We’ve all heard them, those ‘excuses’ for being big – “I have big bones” or “It’s all hormonal”. They’ve become such a cliche now that nobody pays any attention to the fact that, for some of us, those excuses are actual real reasons why we have a weight problem. What’s also hard to grasp is that there are a huge number of physiological reasons why the body either puts on weight, retains it or resists losing it. Unfortunately, I can’t cover all of them here. Instead I’ll give you a brief overview of the kinds of things that might be affecting you.
Clinical Influences on Obesity
- Recent studies have shown that hormones in the stomach do not work properly in people with extra weight. There is no evidence yet as to whether the obesity itself causes this problem or whether it causes weight gain – but the consequences are that the brain doesn’t get told that you’re full, and nutrients from the meal are not processed properly by the gut. This problem occurs regardless of whether you eat fatty foods or perfectly healthy foods.
- Problems with your thyroid can cause huge changes to your normal hunger patterns and eating. You may suffer increased appetite but lose weight – or alternatively, decreased hunger but increased weight gain. These symptoms don’t exist in a vacuum, you’d be feeling other symptoms as well, so if you experience these noticeable changes, see your doctor. Most thyroid problems are very treatable.
- There’s been quite a bit of research completed in recent years that obesity in some may be caused by a childhood viral infection. Children exposed to Adenovirus 36 were significantly more likely to be obese, weighing up to 50 pounds more than unexposed children. Obese children are much more likely to be obese as adults.
- Eating fatty foods releases dopamine in the brain, in exactly the same manner as cocaine does. Dopamine is the ‘pleasure chemical’ and when overstimulated (such as with lots of high fat foods), floods the dopamine receptors in the brain – and makes you feel good. The more you do this, the more good you feel. Continued over-stimulation forces the brain to compensate by either reducing the amount of dopamine it produces or the number of receptors. This then forces you to eat even more fatty food in order to feel as good as you used to. Not only that, but the continued behaviour becomes a ‘habit’ hard-wired into your brain. So when you suspect you’re addicted to those burgers and fries – you actually are! This is a real, genuine addiction, and simply stopping can be almost impossible for most people.
- One of the consequences of the addictive properties of high fat diets is that the addiction itself then causes changes in brain function and structure that make it much harder to change the behaviour. These changes have a direct negative effect on motivation and willingness to stop consuming high fat foods. Basically, it destroys your willpower.
- Another consequence is that the brain then finds it much harder to recognise signals that the stomach is full. Without those signals, over-eating occurs. Additionally, this problem also stops the body from detecting signals to increase energy use and burn off calories. So, basically it makes you eat more than you need, and and then doesn’t burn it or give you energy. Nice, huh?
- And don’t think going on a stiff, shocking, starvation diet is going to help you. Studies have shown that fasting tips the reward system in your brain towards high calorie foods. So if you haven’t eaten in hours, a salad just isn’t going to do the job, according to your brain. Unfortunately. Instead, it will drive you to eat larger than normal quantities of high calorie foods until you are over-full.
- Stress – I call this the Silent Evil. Go anywhere on the web and you’ll see everyone going on about how bad stress is for your blood pressure, your ulcers, your marriage, your kids etc. What you don’t see so much is how stress is a major contributor to obesity. When you suffer long bouts of stress (which so many of us do) your body produces a chemical called cortisol. Constant production of this sends your whole body into a vicious cycle: your body increases its production of steroids and insulin which increases your appetite, increasing the likelihood of your bingeing on high calorie foods which makes you store more fat, which creates a resistance to insulin, which makes you hungrier than ever, which makes you stressed because you’re putting on weight and eating so much, which makes you produce more cortisol… You get where I’m going here?
- A history of dieting and bingeing can – apart from being horrible to live with – leave you with a rather nasty hangover: your metabolism slows right down. This is a consequence of our cave-man heritage. As far as our bodies are concerned, starvation/restrictive dieting = famine. In order to survive, the metabolism slows right down to keep as much fat stored as possible – after all, the body doesn’t know when the famine will be over. When you swing around into bingeing, your metabolism is so low that it converts almost everything into fat immediately. This is the reason why most people who go on a strict diet, put all the weight on again – plus 10% – within weeks of finishing their diet.
This is just a brief list, but it should give you an idea of the kinds of things that area both already known and being discovered every day. Although you might not see it in the general media, there is a lot of research being done into both the causes and cures of obesity.
This brings us to the end of this series. While it isn’t an exhaustive examination on all the causes of obesity, I hope that it’s highlighted for you that losing weight is not just about eating less and doing a spot of exercise. I hope that you have a better idea of what might be going on inside your body and why you have had so much trouble losing weight. The most important thing to remember here is that your weight problems are not caused by you being lazy or useless or from a lack of willpower. As you can see from this series, there are a huge number of things that can affect how your body reacts to food – and you’ve probably experienced a few of them. Keep in mind that understanding the problem properly is the first, necessary step towards finding a solution. And there are solutions out there, I promise.
Do you see anything on this list that you recognise? Do you suffer from any other clinical condition that affects your weight?
Read the rest of the Causes of Obesity series:
Part 6 – Clinical Issues
1. American College of Gastroenterology (2010, October 18). New undertsanding of gut hormones and gut function sheds light on obesity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 31, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101018092154.htm
3. University of California — San Diego (2010, September 20). Childhood viral infection may be a cause of obesity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 31, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100920074011.htm
5&6. Monash University (2010, September 8). Brain cells — not lack of willpower — determine obesity, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 31, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100908094807.htm
- The Link Between Brain Activity and Obesity(psychcentral.com)
- Brain Size May Be to Blame for Obesity(aolhealth.com)
- Anti-obesity drug dulls brain response to ‘food porn’(newscientist.com)