My favorite author released a book this week called The Body, and I'm already halfway through it. In a chapter about the chemistry in our bodies, the always reliable and insightful Bill Bryson mentions how dieting is a bit of a losing battle chemically (no pun intended).

The problem is that, as he mentions, hunger is an unknown condition.

Scientists don't know what causes it exactly. Bryson mentions how there is a hormone called leptin that is certainly related to hunger, but that the human body has no known chemical that tells you to stop eating. 

In fact, he says we tend to see an abundance of food as an opportunity to restore our energy and we don't have a built-in faculty to tell us we don't need to stop. We see food and think: We need to keep eating because who knows if we will find food again.

Here's how Bryson explains it:

"When we get hungry, our ghrelin levels rise, but it isn't clear whether ghrelin causes hunger or merely accompanies it. Appetite is also influenced by the thyroid gland and by genetic and cultural considerations and by mood and accessibility (a bowl of peanuts on the table is hard to resist), willpower, time of day, season, and much else. No one has figured how to pack all of that into a pill."

I had to stop right there and think about what that means. For me, my diet impacts my productivity and even how I do my job. Hunger is just part of the problem. Because I sit at a desk all day, I tend to use food as fuel to keep me going. (Maybe you can relate.) Knowing there are some chemicals involved in making me hungry, and that having more knowledge about how that works and finding tools to help, will impact my day.

I've tried a few different fad diets and finally found success after landing on a basic strategy of eating a balanced diet. (If you must know, it was when I tested an app called Retrofit many years ago that focused more on accountability and balance than fads.) 

Yet, I've struggled in the willpower department. It's amazingly helpful to find out that the entire process of dieting is not really aided by chemicals in our body. In fact, my guess is that chemicals like leptin may tell us to keep eating and to fill up, because as humans we were not exactly designed to resist easy access to Chipotle on every street corner. 

I've long thought about how knowledge and action are so closely tied. We tend to act on what we know (or not act on what we don't know), and reading about the chemicals in the body has helped me understand: I'm not wired for success when it comes to food. I need even more accountability, and in terms of a long-term solution, deciding to never eat carbs is not exactly a great strategy. (It might be terribly unhealthy as well.) What works is a better understanding of what is happening chemically and better information.

It's a battleground. Hunger pains are real; they are well known from a scientific standpoint. Leptin is also real and is probably telling me to eat more. I kept reading in that chapter and realized I need to educate myself even more about how my success with food is tied so closely to all of the things Bryson listed including availability, time of day, and mood.

Now for the hard part. I need to make changes in some of those areas, starting with availability. There's too much food in my house that is attractive to the leptin in my body. When my ghrelin levels rise, I need more accountability (and perhaps I need to resubscribe to Retrofit. I also like a new app called Noom that seems to work). The seasons play a role. I tend to eat more when the weather is getting cold as a way to comfort myself.

To go one level deeper, I need to manage my stress in different ways. I'm about to start a new regiment cycling indoors using an app called Zwift, and I'll report back on how that goes. I purchased some waterproof hiking boots recently, and I plan to make frequent use of those, rain or shine. And I need to develop a stress management plan.

Mostly, I want to see how this all impacts my productivity. My food choices are so important here. During the day, grabbing a donut won't help me write faster or email quicker. Finding that balance will pay dividends when I can complete more tasks.

I'll share that in a few days, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, how about you? Will you join me in making changes to control willpower and not rely as much on the fad diets, which seem to be counterintuitive to how our bodies even work? How will you act on this new information? There are many factors that contribute to our dieting success. Learning more about them, and developing a plan of action that is practical and attainable--that's the real goal.

Published on: Oct 16, 2019
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