Character vs. Chemistry

      73 Comments on Character vs. Chemistry

I received an email today from Kahn Academy with the subject line Why New Year’s Resolutions are broken. The explanation (if you can call it that) in the message was that most people break their resolutions by February, so why not commit to completing an online course in January?

Cute. But it did get me thinking about why we break our New Year’s resolutions, especially resolutions to lose weight. I had quite a glorious career as a resolution-breaker back in the day, and I have the paperwork to prove it. From about age 25 all the way up until my daughters and Fat Head came along, I kept a daily journal.  That journal is filled with optimistic resolutions committed to paper in January, followed by self-recriminations and occasional self-loathing around April or May. Lather, rinse, and repeat the next year.

Twenty-some years ago, I was on a comedy tour that ran through Iowa and Nebraska. I was also on a New-Year’s-resolution diet. The headliner, who happened to be one of those lean-jock types who’d never been fat a day in his life, rang my room at our hotel in Iowa and asked if I wanted to go out for lunch.

“Thanks, but I can’t do it. I’m on the Slim-Fast diet.”

“Really? You’re living on those little shakes?”

“Yeah, I need to lose 25, maybe 30 pounds.”

“Well, I guess that keeps the food bill down when you’re on the road.”

The show was at a nightclub just off a two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere. As I parked in the nearly-empty lot an hour or so before the show, I wondered what kind of crowd they could possibly draw. The answer was: a great crowd. An awesome crowd. A packed-house crowd that cheered wildly when I finished my set and turned the stage over to the headliner. Man, I thought, they must get everyone who lives within 40 miles to show up for comedy night.

I went to the bar, intending to order a Diet Coke.

“You want a beer?” the bartender asked. “It’s on the house for the comedians.”

“Uh … sure. I’ll have a Miller Lite.” I was on a diet, after all. A light beer couldn’t hurt.

The second one didn’t hurt either. The third tasted awesome – and I don’t even like light beer. But man, was I craving that third one. I craved a fourth one after that, but stopped myself from ordering it. I was on a diet, after all.

I’d been aware of being hungry before my set, but sometime after finishing that third beer, I felt downright ravenous. Chew-the-furniture ravenous. As if reading my mind, the bartender walked over with a pepperoni pizza and set it in front of me.

“Here, you can have this. Somebody screwed up the order in the kitchen. We can’t sell it.”

Just tell him thanks but no thanks, I thought to myself. You’re on a diet. All you’ve had so far are three light beers with 100 calories each. No harm, no foul. You don’t really want this greasy pizza. Nothing tastes as good as thin feels, right?

Wrong. The pizza tasted fantastic – and I don’t usually order pepperoni on my pizzas. As soon as I took the first bite, my brain was screaming for the next one. And the next one. And the next one.

So there I was, stuffing my face with pizza when the headliner finished his set and came to the bar to get a drink. He didn’t say anything about me breaking my Slim-Fast diet. He didn’t have to. I saw him glance down at the pizza and then up at me, and he seemed to grimace just a wee bit. I interpreted his expression as You poor, weak-willed slob – mostly, of course, because that’s what I was thinking about myself.

In other words, I thought my failure to stick to a weight-loss diet (by no means my first or last failure) was caused by a flaw in my character. I was fat because I was mentally weak. I just need more willpower, more determination. I told myself that over and over, year in and year out.  My old journals are full of admonishments along the lines of “Why do I keep doing this to myself?  How many times am I going to start over on Monday and blow it again by Friday?”

Here’s a specific example from an entry in March 1997:

I worked on the play, then ate an entire pizza while watching King of the Hill and the X-Files. Why? Why do I do this? What gets inside of me and says, “You’re losing weight, you’re working out– it’s time to @#$% that up! Let’s undo all that progress!”

Well, I had the right idea as far as the problem being inside of me. But it wasn’t about character. It was about chemistry. Let’s revisit my comedy road-trip in Iowa and think in terms of what was happening at a biochemical level.

Back in those days, I was still mostly a vegetarian. I’d eat a little chicken or fish now and then when I went out for dinner, but I didn’t eat meat at all at home. (Most of those pizzas I downed were topped with spinach, mushrooms and onions.) I pretty much lived on cereal, fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta and potatoes. In other words, I’d conditioned myself to depend on regular infusions of glucose to provide fuel for my body and brain. And given how slowly I lost weight when I managed to stick with a calorie-restricted diet for a month or two, I obviously wasn’t very efficient at tapping my body fat for fuel.

Slim-Fast is nothing more than a can of liquid sugar with a wee bit of sunflower oil and milk protein tossed in. So whenever I went on a Slim-Fast diet, I was continuing to live on glucose, but far less of it than I was used to. The burst of simple sugar no doubt spiked my glucose, and then my body responded by releasing insulin to beat it back down. I remember often feeling shaky two hours after those Slim-Fast meals – it was low blood sugar, of course, but I couldn’t raise it with another meal or snack because I was on a diet.

When I walked into that nightclub in Iowa, I probably already had low blood sugar, thanks to the Slim-Fast meals. Fortunately for my performance, hearing an emcee announce my name always produced a burst of adrenaline, and adrenaline releases glucose from glycogen stores while simultaneously stimulating the release of fatty acids from adipose tissues. My brain had fuel for the show. But when I was finished with my set and the adrenaline rush was over, my blood sugar was probably falling again.

No wonder those Miller Lites tasted so darned good. Alcohol is fuel. As I topped up the fuel tank, my brain was happy. Unfortunately, alcohol is a quick-burn fuel, and after living on something like 600 calories of Slim-Fast all day, I’m sure I burned through it at a record rate. I not only ran short of fuel again, I was almost certainly shorter on fuel than before. Among its many other effects, alcohol suppresses the liver’s ability to convert glycogen to glucose. So as the alcohol burned away, my brain was starting to experience a full-scale fuel emergency. On a diet consisting mostly of sugar, it’s certainly not as if I was producing ketones to provide an alternate brain fuel.

