Why Overeating Doesn’t Make You Fat (and What Does)

Why Overeating Doesn’t Make You Fat (and What Does)

The human body is designed to gain weight and keep it on at all costs. Our survival depends on it. Until we acknowledge that scientific fact, we will never succeed in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

Doctors and consumers alike believe that overeating and gluttony are the causes of our obesity epidemic. Science tells a different story: it is not completely your fault if you are overweight.

Powerful genetic forces control our survival behavior. They are at the root of our weight problems. Our bodies’ weight control systems are designed to produce dozens of molecules that make us eat more and gain weight whenever we have the chance – not to lose it.

We have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years under conditions of food scarcity, not overabundance. Our genes and molecules that control our eating behaviors are shaped by those times.

Basically, we are genetically designed to accumulate fat based on the days when we had to forage for food in the wild. Ignoring that fact becomes hazardous to both our health and our waistlines.

Furthermore, the food industry and our government’s recommendations are fueling this feeding frenzy. We cannot expect to change our instinctual responses to food any more than we can eliminate a feeling of terror when confronted with danger.

Think about this: we have hundreds of genes that protect us from starvation, but very few that protect us from overeating.

It all seems backwards, doesn’t it? If we remain genetically engineered to gain weight, then it would seem that we are wired incorrectly.

Why are we designed to overeat and grow fat? It all comes down to the oldest and most primitive part of our brain, our limbic, or “lizard,” brain. This is the part of your brain that evolved first, and it’s like a reptile’s brain. It governs your survival behaviors, creating certain chemical responses that you have no conscious control over.

While you might think you are in complete control of your mind, the truth is that you have little control over the unconscious choices you make when you are surrounded by food.

The key to a healthy metabolism is learning what those responses are, how they are triggered, and how you can stop them. You don’t want to put yourself in the position of resisting the lure of a bagel. Your drive to eat it will overwhelm any willpower you might have about losing weight. It is a life-or-death experience in your mind, and the bagel will always win.

One of the most important principles of weight loss is to never starve yourself. The question is whether you're eating enough of the right calories, not if you're eating too many calories. What you need is a baseline for how much you have to eat to keep your body from going into starvation mode.

Nobody chooses to be a heroin addict, cokehead, or alcoholic. Nobody chooses to have a food addiction either. These behaviors arise from primitive neurochemical reward centers in the brain that override normal willpower and, in the case of food addictions, overwhelm the ordinary biological signals that control hunger.

Why is it so hard for obese people to lose weight despite the social stigma; despite the health consequences such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and even cancer; and despite their intense desire to lose weight?

Not because they want to be fat. It is because in the vast majority of cases, certain types of food—processed foods made of sugar, fat, and salt combined in ways kept secret by the food industry—are addictive. We are biologically wired to crave these foods and eat as much of them as possible

10 Strategies to Stop Overeating and Lose Weight

Fortunately, a number of tips can help you normalize your eating behavior so that you neither overeat nor under-eat. Thankfully, none of them involve counting calories (or counting anything)! Below are the strategies that have helped thousands of my patients lose weight, keep it off, and reduce their risk for diabesity.

  1. Cut out the processed stuff and eat real, whole foods. The single most important thing to lose weight and avoid overeating is to include as many real, whole, unprocessed foods in your diet as possible. Starting right now, make the switch to these foods to lose weight: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, olive oil, organic, range, or grass-fed animal products (poultry, lamb, beef, pork, eggs), and wild, smaller fish such as salmon.
  2. Eat breakfast. Skipping breakfast means you’re starving yourself, and throughout the day you eat way more food than needed to feel full. To optimize health and weight loss, you need to eat breakfast to spread out food intake evenly throughout the day, and to not eat for at least two hours before bed. A recent study found that almost 3,000 people who lost an average of 70 pounds and kept it off for six years ate breakfast regularly. Only four percent of people who never ate breakfast kept the weight off.
  3. Eat mindfully. We need to be in a relaxed state for the nervous system of our gut or digestive system to work properly. Eating while we are stressed out makes us fat, both because we don’t digest our food properly and because stress hormones slow metabolism and promote fat storage, especially of belly fat. We also tend to overeat when we eat quickly, because it takes the stomach 20 minutes to signal the brain that we are full.
  4. Moderate or eliminate alcohol. Taking a holiday from alcohol, besides getting rid of additional sugar calories, will help you tune in to your true appetite and prevent you from overeating.
  5. Become aware of trigger foods. For some of us, that one little can of soda sets us on a downward spiral to overeating and all of the negative health consequences that come with it. It isn’t just the processed, sugary foods and drinks that become triggers. Even healthy foods, if you have a tendency to binge on them, can quickly become unhealthy. A handful of almonds are perfectly healthy, but eating half a jar will do you more harm than good.
  6. Keep a journal. Journaling is an excellent way to get in touch with your inner motivations, break the cycle of mindless eating and activity, and be honest, accountable and present to yourself. We often overeat because something is eating away at us. We stuff ourselves with food in order to stuff our feelings away. We use food to block feelings, but you can use words to block food. You can write in order to better metabolize your feelings so they don’t end up driving unconscious choices or overeating. A diet of words and self-exploration often results in weight loss. You metabolize your life and calories better.
  7. Get sufficient sleep. Get eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. You’ll find that you’re less prone to cravings and you will normalize fat-regulating hormones. One study found even a partial night’s sleep deprivation contributes to insulin resistance, paving the way for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
  8. Control stress levels. Most of us fail to notice the effects of the chronic stresses we live with every day: demanding jobs, marital tension, lack of sleep, too much to do and too little time to do it. I am sure the list goes on for many. Chronic stress makes us overeat, not to mention overeating the wrong kinds of food, which ultimately leads to weight gain. Learn to actively relax with meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or any other technique that helps you reduce stress.
  9. Exercise the right way. You can’t over-exercise your way out of a bad diet, but the right exercise can help you lose weight, maintain weight loss, and control your appetite so you don’t overeat. Ideally you should do a minimum of 30 minutes of walking every day. Get a pedometer to track your steps. Wear it every day and set a goal of 10,000 steps a day. More vigorous and sustained exercise is often needed to reverse severe obesity and diabesity. Run, bike, dance, play sports, jump on a trampoline, or do whatever is fun for you. Read this blog for a comprehensive, easy-to-implement exercise plan.
  10. Supplement smartly. Obesity and diabetes are often paradoxically states of malnutrition. It has been said that diabetes is starvation in the midst of plenty. The sugar can’t get into the cells, your metabolism is sluggish, and the cells don’t communicate as a finely-tuned team. Nutrients are an essential part of getting back in balance and correcting the core problem — insulin resistance.

Willpower, alone, isn’t enough to prevent you from overeating because the human body is genetically built to crave and cling onto fat. In fact, calorie-restricting diets usually lead to more weight gain and other health problems, especially when the body is forced into starvation mode. If you wish to have better control over your weight and your health, practice healthy habits that’ll gradually help you cut out processed foods, stop mindless eating and start cooking delicious, whole-food recipes. Step-by-step, you can normalize your eating behavior to ensure that you get just the right amount of nutrients.

Practicing Physician, Scholar, New York Times Best Selling Author


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