Thursday, August 13, 2009

Your Body's Just Trying to Accommodate You

To launch a series of posts about diet, I'll start by pointing out that your body tries to accommodate you. It really does!

The body habituates to what it's used to. If you have dessert with lunch twice in a row, you can bet you'll crave sugar after lunch on the third day. If you skip breakfast for a week, you'll stop getting hungry in the morning. If you eat heavy dinners for a few days, it will take more to satisfy you at dinnertime going forward. Your system reacts attentively to circumstances, aiming to accommodate your situation. We evolved in tricky, unreliable nutritional straits, and, as a result, our systems are magnificently flexible, able to optimize and readjust with the precision of a German race car. Whatever, whenever, and however you feed it, it will quickly learn to expect more of the same.

We get into problems because while our body is only trying to oblige, we assume that it's the boss. Noticing you don't get hungry in the mornings, you'll probably figure that's just How You Are. But if you were to eat breakfast - even something small - for three days in a row, "How You Are" would change to suit the new pattern! No matter how much of a sugar addict you consider yourself to be, if you stay off sweets for just 48 hours, your body will severely reduce its sugar cravings. Your body hasn't led you to sugar. It's just adapting to circumstances. Understanding this makes it easier.

It's easier to establish a habit than to break one, of course. But the body doesn't know this, because its flexibility was never intended to respond to conscious tinkering. Our bodies are optimized to keep us from starving to death in tough times, and to make do with the foods at hand as we go about our hunting and gathering. Our forebears didn't attempt to eat less of this or that; they ingested whatever they could get, and their systems adjusted to ever-changing realities.

Your body follows your lead on dietary additions and subtractions. The subtractions can be rough, because the body's helpful promptings feel so monumental. But if you understand the mechanism, and change your inputs for just a few days (e.g. avoiding sugar), your body will come around much more quickly than you'd expect. It's not monumental at all, really. It's a matter of days, not weeks or long as you're consistent and don't mix the signals you send your body (e.g. via a surreptitious Snickers bar or two). If you send confusing signals, your body, like an over-eager puppy, will keep trying to oblige...resulting in a misery of perpetual cravings. The pit which most dieters attempt to dig themselves out of is actually laughably shallow. Heroin, alcohol, and cigarettes are hell to kick. Sugar and Cheetos just require a couple of days.


Ron W said...

This is very insightful. And once you sit back and think it through, very useful. So what I'm reading is that you can always re-calibrate. From personal experience, I'd suggest that you try fasting for three days. Once you've actually been through the shakiness, brain fog and the rest of the false alarms from brain and body, WE'RE GONNA DIE YOU IDIOT... you start to see that it's just not a big deal to be hungry. Ride it out. You'll be fine. And you could end up putting food and eating in a different category in your hierarchy.

Jim Leff said...

"I'd suggest that you try fasting for three days"

I wouldn't.

First: fasting burns muscle more than fat. And when you're doing weight loss, that's the danger.

Second: the point is to gently use this system of input and accommodation to encourage your body to adjust to good healthy practices. Not to aggressively try to push it with extreme measures. Health is never in the extreme. Not to sound like a tampon commercial, but be gentle with yourself!

Ron W said...

Don't fast to lose weight. Fast to understand what it feels like and to lose your fear of feeling hungry. And not to sound like a modern day Spartan, but the trick to losing weight is two words: "go hungry". The trick to staying in shape is: "learn to suffer." Your body will protest, but it's all going to be just fine. Try it.

Jim Leff said...

Nope. Sorry to flatly contradict you, but that's absolutely wrong, according to all research I've seen, plus tons of anecdotal experience, plus my own experience.

There are a multitude of reasons why trying to ride out the hunger response is a ghastly bad thing.

Please read along my series on "How Fat People Diet". I'll be explaining all this. And, if you'd like, we can continue the discussion in the comments once I get to that part in a couple of days.

Ron W said...

Ok. I'll follow along and jump to that string. But I'm not talking about some statistically valid magazine cover weight loss gizmo regimen. I'm talking about the same "higher game" that you started in this discussion: retraining body and mind for fun and profit. If you haven't fasted from Friday after breakfast until Monday at breakfast; if you havent lifted weights until you were shaking and your eyes bugging out, you are depriving yourself of an easy and particularly educational (and entertaining--with the proper mindset) form of vividness. Over and out.

Jim Leff said...

In an entry about politics, I wrote, a few months ago, that "we human beings never learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism."

Same's true here. You don't correct unbalanced, unhealthy eating habits via harsh, unnaturally extreme countermeasures. It's a mistake to impose the artificial notion of a starvation "reset" on our poor, unsuspecting bodies, which are, again, simply trying to follow our lead. It's just more distortion, more bad leading, more extremism taking our patterns out of balance.

Correct unbalanced eating via balanced eating! That's pleasant and good for you, as opposed to fasting, which causes you to burn muscle and is extremely unpleasant. In a few days, your body will start pursuing THAT.

The whole point of my article is that the body accommodates. So have it accommodate to viable, healthful, sustainable behavior, rather than more out-of-whack extremism! If the body's eager to follow a lead, give it a healthy lead, for goodness sake. Don't keep jerking it around!

An imbalance is fixed via balance, not via the converse imbalance.

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