That’s why I was ravenously hungry when the friendly bartender set a pizza I didn’t order in front of me. That’s why as soon as I looked at it and caught that pizza aroma, my brain was screaming “@#$% YOUR STUPID DIET! FEED ME NOW!”

And so I did. It wasn’t a matter of character. It was a matter of chemistry.

How many times have you (or someone you know) stuck to a calorie-restricted diet for a couple of weeks, had a few drinks at a party, then headed to a Denny’s for a massive meal? The usual explanation – which I bought into for years – is that the alcohol affected the part of the brain that controls discipline and inhibitions, so the dieter’s inner hedonist took over and decided to make a pig of itself. In other words, the alcohol unleashed a character flaw that had previously been manacled by conscious willpower.

Wrong.  By suppressing the conversion of glycogen to glucose, the alcohol produced a low-blood-sugar emergency — in a body already on the verge of a fuel shortage because of a restrictive diet.  The body and brain then responded with a series of biochemical reactions that triggered a ravenous appetite. The brain wasn’t being a bad boy because its noble half got drunk and fell asleep. It was protecting itself from a dangerous fuel shortage.

That’s also what was happening when I’d semi-starve myself for a week, living on microwave meals consisting of pasta with fat-free marinara sauce, then end up ordering a pizza and eating the whole thing. I couldn’t stick to the low-fat, low-calorie diets I tried over and over because they took me on blood-sugar roller-coaster rides my brain couldn’t tolerate.

I could tolerate a high-calorie, high-carb, low-fat diet and often did … but that diet created other problems which, at the time, also looked like character flaws to me. Gaining a little more weight every year was one.  An explosive temper when my glucose was falling and my adrenaline was rising in response was another.  Drinking too much was another.

I wrote about the drinking problem when I reviewed Nora Gedgaudas’ excellent book Primal Body, Primal Mind in a post nearly four years ago. Here’s what she wrote about alcoholics in that book:

Alcoholics are utterly dependent upon and regularly seek fast sources of sugar – alcohol being the fastest … the problem in alcoholism, in fact, really isn’t alcohol per se, but severe carbohydrate addiction … Once cravings for carbohydrates and dependence on carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel are eliminated, so are the alcohol cravings. Training the body to depend upon ketones rather than sugar for fuel is key to this equation.

As I recounted in that post, when I stopped living on a diet that had turned me into a sugar-burner and became a fat-burner instead, I also stopped craving alcohol. Sure, I’ll cut loose on vacation, I’ll cut loose on my birthday, but then it stops. During most weeks now, I have two beers on Saturday night when we go out to a local Mexican diner we like, and that’s it. Unlike 20 years ago, drinking those two beers doesn’t trigger a desire for six or eight or ten more. It’s not a matter of discipline; it takes no discipline to turn down something you don’t particularly want. My character didn’t change. My chemistry did.

So coming all the way back around to topic of the post, why do we break our New Year’s resolutions? Why will sales of Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers meals spike for the next couple of months, then flatten out again? Why was the gym packed when I worked out yesterday but will almost certainly be back to half-empty by April?

Our weight-loss resolutions fail because we keep trying to change our character.  But character isn’t creating the problem.  Chemistry is.  When we try to overpower chemistry with the strength of our character, chemistry will eventually win.  And that’s why so many grand plans to shrink our waistlines — from the ones imposed on us by The Anointed in government all the way down to the ones we resolve to impose on ourselves — are doomed to fail.

More on that in a later post.


73 thoughts on “Character vs. Chemistry

  1. JasonG

    Well written. You would make a great book-author with your humorous tone. Have you made any progress on your idea for a children’s book about nutrition?

    Only a wee bit. When I booked that recent speech, that became my writing project. Now it’s back to the book.

  2. Mary D.

    Great post. I went through a similar pattern as a teenaged girl desperate to be thin. Diet after diet, all very low-fat and low-calorie, with the inevitable ravenous hunger, binge, and self-loathing. I too assumed it was a lack of willpower and character. I think now how different it would have been if I had tried a high fat, lower carb approach. The standard advice was just so bad – and still is but at least the good info is out there now and easier to find. I loved the scene from Fathead where you are sitting staring morosely at your boneless skinless chicken breast; that reminds me of the bad old days.

    And I suppose quite a few people are eating a diet meal like that as we speak.

    1. Will

      That scene in the movie was one of the most impactful takeaways. People suffering from bad advice. Suffering in what they eat, suffering in the results they see, suffering the health effects of those choices, and suffering mentally when they see themselves as weak or failures.

      All that suffering, and almost all of in unnecessary. Unfortunately, I don’t see it changing anytime soon. Can you imagine the government basically saying “Sorry we’ve been giving the opposite of the correct advice for the last 40 years, hope you can forgive us for all your prematurely dead loved ones that thought they were eating right. We didn’t want to wait for the science to come in, you can understand, right?”

      I’m not holding my breath waiting for that announcement, no.

  3. Jeanne

    The thing people just don’t believe when I tell them is that you are really never famished on a low carb diet. It’s just too good to be true. They look at me as if I’m some sort of super-character person when I eat my spoonful of coconut oil and two hard boiled eggs for lunch, and claim to be full.

    That’s why low-carb works for so many of us. The calorie freaks keep insisting that we lost weight because we ate less. Yes, of course we did. But why, for the first time in our lives, were we happy on less food? That’s the chemistry part.

