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When I was about 9 or 10 years old growing up outside New Haven, Connecticut, the highlight of most days was when Charlie’s Traveling Candy Store would come rolling through the low-income housing projects. Each afternoon I would eagerly await Charlie’s white step van and use my paper route money to buy Jujyfruits, Necco Wafers, Milky Ways, Wise Potato Chips and glass bottles of Coca-Cola and Bubble-Up sweetened with real sugar instead of High Fructose Corn Syrup. I would then take this treasure trove back to my bedroom and gorge on it unsupervised. Every day was Halloween. And while it turned out to be a quick and dirty way to stimulate my pleasure circuits and regulate the stresses of growing up daily in a very dangerous environment, little did I or anyone else realize the myriad ways in which that early conditioning would ultimately adversely impact my body and brain.
For the last 18 years or so, I’ve struggled with my weight as a neurally conditioned consequence of those early acquired sugar, starch and fatty habits. My normal playing weight up until around age 45 was between 175-185 pounds. When I stopped actively working as a homebuilder, slowly and slyly my weight began creeping up…190…195…200. I righteously promised myself I would never exceed 200 pounds. Imagine the shame and self-loathing when I stepped onto the scale this past January and saw a readout of…242! And I’m not even someone genetically predisposed to disliking exercise. The good news is: I’m not to blame – my astrocytes are! And if my astrocytes are smart, they will cop a plea and point their tendrils at…the microbiome in my gut. There’s speculation that the bacteria there, which outnumber my body’s cells 100-1, invented humans to be moving feedlots; they also get room and board and neighborhood tours, while constantly making decisions for me about what they think I ought to eat. All without telling me; keeping me mostly clueless, as this exonerating research suggests. It’s partly why being fat has worked so powerfully to keep me fat for so long.
What to do?
The past 18 years have essentially been an exploration of what not to do – any of 10,000 things that haven’t actually helped to reduce and manage my weight gain – from partnering with a nutritionist, to cleansing fasts, to restoration retreats, to mindfulness-based weight reduction programs – none of it has produced lasting change. Only recently the problem had become urgent: it was undeniably adversely impacting my brain functioning. For too many days I would find myself walking around in a brain fog. Not to mention my firsthand knowledge of the relationship between depression, dementia and obesity.
Then, one day I heard child neuro-psychiatrist Bruce Perry proclaim, “No matter what business you’re in, first and foremost, you’re in the brain change business!” Bingo! The lights went on. In order to effectively be in the weight maintenance and management business, of course I need to be in the brain change business. All those trips to Charlie’s Traveling Candy Store had worked powerfully day after day to change my brain, providing an effective, short-term way to regulate stress. Back then I was changing my brain reactively, unconsciously. Now I would have to do the work of changing my current brain for the better, consciously. I would have to find and begin to implement ways of regulating stress that did not produce adverse, unintended consequences. Several important and surprising keys presented themselves once I began investigating, none of which had I found in mainstream “diet research.”
Even though there’s great disagreement among scientists about exactly what makes people fat, there’s one thing I feel pretty confident about: people who can easily manage weight have brains that are different from yours and mine (that they have bodies that are different is pretty obvious). One reason (among a cornucopia) that diets don’t work is because unless you deliberately take steps to change the neural circuitry in your brain and body, you’ll end up with pretty much the same brain at the end of the diet as when you began. If you believe the statistics Katy Couric provides in the documentary Fed Up, 67% of Americans are currently obese or overweight, but in 20 years 95% will be. 95%! Why? Because they’re trying (or not) to fix the wrong problem(s). I find little solace in having such a great amount of company in my weight management struggle, one that feels like it’s a true, frog-boiling National Emergency. And while that movie and many so-called experts believe that effective weight loss and management is a many-headed hydra, I believe much the opposite – that it’s essentially a developmental disorder. One important aspect is developing creative ways to effectively restore and rebuild what former drug addict and neuroscience professor Marc Lewis (Memoirs of an Addicted Brain) suggests is our “No” circuitry. No circuitry is made up of real neural fibers in the brain that get laid down in childhood when we have healthy parents supervising our development. Such parents have kind, firm and effective ways of verbally and non-verbally telling us “No!” In effect, what those parents are doing is serving as our external orbital prefrontal cortex – “No” Command Central. It’s this part of the brain most associated with effective planning and no-bullshit impulse control – the part of the brain most easily able to adamantly and compassionately say “No” and mean NO to unhealthy, impulsive urges like a late night run up Highway 525 to DQ (Dairy Queen). This is one part of the brain most vulnerable to the above adverse astrocyte effects (Adverse astrocyte effects are also apparently affecting our pets, as more than 50% of them are obese as well!).
Experimenting with What Works
For the last ten months I have been deliberately experimenting with things that are proving to be good and useful for me to do in order to manage my weight, i.e. change my brain. From watching movies like Katy Couric’s, to reading books like Alexander Junger’s Clean, to buying a stress measuring monitor (Spire – a device that measures breath and assesses stress; Steve Porges, of polyvagal theory fame, serves as a consultant; then there’s FitBit and MyFitnessPal; also, a free app I use on my iPhone called 24/7). I also plan to investigate Apple’s Healthkit when it’s available. I’m even experimenting with Soylent, the food substitute. They are all moving me in the direction of becoming a bio-engineered human, which isn’t as distasteful as it might seem if I make a game out of it (What I didn’t bother with were scammy things like Body Mass Index (BMI), national, celebrity-pitched products like Garcinia Cambogia or the Absolute Coffee Cleanse or high-priced programs like 20-20 Lifestyles that are super-complicated and require a 6-month commitment and a travel ban). I also eat out less, since eating out correlates with overeating.
From that high of 242, I have been on a gradual descent, essentially in two-pound increments over the last ten months that have me currently at 210 pounds. Weight management isn’t about how much I weigh (except for when it is). It’s about changing my brain so that what I used to eat that made me fat, no longer drives my neurophysiology. I have grown new cells and brain connections that prefer the taste of healthy food in moderation. And there’s an unexpected added bonus: my sense of smell has returned along with my sense of physical balance! Since the time and effort I put in doesn’t feel particularly onerous or stressful – more like a curious experiment – I expect this descent to continue until I manage to get back close to my playing weight of 185. That may or may not be an ideal weight for me. My brain and body will decide, and it will be a good decision as both become increasingly healthier. I’ll just continue doing my best to keep experimenting with this course-correcting, brain remodeling trajectory.
Note: This coming January, I’m going to be offering four sessions on How a Social Neuroscientist Manages Weight. The material is designed and intended to prove unique to you and your specific brain and body. Check it out HERE. If managing weight is currently a struggle, directly and indirectly affecting many areas of your life, I hope you’ll join me as we explore why changing our brain first makes much more sense than constantly battling with our fat cells.