What if…

Another line of thought, springing from: What if… I had been told, ‘don’t worry about [my] size’… is more concrete: my actual body size and eating behavior over the years. I was first placed on a diet at age eight and my food intake was restricted for the next ten years by my parents. There was a lot of stigmatizing, teasing by my siblings and parents (there was a post about this last November…) a lot of shame and a concurrent, childhood pattern of ‘secret eating’ began. If your siblings are given ice cream after dinner and you are told that you cannot have any because are too fat, I think that it’s a fairly predictable response from a preteen. It’s the same as hearing: you can’t go out after 8 PM and sneaking out the window to meet your friends; or any other prohibition that triggers a defiant response from a child.

Some forty years ago I first heard about ‘yo-yo dieting’ and the body’s ‘set point’. The most basic explanation made sense to me immediately. It seems obvious that the body needs and expects a certain level of nutrient intake for optimal health. As an organism, it responds to an experience of starvation (read, restrictive diet… and the diets of the late 20th century were certainly restrictive) by drawing on its reserves (stored fat, then muscle) and adjusting its expectations/needs. As I understood the concept at that time, the body changes its ‘set point’ and proceeds to operate in starvation mode. Add a few extra nutrients (calories) and the weight piles on. In the case of yo-yo dieters, where their weight goes up and down repeatedly, the body’s internal regulatory systems get completely messed up.

That’s pretty much how I understood the concept back in the 1970’s: simplistic and undoubtedly containing medical inaccuracies. However, over the years, a lot of research has been done and mountains of literature have been published about the ways in which the body reacts to healthy and unhealthy eating. Remember, overeating and dieting are equally unhealthy eating patterns! I have found much of the latest research into the neurological aspects of this issue is fascinating. One such article crossed my path recently.

“Emmanuel N. Pothos, associate professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics and neuroscience in the Tufts School of Medicine’s Department of Integrative Physiology and Pathobiology and his colleagues are focusing on the reward system in the brain that motivates us to seek out food…”

“When an animal eats a meal, the brain’s food reward system releases dopamine, one of a group of chemicals called neurotransmitters that relay signals between brain cells. Dopamine produces a pleasurable sensation that lets the animal know it has satisfied a primal need.”

“A number of factors can knock the reward system off kilter… Gaining weight and losing weight alter the system… as can certain diseases, including addiction.” (Ah, addiction.)

“Starvation… will alter this reward system’s otherwise tidy feedback loop. When an animal is having a hard time finding enough food… the brain doesn’t want it to feel satisfied after just one meal. The brain wants to compel the animal to keep looking, to keep eating, all day if it can.”     Here is a link to the full article.

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