. As if a sense of control came back. I regained the ability to say “No” to my hedonistic impulses - which immediately made me look at my former dietary indiscretions with utter incomprehension. As if a different kind of person sat at the cockpit - someone a lot more willing to sacrifice momentary pleasure for long term satisfaction.
Sadly, committing to live long fetch quests to get this stuff did not seem like an attractive prospect: Largely due its illegality and the body’s suboptimal way of dealing with its regular ingestion. Sooner or later, you will become tolerant towards its effects. Then, you’re left off where you started - with an added amphetamine dependence in your backpack of vices. No, my spine’s suffering enough already. There’s gotta be a better way.
Confined to find a different solution, I was thinking: What was it that the drug - or the diet, for that matter - changed in my brain? I used some of the speed-induced mental stamina to go on another kind of binge; reading & researching, hoping the answer would manifest itself once I just gathered enough information. And sfter having gone through most of the as generic as useless dieting advice about eating intuitively™ , I stumbled upon a place of seemingly infinite resources about the human body, all of which became credible by being in line with my own experience. A place where science, pharmacology and narcissism come together in order to celebrate the perfection of the human body.
The bodybuilder community is the set of mad scientists who use their ambition and knowledge to further their obsessive drive towards aesthetic completion. A strange breed, no doubt. They know their body’s well, but that’s because they have to. They realize: If you want to live comfortably, you have to listen to your body. But if you want to make the most of it, you have to make your body listen to you. While this could be said about any kind of athlete, nowhere does it apply more than in a sport where controlled starvation - a.k.a. dieting - is an integral part of the process to becoming the best. Food, after all, is its most urgent demand.
Of course, many bodybuilders don’t know what they’re doing and simply follow the prescriptions of their fellow trainees - nothing wrong with that. At the same time though, this subculture contains some of the most profound nutritionists, with information about the underlying intricacies of fat loss that most diet books don’t talk about. Which isn’t that surprising once you think about it: No academic has to put his money where his mouth is. His lack of a six-pack won’t be evaluated on a stage, nor will his paycheck depend upon how chiseled his calfs look. Most of all, his ego won’t suffer from a lack of conviction in his beliefs - and what happens if these beliefs aren’t scientifically sound.
So it happens that these guys encompass an admirable awareness of the fact that it requires a number of workarounds to transgress the limitations imposed on us by evolution. One of them being the struggle that presents itself when you try to diet to a level lower than what your body is comfortable with. The struggle, better known as your own psychology.
“So that’s the answer to why diets fail? Because people can’t keep it together? That’s what I said in the beginning!”
Before you feel ripped off like like someone who bought “If you eat at the Refrigerator, pull out a Chair”, hear me out: Obviously, dieting is mentally taxing. Obviously, dieting takes willpower. Anyone who tried knows that. And anyone who failed should be wary of blaming his failure on something else but himself, right? I should know, because I loved to rebel against such statements like “The diet doesn’t work”. It seemed clear to me that this was a misnomer: It can’t be the diet that doesn’t work. As long as you burn more than you eat, everything else is fundamentally trivial in the grand scheme of things - that’s why we discussed it in the beginning. If the diet somehow fails, it must be you who isn’t working. Apparently, you need to get a little more disciplined.
If that is what you think, you’re right - but for the wrong reasons. The worst kind of being right.
While the energy-equation discussed in the beginning remains correct and will continue to do so until the end of times, I intentionally left out one crucial element to the process. So let’s go over it one more time, this time with the boldness of emphasizing: You get fat if your caloric intake is higher than your caloric expenditure. What is the most important part of this sentence? You. The thing who controls the intake in the first place. Because at the end of the day, someone puts the food into you, who, unless in the most dystopian of circumstances, is you yourself. Now, that is disappointing - if we assume you is a constant that never changes. Which it isn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact.