    1. Will

      One way of describing it that I find defuses the calorie freaks is as follows:

      In a traditional diet, say you eat 1000 calories less per day. At first you are hungry and tired, but eventually your body realizes it has to make up the deficit and releases more fat. After a bit, you are eating 1000 calories less per day, and losing 1000 calories of weight. You are forcing yourself to lose weight by eating less. It’s tough.

      In a “magic pill” diet (call it magic pill rather than low carb for imagination’s sake), you “somehow” happen to release 1000 calories worth of fat more than you store every day. At first you have way too much energy, but eventually your body realizes it doesn’t need to eat as much. After a bit, you are eating 1000 calories less per day, and losing 1000 calories of weight. Your body makes you eat less because you are losing weight. It’s easy.

      The real magic is that you could eat only 500 calories less per day, still lose 500 calories of weight per day, and have a magic 500 calories of extra energy. Let’s see the low-fat, low-calorie, high-carb diet pull that off!

      It’s a way to illustrate working with your metabolism versus working against your metabolism in a way that people may understand that doesn’t violate calories in/out.

      Working with your metabolism is what this is all about. I often skip meals these days (breakfast in particular), and discipline has zip to do with it. My brain has fuel despite the long stretch without eating, so it’s happy and doesn’t send out the hunger signals.

      1. Firebird7478

        Dr. Greg Ellis writes about “Metabolic adaptation”. He says that you can lose weight reducing calories and trim bodyfat. Once you start to maintain at your bottom end (ie. 1200 calories), the body will adjust to the lack of calories and will begin storing fat again.

        That makes sense.

    2. Kathy from Maine

      My hairstylist announced to me the other day that she was starting a Paleo diet. Of course, she was going about it all wrong because she never did any reading or research, just had a general idea that you don’t eat sugar.

      I told her I’ve eaten that way since the late 1990s, so she asked me for advice on what to buy for snacks. I tried to explain to her that if you’re doing it “right” (meaning lots of good saturated fat, moderate amounts of protein, low carbs, no processed foods or seed oils, etc.), you don’t have a need to snack. I could tell she didn’t believe me.

      On a totally unrelated topic, I keep seeing segments on the news this past week about the science teacher who has lost over 40 pounds by eating every meal at McDonald’s for the past 3 months. (When I first saw the teasers about the upcoming segment, I thought they were referring to you!) This guy is a science teacher (biology) but doesn’t seem to know anything about the human body. He just kept stressing that he kept the calories under 2000 each day, but ate whatever he wanted. Said he had French fries every day, etc. Every anchor person who interviewed him nodded in agreement that it all comes down to calories. Oh, and he said that he did this to show his students how to prove a theory. Sheesh.

      Maybe you should get out there on the news circuit. Your message is far more compelling than his … and based in real science.

      I sent press releases and links to videos to hundreds of media outlets when Fat Head was coming out. Nothing but crickets. It wasn’t until Fat Head hit Netflix that media people started seeking me out instead.

      1. Chuck

        I saw a video of that from the Today Show. In the comments a handful of people said it had already been done and documented in a movie called Fat Head. The word is getting out.

      2. Galina L.

        When I saw that segment, I also immediately thought about Tom, and the references to calories annoyed me as well. My own explanation for the weight-loss of a science teacher – the lack of snacking, which I believe is almost as bad (from the point of the insulin theory of obesity) as eating more carbs than you can tolerate. It is impossible to munch on food all the time as most people do and go at McD each time, especially close to a bed time.

      3. Nowhereman

        Oh a different, but related subject, the Old Media is desperately trying to maintain the gates:

        Ah, so we should all eat tiger nuts and fruits and invertebrates because of this one study, and about hominids who lived 2.4 million years ago. Right. Of course, you can’t get a link back to the actual paper and see what the authors really said, because the reporter can’t be bothered with that.

        Pure silliness. If we want to know if early humans ate meat, looking at the “uncivilized” tribes discovered around the world in the past 100+ years ought to be provide a clue.

        1. ueno

          Actually, it’s not as silly as you think. Tiger nuts are actually tubers, and are one of the most nutrient-dense plants on the planet. They have a caloric ratio that mimics breast milk, a fat profile that mimics olive oil, and have tons of vitamins and minerals in them — lots of magnesium, folate, calcium, potassium and phosphorus.

          The study from Oxford is available with a quick Google search and it explains how the wear marks on the teeth of these early Paleolithic ancestors match up perfectly with Baboons who eat lots of Tiger Nut tubers. The study also points out that these tubers would have provided 80% of their calories with less than 3 hours of foraging — leaving plenty of time to scavenge for meats and insects/grasshoppers to make up the remaining 20% of calories.

          Tiger nuts are safe for diabetics, celiacs and those with nut allergens (since they aren’t actually nuts)

          Oh, and they taste amazing. Very sweet. You can get them on Amazon.

  4. Chad

    I for one enjoy 6 beers once a week. That’s my only vice. BUT I did quit for two months to hit my goal weight so now I just maintain at 100 carbs or less per day. It works for me.

  5. Frank

    I notice this the most when I break a longer than normal fast. I tend not to eat breakfast on weekdays, operating on a 16-hour fast most of the time. When I push that to 20 hours, and I eat that first meal I end up ravenous, and quite often going off the rails.

    Not really a problem if I had done the prep work earlier in the week, with plenty of leftovers in the fridge. If that food is gone, unless I get out of the house I end up diving face first into the wife’s stash of SAD food.

    Well, you know what pulls your chemical trigger, so at least you can stop that from happening.

    1. Galina L.

      Try keep eggs always in your fridge – if your food left you still hungry, cooking eggs on skillet or even in a microwave (mixed with something) is probably the easiest and fastest way to get more not SAD food. Spouses can get us in a compromising diet situation. I promised my husband to bake him today some oatmeal cookies with raisins and white chocolate chips. I can easily resist a cookie, but licking that bowl before cleaning seems unavoidable. At least I don’t do it regularly.

