Character vs. Chemistry

      116 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.


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116 thoughts on “Character vs. Chemistry

  1. Barbara

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

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
    2. Walter

      Baby Formula Child Abuse 101, no those things are designed by MDs and PhDs. Well trained idiots or perchance, highly trained wage slaves, or just victims of cult mind control.

      Reply
  2. 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?

    Reply
    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 😛

      Reply
  3. 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?

    Reply
    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 😛

      Reply
  4. 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.

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
  5. 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.

    Reply
  6. 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.

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
  7. 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.

    Reply
  8. 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.

    Reply
  9. 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.

    Reply
  10. 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.

    Reply
  11. 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.

    Reply
  12. 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.

    Reply
  13. 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.

    Reply
  14. 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

    Reply
  15. 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

    Reply
  16. 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…

    Reply
  17. 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…

    Reply

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