As nothing but a complex machine that changes its workings dependent on hormones and other factors, feedback loops are abound in your body. They control everything - from your ability to breath to the sensation of feeling good when playing video games. This makes you nothing but the unity of a set of behaviors controlled by chemicals working in tandem to achieve evolutionary goals. As it stands for most of the human race, starving is not one of them - which is why your body will do everything possible to stop you from doing it. Since your brain is part and parcel of it, this includes weaponizing your own psychology. Of course, you are more or less “your psychology”, encompassing the concept of your own identity. But as a scientific term, it’s just a high-level, pragmatic abstraction of “your biology” and thus “your body”. It was established for the same reasons we traditionally treat body and soul as two separate entities, because their subtle connections go over our heads - literally.
Why is this of relevance? Because we’re effectively blind to the actual reasons why we do what we do. We only have access to the place where these influences conjure up - our own minds - and try to make sense of them right then and there. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the biological mechanisms underlying them are far more involved then we give them credit for. Any decision you make is based upon a complex chain of previous events within the whole of your body, which only in last instance manifests itself as perception of a choice made on your own accord. Ultimately, this is facilitated by a chemical responsible for the feeling of wanting, convincing you to make said choice. It is called dopamine, famously known as the neurotransmitter integral to reward, motivation and attention.
People often use dopamine as the neurological stand-in for the experience of pleasure, which isn’t really an accurate description of its function. That is to say, it has less to do with pleasure and more to do with the desire to feel pleasure - the urge to initiate an action that is expected to result in a rewarding experience. (Remember, wanting isn’t liking.) Think of it as the biological equivalent if statements: While not necessarily rewarding in itself, its presence makes you expect a reward. Consequently, you continue whatever it is that triggered it. Some of these come are coded into our brains out of the box, others get written by experience and the subsequent generation of synaptic connections. It is the ringing of the Pavlovian bell, which makes it is integral to the neurochemistry of learning.
As one could expect, an endogenous signaling molecule like this is influenced by a whole array of physiological factors: Cortisol, sex hormones, post-sex hormones, you name it. Whatever it is, it will affect the chemicals in your brain, and in turn influence your decision making. What makes this fact so poignant: Fat cells themselves act as hormonal glands. A biological reality with profound implications. And this is why:
By way of using the hormone leptin, fat cells send a signal to the brain, informing it about how much energy the body has available for activities (that aren’t eating). It’s like a thermostat for fat, appropriately enough termed the lipostat. Once you go below the amount of fat your body is comfortable with, there won’t be enough leptin in circulation to make you sated. Lack of leptin receptor activation leads to a whole array of increased hunger hormones. Most importantly, though, it leads to reduced dopaminergic activity in your prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain that is responsible for - you guessed it - willpower. Dieting is full of choices - especially the kind of choices that are hard for us to make, because they require us to sacrifice the presence for the future. Combine that with the physiological changes that affects the body on a very low level and we have our answer as to why people reliably screw up their diets:
The hormonal implications of fat loss itself diminish your capacity to make long term decisions.
So, did you get it? Dieting takes willpower.
No, no, it literally takes it.
Making long term decisions - like, not eating the cake because you want to look good at the party in two weeks - requires self-control. Explained in the simplest manner possible, self-control is just motivation located in the neocortex behind your eyes. Without enough leptin, said part of your brain - supplying you with a motivating vision of the future - gets incapacitated. Circumstances, under which any ideal or aim you have loses its power to guide your actions in the present. It simply cannot compete with the rewards the present promises you, because you simply cannot do any different but to act on your wants. This means that the reason your diet failed is not as straightforward as you being more hungry. Sure, you could put it that way. But doing so undercuts the importance of the interplay between physiology and psychology. After all, if you can resist eating that marshmallow in the beginning of a diet, why couldn’t you at the end of it?
It’s the acute shift in your principles that occurs. It suddenly makes sense to stuff your face, which is attributable to the deprived dopaminergic signaling in the part of your brain that also let’s you resist your hunger. After all, your principles are just as much patterns of electrochemical currents that decide your actions. You might tell yourself “I promised myself not to break my diet. I want to look better.” But remember: How much you want something is the only way you can evaluate something. It is the only metric of comparison you have and thus the source for the paradoxical behavior we engage in. That’s how seemingly irrational sayings like “Screwed up, might as well continue.” get born. Because at this moment, it is not irrational - it is completely in line with your values in this exact moment. Your brain doesn’t care, because it belongs to more people than the you you like to identify most with.