  6. Elenor

    Brilliant! (Sent to my “trying paleo 30-day” challenge friends…) (Those would the ones who had ice cream for dessert after our T-giving meal (after our pies with ice cream!) — and then an hour later had a SECOND helping of (different) ice cream… EEK!) God — and biochemistry — grant them strength!!

  7. Barbara

    Well, I’m darned if that isn’t one of your most valuable posts, Tom. I post regularly on the MyWayOut forum which is for folks who use a variety of methods to quit the booze. I’m going to post a link to this thread if you don’t mind.

    I know myself when my carb load increases my drinking becomes more of a difficulty. I even find myself having a glass of wine before dinner because I’m HUNGRY. Go figure. Intermittent fasting and lots of meat and fat will be my resolution. One I can stick to! Thanks a lot, Tom

    Sure, post a link.

    For the record, neither Nora Gedgaudas nor I recommend that alcoholics try changing their diets and then going back to the booze. I’m sure some folks are incapable of drinking normally no matter what they eat.

    1. Jan's Sushi Bar

      Hmmm. In my drinking days, I mostly craved alcohol when I was very hungry. I always thought it was because I’d get buzzed more quickly; could it be that my brain really craved quick energy?

      Now that I think about it, that makes sense, especially considering after I’d eat, I wouldn’t want to drink any more. It makes even more sense because now that I no longer drink, my appetite has largely up and vanished. I can go 10 or 12 hours without so much as thinking about eating, much less being hungry, and I’m not even doing the whole low carb thing right now.

      In the brief period when I went to AA meetings (before concluding I wasn’t anything like the people attending), I learned about HALT: don’t let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. I don’t know about lonely, but hungry, tired and angry can all result in or from a fuel shortage — angry because adrenaline causes you to burn through your fuel stores, then feel shaky afterwards as glucose drops.

    2. Barbara

      Understood, Tom, it is more complex than that, but I’m convinced eating properly (Paleo/low-carb) would help many alcoholics.


      1. Kristin

        I’m battling an alcohol dependency that I’ve cycled in and out of for years. I’ve found that eating LCHF does indeed help a lot. It means that I don’t get hangovers and I function at a high capacity every day. Doesn’t provide much solace for my liver, though. I notice when I don’t drink I have so much energy that it is uncomfortable so I know that this is one of the emotional issues I need to overcome. I need for it to be okay to have so much energy I can hardly sit still. My trigs were at 147 this time which the doctor was okay with but I wasn’t. Since I eat very low carb and little sugar I knew that number was all alcohol. Time to get more serious. I don’t want to sabotage all the benefits of a good diet this way.

        Good luck. I hope you find a positive way to use that energy instead of suppressing it with the booze.

        1. Kay

          I have the same problem. When I do LCHF, I get hyper to the point of being annoying and working at a desk is just about impossible. I wonder if after decades of eating HCLF and drinking too much my adrenal glands are messed up…. ie the liver is now able to convert glycogen to glucose and the adrenal glands take that as a reason to release adrenaline?? I don’t know, totally guessing.

          BTW, great post Tom, after a Christmas break with family telling me it’s all calories in/calories out and willpower, I was feeling beat up. Thanks for starting my 2014 with a smile.

          Well, I’d rather have more energy than I know what to do with than feel lethargic.

          I take frequent get-up-and-walk-around breaks when working at a desk. It’s easy when I work at home because the cat has decided I’m his sparring partner and is constantly trying to pester me into another round. Once I swear I heard him say, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

  8. Lori

    I met a woman last weekend who said her problem was emotional eating. She’d lost a great deal of weight by “mindful eating,” but kept it off at a cost of spending a lot of mental energy on not eating. Then she admitted she binged when she was hungry. I told her that Atkins advised his binge eating patients to go ahead and binge on fat and protein, no carbs, but she thought that was a bad idea. Oh, well.

    I’m sure she does feel emotional before those binges. I felt emotional when my blood sugar was going on roller-coaster rides, but it was chemistry that me on the roller-coaster, not character.

  9. Pierson

    A wonderful post! Really, it’s a shame more folks in the fitness and nutrition world don’t seem to get this. With that being said, I wanted to ask what you thought of Anthony Colpo’s ‘The Fat Loss Bible’. He apparently is one of those ‘calories-in, calories-out’ type guys, even going so far as to reject the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis. Accordingly, was it any good? He seems to have a good enough ability to critically examine research, although some of his conclusions do seem a bit dodgy.

    I obviously don’t agree that macronutrients have no effect and that losing weight is a simple matter of eating less and moving more. If only it were that easy.

    1. Dave

      Though I don’t agree with his politics, Dr Robert Lustig gives an excellent presentation at UCSF called “Fructose 2.0.” (Watch on YouTube.) It’s an excellent review of the biochemistry involving leptin and insulin as well as a sound refutal of the whole “gluttony and sloth” paradigm. He also gives a simple explanation of CICO that turns the conventional wisdom on its head and shows that no one in the HFLC community is denying Thermodynamics. Has Colpo done clinical research to back up his claims in the way that Dr Lustig has done for years?

      I’ll give it a look.

      1. Kristin

        I loved that lecture. It was better than his original Sugar Bitter Truth. I don’t really align with his politics either but I’m thrilled to have professionals come at this from several angles. My favorite line from Sugar 2.0: “It ain’t the fat.” While he doesn’t specifically address LCHF as such the concept is laced throughout his talk. In “Cereal Killers” they show that clip on a filmed computer screen.

        1. Walter Bushell

          No chance of fructose restriction from the government, to make manufactured food palatable it’s necessary to add fructose in some form and we know the $ the high fructose industry has, not to mention the sugar industry has Florida wrapped up.

