Friday, February 10, 2012

Size matters redux

Our brain is a funny device.  It holds a surprising sway over us, often in ways we cannot imagine.  I read with interest and curiosity a few weeks ago an article in the WSJ talking about the curious benefit of placebos (Why Placebos Work Wonders).  Sometimes when our brain thinks we are getting better or are satisfied, it instructs the rest of the body to follow suit.  It seems that when our mind plays tricks on us, those tricks can impact much more than what's bouncing around our noggins.  In the article, they referenced one particular study from the journal Health Psychology.  Here is the excerpt from the WSJ...

Another study, published last year in the journal Health Psychology, shows how mind-set can affect an individual's appetite and production of a gut peptide called ghrelin (GREL-in), which is involved in the feeling of satisfaction after eating. Ghrelin levels are supposed to rise when the body needs food and fall proportionally as calories are consumed, telling the brain the body is no longer hungry and doesn't need to search out more food. 
Yet the data show ghrelin levels depended on how many calories participants were told they were consuming, not how many they actually consumed. When told a milkshake they were about to drink had 620 calories and was "indulgent," the participants' ghrelin levels fell more—the brain perceived it was satisfied more quickly—than when they were told the shake had 120 calories and was "sensible. 
The results may offer a physiological explanation of why eating diet foods can feel so unsatisfying, says Ms. Crum, first author on the study. "That mind-set of dieting is telling the body you're not getting enough."
So there you have it.  This study suggests that if you think you are getting a lot of food, then it can instruct your hormones to pipe down and let you feel full.  If your brain thinks you are getting gipped, then it asks your hormones to scream for more.  There is clearly a bizarre circular logic being used by our neurological systems, but what I suppose it is what it is.

One example of how we can use this curious effect to our benefit is in the use of low energy density foods.  These are foods that have relatively few calories per cubic meter, often filled with water, air, fiber, etc.  It goes back to one of my personal rules of eating:  bulk up your food.  If I go back to my staple breakfast:

  • Regular oatmeal with blueberries and sliced banana
  • 0 fat Greek yogurt with grapes with a little Fiber One
By the time I'm done with these concoctions, they completely fill two pretty decent sized bowls.  It's enough food that my family looks at me slightly aghast by the quantity.  Yet these two bowls add up to about 6 PointsPlus per serving.  It's my little version of cheating the devil.  My brain clearly thinks I'm getting a decent amount of food because I'm not really hungry until lunch.  You might now ask the following question:  if this hypothesis is true, then why aren't I destroying this phenomena by asserting it?  In other words, the fact that I am acknowledging that I'm only eating 6 PointsPlus values should signal to my brain that I'm still hungry, yet this does not happen.  Why?  Simple.  My brain isn't very smart and/or is quite gullible.  

The above WSJ excerpt also reminds me of a Charles Barkley quip from the Leno show:  "You can't give a fat man a little meal and expect him to be happy."  Amen to that.  

Big food indeed...
There is more than a fair bit of research out there to suggest that visual cues can go a long way to convincing us that we are either being well fed or starved, regardless of actual calorie content.  Personally, I view this as a gift because it allows me to imagine strategies to mentally cheat (i.e., by bulking up my foods).  I'm perfectly happy to outsmart my dimwitted brain.  

This is also a good reminder for me of one of the cardinal rules for sustainable, healthy eating:  don't go through life deprived!  I've never met a person on Weight Watchers who didn't love food.  I've also never meet a person on Weight Watchers who has kept their weight off for a long time who still doesn't love food.  The trick is to love food that loves you back.




  1. Intresting! I was already planning to use this strategy soon. I have been invited to eat pancakes at a friends house this weekend and i am going to stuff myself with 0points veggies beforehand...hoping that will help me stick to the 'only 2 pancakes' rule i have ste for myself!

  2. "Yet the data show ghrelin levels depended on how many calories participants were told they were consuming, not how many they actually consumed"
    Wow! Thanks for sharing. I have often noticed that if I eat a whole bunch of low calorie food (such as a large bowl of celery sticks and carrots) I am still just as hungry, even though everyone assures me that this is a good strategy for feeling full.
    It's amazing what our mind can tell us.

  3. This explains why I seem more tempted to knock out half a box of WW desert cakes that are only 2 pts plus per serving. I seem more satisfied measuring out a serving of real ice cream and just eating that vs "diet" desert. Another strategy I've been using lately is only allowing myself to have desert within 2 hours following a workout. Not only is my body in more of a calorie-burning mode, but after putting in the hard work I'm not as anxious to destroy the work I have just put in.

  4. I restarted with WW back in February 2011 at a whoping 465lbs. I am now down 136lbs so far. The one thing that I didn't learn or was willing to learn the 1st two times around was that it is a mental game, my thinking changed drastically and I use "mind tricks" to keep me focused. I was starting to write into my blog today and noticed that the CEO had a blog as well. It is refreshing to see that my thinking towards food and weight loss is parallel to the person who runs this program. We all fall but how we get back up defines us and our success. Thanks

  5. You can read the full research article here:

  6. I don't know where else to write this comment, but it has been bugging me alot.
    I am a Lifetime member, on the path back to goal after weight creeping up over 10 years. I also subscribe to WW Magazine which I think is great and offers lots of good info and encouragement. My beef? Over the last few years, I have noted the models in all the pictures have gotten more and more slim and, frankly, look like all the other skinny models in any popular magazine!! What happened to all the "real looking" women that used to grace these pages?!? I love the few pictures you have of WW Members and Leaders and would like to see more REAL people rather than skinny models with toned butts and sculpted abs!!

    1. I get not wanting 'skinny' models in the magazine; but what is wrong with toned butts and sculpted abs? I have been following WW (this time) since July 2010 and have lost over 80lbs. I have also been exercising regularly.

      I am getting that 'toned butt' and 'abs'; through the combination of eating healthy (and a lot) and exercising my muscles regularly.

      Just my opinion.


  7. The trick is to love food that loves you back.

    Amen to that!