In other words: You starting the diet was driven by the same incentive of you breaking it, cause the animalistic part of your brain gains the upper hand in situations that deem it necessary. Like when you’re starving. Evolution is the reason why we cannot simply stop breathing at will without our autonomic nervous system taking over once things get serious, a process of sorting out anyone who was able to impress other people by not breathing for...well, the rest of their life. And while they become an increasingly rare sight to walk this planet, natural selection still sorts out the kind of people who are able to go on a hunger strike for any allegedly greater cause. Or sheer stubbornness. (I’m looking at you, breatharians.)
To understand the importance of your animalistic urges being able to overwrite your rationality, let’s make an analogy to get the point across.
Picture yourself as the pilot of a plane. There are multiple children in the machine, all screaming and shouting their different wishes out about where they wanna go - demanding you to do their bidding. Normally, you’ve got some kind of authority over them, to prohibit certain things or not take over control of the cockpit. Yet whenever you're too tired, too hungry, too stressed or even a child yourself, the others will easily overtake the cockpit, since not crashing is the highest priority for the survival of your genes. You surely have noticed this many times yourself: The person who sets the alarm is a different one than the one who pushes the snooze button 6 times in a row. And the person who promises himself in the morning that they won’t overeat tonight is a different one than who eats two cans of Ben and Jerry's at 3am.
The more you diet, the less rewarding becomes the expectation of what the diet would bring you - a more attractive body composition - until it goes below the reward expectation of eating, and you fail the diet. At a certain point it doesn’t feel like its worth it anymore to starve yourself - because the worth of doing so is literally and biochemical decreased, since all of these prospects are focused on the future and demand your ability to forego the presence in pursuit of it. But if this ability is compromised, you won’t pull through.
Learning about this intricate way for the body to remain homeostatic, I began to understand why the amphetamine had such a profound effect on my impulse control. It basically compensated for a diet-induced deficit of dopamine within the center responsible for impulse control. This is also in part why people use it as an antidote for hyperactivity and lack of attentiveness. But my use case wasn’t that far off from a medically valid one either: Amphetamine salts and even the methamphetamine euphemism called Desoxyn ® were and still are used in the case of treating obesity. For all of the reasons just mentioned, including their ability to act as a bridge towards a more healthy lifestyle.
However; I was still none the wiser about why my binges didn’t stop, as I actually gained all the weight back and then some. In fact, while I could feel my self-control slowly returning in the weeks afterwards, my appetite remained worryingly intense. By far not as much as it used to, but still: Eating to my heart's content would have made me an obese man in no time. Which made me think.
Folk wisdom taught us: The best diet is the one that doesn’t feel like a diet. But what if every diet feels like one?
Welcome to the mind of an obese person.
Better Fat Than Sorry
Understanding leptin’s place in the story of human eating behavior reveals that almost any dietary habit - pathological or not - consists a side of the same multidimensional coin. Most people will fail a diet once they get below the threshold of a certain bodyweight, or at the very least when they’re dangerously close to starving to death. If, however, this biological safety mechanism backfires, things can get ugly: Ravenous hunger can coexist to adequate or hyper-normal fat levels. Incapacitation of rational eating behavior. Like in the bulimic and the obese.