          Besides everybody in the country except for a rounding error is a sugar junkie. They’d go to the black market for the stuff.

  10. Ellen

    I was just having this same topic of discussion with my mother in law this morning. She said she sits and eats candy, ice cream or chips and can’t stop. I’ve been explaining to her about low carb and told her all that stuff she eats creates huge ups and downs in blood sugar and extreme cravings. It isn’t helping right now that she’s stuck in her house with piles of snow and 10 below temps. I used to say that I got my “sweet tooth” from my mom as if it was genetic and there was nothing I could do about it. Getting rid of cravings was the thing that amazed me the most about going low carb.

    Getting rid of those cravings is a huge advantage. I used to think going on a “good” diet meant constantly turning down foods I crave. I didn’t realize at the time that someday I’d lose all desire for the foods that were making me fat.

    When the holiday treats were going around the office in December, a couple of people replied to my “no thank you” by commenting on how disciplined I must be. Nope. It takes no discipline to turn down cookies now. They don’t appeal to me in the least.

  11. Joe

    Just wondering if you had seen the story going around about the high school teacher going on an all McDonalds diet and losing weight. All I could think when seeing this was “This has been done before, and it was done better the last time.” Unfortunately, eating the recommended daily allowance and calories-in, calories-out is the assumed reason for weight loss.

    Yeah, I saw that. I applaud his experiment, but it’s too bad he buys into the low-fat thing.

  12. Caroline

    Bravo Tom.

    Here’s another article I saw this am – made me want to scream in frustration. Said Paleo was ranked the lowest according to their so called experts. I swear if I could thumb down these articles I would. Notice how they won’t let you.

    By the way, thanks for the flash back to High School regarding Slim Fast! Gave me a chuckle. Drank it every morning on the bus on the way to school. Ravenous by 9:30 am.

    They come out with an article like this every year. They go to the same panels of “experts” who promote hearthealthywholegrains and scream in horror over arterycloggingsaturatedfat. In other words, they consult the kind of experts who got us into this mess in the first place.

    1. Steve

      The diets at the top are either government sponsored or potentially large advertising bases. Not too hard to figure out how they picked them.


  13. Howard

    That’s a post *I* could have written. Except that I’m not a comedian (and probably not all that funny on my best days).

    Any pursuit that requires willpower will fail.

    You only have a finite amount of the stuff. In dieting, the hormones have unlimited time to work against any willpower you have. You may not cave immediately, but you *will* cave.

    Interesting parallel with my violin students — learning the violin is HARD. If it is enough fun, you don’t notice how hard it is, but if you don’t really enjoy it, you won’t practice enough to get good at it. I always try to figure out some way to increase the fun factor.

    Fun helps, and so does a desire that can only be fulfilled after acquiring the necessary skill. I didn’t get motivated to learn guitar and bass until I decided I wanted to play in a band.

  14. Firebird7478

    Part of the problem, I believe, is trying to start a diet in the winter when our bodies are trying to store fat anyway to insulate us for the cold weather. I notice I gain a bit of weight in the winter, even on a LCHF diet.

    That’s a good point. Talk about fighting biology.

  15. Amberly

    Great post, Tom. I just listened to Jimmy Moore’s interview of Julia Ross today She talks about using amino acids to balance the brain’s chemistry while you get steady on a low-carbohydrate diet. Fascinating stuff!

    She totally gets the character vs. chemistry thing. Her success rate getting people off cocaine and other drugs is very high because she focuses on balancing an addict’s brain chemistry, not healing his inner child.

    1. Carole W

      Three cheers for Julia Ross! I have to chime in here, because her amino acid recommendations in _The Mood Cure_ helped me feel better in two days than I’d felt in ten years and seven different antidepressants, got me off of my three (yes, the doctor(s) had me on three simultaneously) antidepressants, which of course weren’t working, with greatly reduced withdrawals, and helped reduce my sugar cravings enough to really get going on the LCHF diet. And after a while, I didn’t need the amino acids anymore. AMAZING stuff. If I hadn’t been feeling so good, I’d have been really angry with all the doctors I saw for those ten years who just kept giving me more prescriptions that didn’t help when something so easy and side-effect-free could have helped me ten years ago. (Okay, maybe I’m still a little upset about it.) But I digress. Yay, Julia Ross!

      I join you in your cheers.

  16. Joe

    Here’s a question for you Tom: I agree for the most part with your post here regarding the benefits of Paleo and LCHF eating. However, I have always been perplexed why so many people have failed trying these approaches. If biochemistry is the primary issue, why aren’t more people thin? Many people have given LCHF the ol’ college try and are still fat today. In fact, the majority are. What’s the deal?

    I don’t know if the majority who try LCHF and stick with it are still fat, although I’ve certainly met people who’ve lost 100 pounds and would like to lose another 40. I think that’s chemistry too — the body fights to hang onto a certain amount of body fat. That’s where the notion of a set-point comes in. (Jonathan Bailor writes quite a bit about set-point in his latest book.) When an obese person adopts a better diet, that can certainly lower the body-fat set-point, but not always low enough to produce a thin person. Perhaps it’s because they need more body-fat to produce a reliable supply of fatty acids to provide fuel between meals and while sleeping. I read somewhere once that obese people release fewer fatty acids per pound of body fat. I think that must figure into it.

    As for people who don’t stick with a LCHF or paleo diet, I think they miss having sugar or other refined carbs tickle the brain and raise their serotonin levels.

    1. Kathy from Maine

      A lot of people who follow Paleo/Primal/LCHF eating plans are still fat for lots of reasons. In my case, I blame menopause and shifting (read: wonky) hormones, even though I take bio-identical compounded hormones. At age 50 I was 150 pounds. My last period was at age 50. In the next 18 months, I gained almost 50 pounds without changing diet (Paleo/Primal/LCHF throughout) or exercise. Tell me that isn’t chemistry.

