Oprah’s struggle with her weight has become almost mythic-it’s not just that she’s been so open and honest about it but that millions of people share her story. The truth is, the majority of the American population either wants to be thinner or is actively trying to become so. Why do we have such a hard time controlling our eating and sticking to an exercise program? In the 25-plus years that I’ve been helping people slim down, I’ve noticed a few common traps that cause people to fall off the wagon. (Incidentally, they’re similar to the reasons we fail to lose weight in the first place-and I’ll tell you about them in my “Back to Business” Plan.) Science, too, is starting to help us understand why certain people may be wired to relapse.
That research has to do with the way we respond to pleasure. Food, sex, a glass of wine, certain drugs-they all raise levels of the reward chemical dopamine in our brain. Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, believes that for some people, eating cookies or french fries raises dopamine levels in a way that keeps them going back for more. In other words, these people can become as hooked on food as alcoholics are on booze and smokers are on nicotine, although even in the worst cases, a french fry never delivers the same kind of high.
One reason the craving to overeat may occur is that the brain is deficient in dopamine receptors. In someone like this, it would take more food than normal to get the same hit of satisfaction. According to Volkow, dopamine is also a major player in the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that puts the brakes on destructive behavior. So being low in dopamine hits your weight control efforts with a double whammy-you’re driven to eat more and it’s harder to stop once you start. That’s why when you relapse, it’s not with just a slice of pizza; it’s with the entire pie…
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