They aren’t as different as their stereotypic appearance would suggest. In fact, all the greek word bulimia translates to is “hungry like an ox”. Makes sense, cause except for their way of combating their habit - to purge or not to purge -, they essentially suffer the same problem: The inability to act according to their long-term interests when it comes to eating. Addiction, in the truest sense of the word. So what causes them to behave that way if they're not even dieting? Well, in these people, the leptin-moderated “I’m full” signal is either not send or not received properly. This makes it an endocrinological problem, reminiscent of the mechanisms that differentiate the two types of diabetes:
Type I diabetes is a condition where your pancreas is unable to excrete sufficient insulin. There’s not a lot you can do about it, except inject insulin in order to get this crucial hormone. In the same vein, it’s possible for a person to have a genetically caused inability to produce enough leptin: If we engineer a mouse in such a way, it will exhibit behavior reminiscent of that of an obese human - eating without becoming satisfied. Only if given leptin injections, the gluttony will stop. This is the way humans with this specific pathology are treated. If it remains undetected, people become obese in no time flat:
While a normal child may be about 25 percent fat, and a typical child with obesity may be 40 percent fat, leptin-deficient children are up to 60 percent fat. Farooqi explains that the primary reason leptin-deficient children develop obesity is that they have “an incredible drive to eat,” resulting in an exceptionally high intake of calories. In addition, the reward regions of their brains show an exaggerated response to images of calorie-dense, high-reward foods. Leptin-deficient children are nearly always hungry, and they almost always want to eat, even shortly after meals. Their appetite is so exaggerated that it’s almost impossible to put them on a diet: If their food is restricted, they find some way to eat, including retrieving stale morsels from the trash can and gnawing on fish sticks directly from the freezer. This is the desperation of starvation.
(This paragraph sent shivers done my spine when I first read it. This was literally the exact kind of pathological eating behavior I engaged in. I did eat fish sticks from the freezer - and I was desperate to understand what was wrong with me.)
Since for any signal to be sent and processed it needs a receiver as well, the other communication-end can be compromised as well - just like in the case of type II diabetes. Here, the insulin receptors on the cell fatigued so much they stopped responding to insulin. While there’s enough insulin in circulation, the cells became apathetic to the message. With leptin, it’s a similar story: It’s effects are dependent on the correct functioning of the corresponding receptors. These receptors are located in the brain, where the satiety hormone docks onto in order to achieve its effect. If they don’t respond as they should, no signal will be passed on.
What causes them to stop responding? Well, it could either be genetic, or owed to chronic overexposure. Mainly because the brain reacts to too much of it less dramatically than to too little. You might think of this as a design flaw, but it really isn’t. Leptin’s more about not starving than about being sated. This becomes apparent in two different ways: First of all, you can become tolerant to leptin. How? Probably the easiest way is through chronic overfeeding, facilitated by hyperpalatable foods. You simply don’t need to be hungry in order to eat an extra piece of cake - a habit, which - if done on a regular basis will - essentially adjust your lipostat upwards over time. The other one is the time delay with which it acts. Chances are you or someone you know experienced this, as it is the reason yo-yo dieting exists: People get on track to lose weight, succeed, and afterwards, gain back more than they started with. If you don’t know what I’m talking about (you god-damned blessed soul), try this:
Eat nothing for three days. Your leptin levels will stay at continuously normal. You might even feel a little energetic, fuelled by the primal need to be focused on gathering yourself something to eat. Soon though, your levels will plummet into the abyss. Start eating at maintenance again and see how you seemingly lost the ability to be sated. The reason this happens is because it takes longer for leptin to get back to normal than it took for it to decline. A a safe bet in ancient times: Suffering a famine? Better eat as much as you can once you have access to food. That makes it easy to travel in hellish cycles, like seemingly one third of Americans do. These instinctual behaviors - once a beloved institution for survival - simply backfire too easily in the 21st century.
Adding to this unlikely catastrophe are many of the lesser discussed properties of our modern environment: Fructose, for example, is found in almost anything tasty at the supermarket - tragically, it is known for inducing leptin resistance. Combine this with the intrinsic appeal of fat, salt, sugar, umami (the sum of which is greater than their parts), the damaging effect of bad nutrition on your mood, as well as a lack of exercise, and you’ve got yourself the perfect storm at hand.
So, back to the original question: Why don’t fat people stop eating? Because no one would if they were starving. (Needless to say, they wouldn’t starve for about a year or so. But starving and feeling like you’re starving are the same thing, for all intents and purposes. Otherwise, we wouldn’t possess these primal drives.)