      Try as I might, I still haven’t found the answer. I was finally able to lose 35 pounds in 2011 by doing homeopathic hcg … and before you call that a fad diet that doesn’t work long term, I kept those pounds off for more than a year before it all slowly came back (and still eating Paleo/Primal/LCHF).

      If someone has the solution to that chemistry, I’d love to hear it.

      My husband finally has joined me in eating this way. He lost 12 pounds in just over a month. I lost 3 pounds in the same amount of time. Then came Thanksgiving through New Year’s. He said he gained it all back, but after weighing, he found he’d gained back only 2 pounds which he has now lost again. Me? I gained back 7 pounds in that time. And it’s not like we were stuffing ourselves. We had a couple dinners with potatoes during that time, and dessert twice at restaurants from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

      Paleo/Primal/LCHF seems to work really well for men, regardless of age, but doesn’t seem to work as well for women as they get older. I’ve heard this from too many women to discount it. Something chemically (hormonally) goes wonky for women in their 50s and 60s.

      That’s definitely chemistry at work:

      1. Kathy from Maine

        Thanks for the link, but I’ve read umpteen million articles just like that one. The takeaway? Eat less and exercise more.

        I’m surprised they didn’t use the totally useless advice to “balance your hormones.” I already take bio-identical hormones. and have for years They help with hot flashes and night sweats (usually), but have not helped at all in getting rid of the meno-pot. Even as a child I never had a flat (lower) belly, but now the upper belly (between waist and breasts) sticks out more than the pot belly below. And THAT’S what menopause does.

        The article says to cut out processed food and easily digested carbs (already do that), resistance train (already do that, though perhaps not enough), and take yoga (already take classes twice a week for the past year).

        They also say to get 7 hours of sleep each night. Sure, like that’s easy. I either sleep like the dead for 10 hours straight and then drag through the day, or sleep no more than an hour at a time and then drag through the day. That’s what menopause does to you.

        I don’t mean to sound so negative (and don’t mean to take it out on your blog), but I’ve been fighting this for almost 9 years now. Just gives more meaning to the saying, “Caution: I’m out of estrogen and have a gun.”

        I didn’t link it for the advice. You suggested the weight gain after menopause must have something to do with hormones, which the article confirms.

        1. Kathy from Maine

          Oops! Sorry that I misunderstood. Stupid hormones. Brain fog and illogical thinking are other symptoms of menopause … though I suppose I didn’t have to tell you that! 🙂

          1. Galina L.

            Kathy, as a 53 yo female, I also though about “the last resort” solution. After 52 I noticed the age-related fat migration from thighs and butt to the middle of my body even when weight is stable. I tried Zerona Laser while visiting my mom in Russia – and found out that the thing works even for visceral fat (as one guy with a beer-belly told me in a waiting room.). I didn’t have much of a problem, two inches gone was absolutely enough for my case, however my waist is not as defined as even 5 years ago. I recently started the hormone replacement therapy with bio-identical hormones and so far that fat migration stopped, but I don’t know for how long.
            Did you try HIIT or IF (intermittent fasting)?

      2. Jeanne

        This applies tome too.
        I’m low carb and consistently in ketosis, (.5-1.5 on my blood ketone meter) but still have trouble shedding the last 30 pounds. Still, I have the benefits of low carb, lots of energy and no hunger, so I’m content.

    2. Paul B.

      Regarding people who fail at the LCHF way of eating:
      I know a lot of people who looked at me and said, “Yeah! I’ll try that for a month and see how it goes.”

      Then, when they implement their plan, they eat low fat/high carb food and tell me that it doesn’t work for them. They cannot understand that tilapia and rice and deli sliced turkey cold cuts on whole wheat is not correct (actual meal of a coworker proud of his new High Fat diet). I’ve seen this with multiple friends and coworkers. They can’t wrap their heads around what LCHF is.

      Or, someone will eat that way for one meal a day, and eat their normal way for the other meals and snacks the rest of the day, and then tell me that it doesn’t work for them.

      I’ve also had a friend whom I believe did do it for a month (He lived in another state at the time so I couldn’t check up on him), and he lost weight. Months later he told me that it didn’t work because when he went back to eating his normal diet, he gained weight. I even baby-stepped him through what he had just said to me, and he still couldn’t understand.

      From my experience, most of the people who tell me that they are going to try LCHF don’t actually try LCHF (even though they think they are) and cannot break the indoctrination that fat is bad.

      Yup, some people try going low-carb combined with low-fat. Bad idea. There’s also that “Atkins flu” some people get when they first cut the carbs … lethargy, light-headedness, etc. I tried a very low-carb diet in my early 20s and quit after a few days because of those symptoms. Nobody told me they’d pass in a couple of weeks.

  17. Linda

    Absolutely great post!

    About this reply you made: ” I often skip meals these days (breakfast in particular), and discipline has zip to do with it. My brain has fuel despite the long stretch without eating, so it’s happy and doesn’t send out the hunger signals.”

    This really triggered a long walk down memory lane for me. Back in the day, I can remember getting up and being ravenous, and heading straight for the fridge (even without brushing my teeth.) I would grab anything in reach, and very often it was cold leftover pizza from the night before. I ate lots of pizza back in the day, even fooling myself into thinking it was healthy if I put spinach on it!

    Now, I get up and I guess I don’t have to tell you how nice it is to leisurely read some email and news while drinking coffee, and not even worry about eating. Very often that lasts till lunchtime or later!

    Cold pizza and hot coffee is a lovely combination that I still enjoy … but only once or twice per year.

    1. Thomas Plummer

      I still enjoy coffee and cold pizza once or twice a week. The Pizza Quiche in Low Carb Gourmet is amazing.

