Appetite and the Parkinson’s law

“Collecting the maximum number of calories with the least amount of effort is, after all, the dream of every creature.”

Our appetite follows Parkinson’s Law. More there is to eat, more we eat. When we eat more calories than we use, calorie imbalance occurs, and it causes obesity. We are genetically programmed to put on weight. Our genetic make-up, eating habits, and physical inactivity are some of the causes of overweight. More than the stomach, it is our brain that is responsible for the obesity epidemic. Our ‘heavy calorie demanding’ brain weighs 2 per cent of the body weight, but consumes 20 per cent of the total energy intake. Our present cranial capacity (about 1,300 cc) is more than three times the cranial capacity of our distant ancestors. As our cranial grew, our digestive tract shrank.

It is an interesting world where it is possible to be overweight and malnourished at the same time. “Eatertainment” that creates lot of fun in the mouth” is the real culprit. The evolution of obesity is the result of eating high calorie and easy to digest food. Because food was scarce, early humans had to stockpile food in them for later use. Our body thus developed a biological system to store energy (fat), and our brains and bodies adapted to thrive in these environmental conditions. Austerity was the rule for hunter-gatherer societies. Now, in most countries, food is easily available, and one of the consequences of it is our battle with the bulge.

Our brains seem hungrier than our stomach

Obesity is a global phenomenon. What should we do to deal with the problems of obesity?

The World Health Organisation has suggested some action plans to encourage better eating habits. These include: imposing a “fat tax” on caloric snacks; improving health education; regulating food and beverage advertising; and limiting the foods available in public facilities. Since obesity is related to brain function (for example, smell, taste and appearance of food influences hunger), one suggestion is to treat obesity as a psychological/psychiatric disorder.

Since obesity develops over years, obese should expect a similar time scale to return to his or her ideal weight. Quick-fix weight loss solutions are unreliable. We know obesity is not good for us. We know we should eat less and exercise more. Still we don’t do it. Why our plans and resolutions fail?

The fault lies in our heads. The urge to eat too much is wired into our heads. We simply enjoy eating more. This habit of overeating evolved in us, because we were not sure of our next meal. Our brain’s prime directive thus has been to equip the body to meet this challenge. A consequence of this is that we developed obese prone ‘default eat’ system. We now need remedial measures to counter the effects of our default eat system.

One observation is that those who experience less pleasure are at greater risk for weight gain. Research says that reduced pleasure among the obese is a result of years of overeating. Even among people of normal weight, individual differences in brain functioning can directly affect their eating behaviour. Chronic dieters are more susceptible than average to overeating, say the researchers. Eating behaviours are also linked to areas of the brain associated with self-control and visual attention. Researchers showed that successful weight losers had greater activation in those regions, compared with normal-weight and obese people, when viewing images of food. When under stress, people like to eat high-calorie food. Eating high-calorie food is a reward-seeking behaviour.

Taming obesity probably lies in taming a hungry brain. Resetting the brain temporarily seems possible, but the problem is that the reset brain tends to come back to the original setting. Another issue is the development of effective obesity therapy. This may require a combination of drugs that work simultaneously on multiple triggers of eating and metabolism. The therapy may also include, besides drugs, psychological or psychiatric approaches as well as exercises.

Nutritional ‘Catch-22’

Our vulnerability for sweets is well known.

One of my friends, who is an ardent lover of sweets, once jokingly said, sweets are like a King’s chariot; they make their way wherever they go. He was referring to the belly that always has space for sweets. Does research carries any message for the weight losers? Dieting in the tempting environment is the most difficult form of self-control. “Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low.” It means ‘empty stomach’ decisions are not wise decisions. When the body’s sugar level goes down, it wants to replenish it quickly. A sugary snack or drink provides a quick, but a temporary solution. This is perhaps the reason why people prefer sweets compared with salty snacks once they are through with a task requiring self-control.

Studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. One suggestion: avoid all kinds of eating temptations (one tends to overeat when a buffet meal is available at a fixed price) and establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. The other advice: conserve willpower so that it is available for emergencies and important decisions.

The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.

Dieting is stressful. It makes the dieter irritable and there are reasons for that. Dieters have to overcome several hurdles. There are hurdles of breakfast, lunch, in-between snacks. Each hurdle means one additional resistance to overcome, and as the day progresses there is corresponding increase in resistance. Each act of overcoming the resistance lowers the dieter’s willpower. We spend considerable time each day resisting desires. The most common resisted desire, according to a study, is to eat and to sleep.

As one ‘Fat Girl’ puts it in her memoir: “Some people daydream heroic deeds or sex scenes or tropical vacations. I daydream crab legs dipped in hot butter.”

We are trapped in a nutritional ‘Catch-22’ situation. “In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower, and in order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat”.

To lose weight, try to make small incremental changes toward a healthier diet, and more importantly, never go on a diet.

The paradox is that the people who rank high in self-control tend to make the worst eating choices of all. This is due to “vicarious goal fulfilment.” Those who are good at self-control are also good at remaining focused. Once the job is over, they don’t get distracted that easily. For example, others would like to go to a movie, they would not. Once their healthy eating goals are satisfied, they like to indulge in unhealthy food. They fail to activate their real goal-fulfilment reaction in response to the threat. Who knows it better than a dieter that the efforts involved in exerting self-control over eating can lead to aggressive behaviour. People on diets are known to be irritable and quick to anger. In one study, researchers observed, people who chose an apple instead of a chocolate bar were more likely to choose movies with anger and revenge themes than milder movies.