So what about someone with the opposite kind of problem? As it happens, this kind of pathology also has a name - Anorexia nervosa. If you guessed that their leptin levels are relatively normal despite a dangerously low body-fat level, you’re right. Of course, there are many factors involved in the development of anorexia. But without enough leptin signaling able to defy the animalistic urge to eat, such degree of undereating would be impossible. This abnormal hormonal profile allows one to pursuit this ideal while foregoing any of the safety mechanisms that normally would create the urge to eat oneself back up to a healthy weight. It’s the polar opposite of obesity, not only in relation to body-fat levels, but also because of the underlying psychology-influencing endocrinology.
Eating: As Much As You Want
If not corrupted by the above described methods, the lipostat is genetically set (even though there are a lot of debates around it. What certainly isn’t disputed is that if you find out how to manipulate it, you will become very, very rich). This means that, under normal circumstances, eating a little more than you need will lead you to literally fidget the extra energy off. Conversely, aating a little less will lead you to unconsciously resemble a sloth, thereby unconsciously decreasing energy expansion. You can observe this yourself by wearing a step counter, showing you your motivation to walk around and do stuff.
The existence of the lipostat solved another mystery that bothered me for ages: Have you ever wondered how people manage to stay at roughly the same weight over the course of their lifetime? Or how can some people seemingly eat as much as they want while staying slim all-year-round? What’s their dirty little secret? Prepare to be disappointed: The answer is completely in line with thermodynamics.
The startling truth is this: Your friend does not lie when he says he eats as much as he wants. It’s just inconceivable to many people that someone wouldn’t want to eat more than the little piece of cake. After all, eating a lot is no scientific unit. If someone very lean told you how they ate all day, this clashes with our perception, because if we (as in I and probably you, the reader) did the same, we’d expand like a balloon. That’s because they have nothing to compare their experience against, except the completely subjective metric of wanting itself. It’s not that if we were in their position, we’d eat any less than we wanted - we’d eat exactly as much as we wanted, which is subjectively the same, but objectively less. Just like we can agree that something has the color red, it still might look different to all of us - an so it is with the experience of satiety.
You might counteract this with observations about watching him eat a whole pizza by himself. What you don’t see is the drastically reduced energy intake the following days. So, if you’re envious of them for their ability to do that, keep in mind that it’s not that they can eat more without getting fat; they just want to eat less. You couldn’t give into your hedonistic dreams either, because they would not exist to the same degree. They might be able to eat much as they want without getting fat; but not as much as you want.
As I alluded to in the beginning: This article is less about dieting and more about your inability to act on anything but your wants. Which becomes immediately apparent once you’re ability to experience the want of a better future vanishes, due to circumstances that make your biology prioritize impulsivity - something that a diet can induce, next to other stressful situations you put your physiology through. Something that (over)eating disorders and failed diets perfectly illustrates - ‘cause if you still think the answer for reducing obesity is more discipline, you didn’t pay attention.
The fact that anyone can refrain from eating like a trash chute is because the system that makes restrain possible isn’t compromised like it is in the people struggling with their eating habits. It all comes down to the fact that what makes you sated is intricately connected with impulse control. The fattest people alive eat just as intuitively as the most derogatory person looking down on them, preaching discipline as the cure-it-all, blissfully unaware that they would act exactly the same way if you removed their leptin system working properly. They would eat all the time, and their rationalizations to do so would be as true to them as the ones they used beforehand this little neurological intervention.
This is a hard to swallow fact for most people, since we like to identify ourselves with the actions we brought the willpower up. But for sentient beings with rational thinking capabilities, reasoning always comes after the fact. Your psyche isn’t stronger than the chemicals in your body, because they are the same thing, for all intents and purposes. You are the part of your brain that tries to lay out reality in a way to allow you to get what you want. You rationalize before and after the fact, and use you cognitive capacity according to the dictum of the nucleus accumbens, your reward system. Reason does not exist in isolation, but with a goal in mind. I like the way Elon Musk put it:
”The neocortex’ agenda is to make the limbic system happy.”
Naturally, with the neocortex running low on power, the limbic system will run the party. Since the conception of you stems largely from your prefrontal cortex, we have just one conclusion to make:
Snickers was right. You're not you when you’re hungry.