    2. Nate

      Tom, you should ask your brother about a pizza recipe you can enjoy more often. Every Friday night at my house is Pizza Night, a la Jerry’s Oldest Son.

  18. Tammy

    Tom – As usual, great post !! I did a stint with SlimFast for one season back in the yo-yo diet days – didn’t work for me either. It did produce similar results to my old Lean Cuisine days though, I was just starving all of the time. And yes, you can only take it for so long, no matter how disciplined you are.

    Nor should you take it for very long. Long-term starvation just sets you up for a big rebound.

    1. Firebird7478

      I did the Robert Haas Eat to Win/Eat to Succeed program. It was all about sports performance. I don’t know how Martina Navratalova managed to be successful following this. Talk about starvation.

      Yeah, I tried that one. I believe he’s changed his views over the years.

  19. Matthew

    Great post! For years I’ve had a habit of drinking 6+ beers in one sitting every weekend. Every time I tried getting through the weekend without those beers I’d be miserable and end up overeating instead. Since I’ve been paleo, I hardly drink at all and don’t miss it. Now I know why!

  20. Craig

    Since nicotine is a stimulant the chemistry you describe could also explain why you hear so many people say, “I don’t smoke except for when I drink, but I desperately crave a cigarette after a couple beers.”

    Also, you always hear news reports about how binge drinking is less of a problem in Western Europe than in the U.S.. News stories generally imply that cultural attitudes towards alcohol are the reason, but countries with a healthy attitude towards drinking also tend to be countries with “paradoxes” involving their high consumption of fat and low levels of obesity and heart disease. Meanwhile you hear stories about binge drinking becoming an increasing big problem in countries like the U.K. that have adopted modern American-style diets.

    And the one Western European nation people most historically associate with alcoholism is Ireland, which experienced long periods of extreme poverty where people depended on potatoes and grains as dietary staples. The same thing could be said about Russia. I remember reading in one of P.J. O’Rourke’s books where he described a visit to one of the markets in Soviet Russia, where alcoholism was rampant, with a woman who told him that the two most difficult tasks there were losing weight and getting enough to eat.

    Good points. Nicotine also stimulates an increase in blood sugar, which would explain why people crave a cigarette after drinking leads to a blood sugar drop.

  21. Joe

    Speaking of Chemistry vs. Character, you’ll like this Tom. Recently, I lost about 50 lbs. and greatly improved my health eating LCHF Paleo-ish. Anyway, I visited my in-laws out of state and was eating with them at a burger restaurant on the coast. Naturally, I order a burger without the bun, and steamed veggies instead of fries (with butter ). This prompts a converstaion between me and my brother-in-law across the table. (He’s one of those naturally trim types…for now lol).

    I casually explain to him how I have been changing the way I eat. This invites conversation about “Super Size Me” which I decry as dishonest. To my surprise, my brother-in-law agrees because he has seen your documentary! I was so excited…finally someone else that understands the reality behind good nutrition!

    I asked him how he liked it and he said it was great. Then, I couldn’t believe my ears. He says, “He basically proves that you can eat whatever diet you like and still lose weight!” I was dumbfounded. I’m pretty sure I sat there staring at him for about ten seconds while wondering what you would have thought of his interpretation of your movie. Only one thought came to mind:


    Yee-ikes. I guess he was daydreaming through those sections where I explained why I was limiting my carb intake.

  22. Bob Geary

    One of the worst pieces of ubiquitous diet “advice” floating around there (right after “Just Eat Less, Move More”) is “Don’t Eat When You’re Not Hungry.”

    Bad because, outside of a pretty small number of people with specific eating disorders, people DON’T generally eat when they’re not hungry – so really, the only way to put this into practice is to implement it as “Don’t Eat When You’re Not REALLY VERY Hungry,” which is even worse.

    (Weirdly, the same people who say this will also almost always say, “Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink water – it’s TOO LATE BY THEN!” And almost nobody would say, “Don’t inhale until you get dizzy!”)

    One of the few times a low-carb/Paleo blog made me bang my head on the desk (wish I could find a link, but I didn’t re-visit the site) was a column about “character” or “will power” or “strength of resolve” or whatever you want to call it, as it applies to diet. The author was quite pleased with himself for having gotten strong enough to resist temptation – for suddenly realizing the SIMPLE TRUTH of “Don’t Eat When You’re Not Hungry,” for overcoming his infantile food-greed and acting like a rational adult instead, just DECIDING that he shouldn’t have a snack before dinner.

    As if it were sheer coincidence that he developed this new moral strength and will-power AFTER eating Paleo for a few weeks, rather than before.

  23. Rae Ford

    Very enlightening post, Tom. It has gotten me to thinking about how else diet can affect how our brains work in regard to other areas.

    Growing up I was subjected to the roller coaster of low fat diets that my mother insisted we all go on. Looking back, I have noticed a correlation between those times of being on the diet and being completely unmotivated to do anything, be it to do well in school or have fun with friends. We know that the brain needs fat to function, it makes sense that when that resource is limited, that it may be distributed to the different parts of the brain according to importance of function for survival. If that is the case mood and motivation are certain to change.

    Yup. In my younger days, I thought I was just one of those low-energy types. Now I know it was the lousy diet.

  24. Dave, RN

    Slim Fast is terrible stuff. Most of those drinks are. Especially bad is Boost, which elderly patients often get at the hospital and nursing home. The first three ingredients are Water, corn syrup and sugar!

    I’ve noticed the same thing about Ensure. It’s a horror show.

  25. JB

    hey Tom, I have a question for you about the metabolism. I read that when most people try to diet they slow down their metabolism and can’t Lose anymore weight because their metabolism Adjusts. I was wondering if being on a low carb diet prevents this. I appreciate any response.

    Yes, the metabolism does tend to adjust downward after significant weight loss. And yes, a low-carb diet seems to offset that effect somewhat:

  26. Barbara

    Yeah, Slim Fast and Ensure are horrible, but has anyone checked out the ingredient list on cans of baby formula? Child abuse 101.

    1. Craig

      I don’t have kids but did go looking at baby formula ingredients when I heard hand-wringing on the news about overweight infants. There has never been a time in history when mothers didn’t feed crying, hungry babies until they seemed satisfied and it isn’t like babies in prior decades were hitting the stairmasters, elliptical machines, treadmills and spin classes. Sure enough most of the formula I saw was full of soy protein, corn and soybean oil, and corn syrup solids. Child abuse indeed.

      I once had a know-it-all make the argument that if one-year-olds are obese, it means their mothers are feeding them too much. I guess the know-it-all believes mothers who don’t have obese one-year-olds pull them off the boob earlier to keep them from getting fat.

  27. Paula

    I just had to chime in. I spent all of my adult years wondering why I had character in so many areas of my life, yet somehow couldn’t seem to “muster” it up when it came to food. It did a real number on my self-worth. I got to a point where I just accepted that, in this area, I was somehow morally bankrupt, a glutton. One of the happiest realizations for me was when I went LCHF and realized that the problem was NOT gluttony…it was chemistry! It was like I was freed from a prison of self-loathing!

    That’s one of the things that’s always bothered me about the belief that it’s a matter of willpower. Look at someone like Oprah Winfrey, who went from being an abused child living in poverty to owning a billion-dollar media empire. Are we supposed to believe she doesn’t have discipline and willpower?

    1. Toni

      This! Once I started LCHF and saw how easy it was, I realized that “weak-willed” and “undisciplined” were not adjectives I would use to describe myself in any other aspect of my life, why had I been so quick to blame myself (for years and years) for “failing” at low fat diets?

      I suspect it was the lack of fat causing my brain to malfunction 😛

  28. andrealynnette

    Here’s a thing that’s always gotten to me: naturally thin people who’ve NEVER dieted suggesting that the ravenous hunger I’ve felt is just “lack of willpower.” I proved the fact that I HAD willpower every time I DIDN’T strangle one of these judgmental bastards.

    I’ve had my ups and downs, and I’ve had a hard time fully committing to the Primal/Paleo/LCHF lifestyle. A lot of that, I think, is terror of failing AGAIN. What if I tried this thing, too, and it didn’t work for me? What if I am defective? What if I am doomed to fat and misery the rest of my life and nothing will ever work? You get so beat down, so frustrated, and so down on yourself, when you fail at what other people seem to do effortlessly.

    I’ve finally realized that the only “willpower” I need to have is the will to feed myself good food when I want it. Instead of beating myself up and saying that I shouldn’t be hungry, that I had “plenty” to eat, I’m eating slowly, savoring my food, and I’m stacking up the plate. If I eat a 10oz grassfed ribeye and a mound of baby peas cooked in butter for lunch, I may not eat the rest of the day because I’m FULL. Feeling full without feeling guilty is a relatively new concept for me, and I’m really enjoying it.

    The naturally lean people who think it’s all about willpower were born on the finish line and think they won a race. Not only that, some consider themselves experts on how to win a race.

    1. Walter Bushell

      Wurst, the skinny people born on the finish line are treated as experts by the masses. And as Lustig points out as many have metabolic syndrome and its consequences are not repeat not limited to fat people.

      In fact there are more people of normal weight who are in danger than fat people according to Lustig in the video mentioned in the comment above, by Dave and Kristin.

  29. Deb

    I am late to comment, because your brilliant article resonated so much with me that I took several days to think about it. “Thank you” doesn’t even begin to cover my gratitude for your posting this; you explained so much about willpower (character) and biology (chemistry), and did so succinctly and with common sense.
    Please know how much you are appreciated.

    I think “Fathead” and your website should be mandatory reading for physicians, nurses, and hospital dieticians.

    Again, thank you!!!

    Thank you for reading.

  30. Ulfric Douglas

    “…I saw him glance down at the pizza and then up at me, and he seemed to grimace just a wee bit. …”
    Hur hurr.
    You could – I guess – have just eaten the “good bits”?

    If only I’d known. Back in those days, of course, I thought the meat and cheese would make me fat.

  31. Judy

    As for alcohol consumption. I’ve known for many years that it was the sugar in alcohol and alcoholic drinks that sent me over the edge. All that sugary sweet and sour drink mix added together with alcohol is a potent combination for loss of control and drunkeness At any AA meeting you find will large groups of folks who can’t resist sugar in any form, but they like sobriety enough to channel that urge into cakes and cookies and coffee with sugar. Interesting what you said about losing the craving for alcohol once you restricted your dependence on carbs. Thanks for a good post.

    During the brief period I went to AA meetings, I noticed exactly what you said: lots of people eating donuts, heading out for dessert after meetings, etc.

  32. Esther

    I am confused about alcoholics and carbohydrates. I thought whisky had virtually zero carbs. So how could someone who is addicted to whisky crave carbohydrates?

    Alcohol becomes a substitute fuel for glucose. Take away the alcohol, the craving for glucose increases.

  33. Boundless

    Any chance you could update the base articles in this series to point to each other?

    I send people here and just realized part one is:
    a. not really identified as part 1
    b. doesn’t have a continuation link to part 2

  34. Monk

    Hi, great post and just watched Fathead, too. Been playing with ketosis for a while and it undoubtedly gives energy and weight loss. I drink too much and wondered about your take on reducing alcohol consumption. I tend to target low carb drink like vodka, so it may not be related…
    I also are huge amounts of carbs as a kid and wonder whether that impacted my like for alcohol…


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