Dr Tom Mulholland: Why is battle of the bulge so hard?

"About five years ago, I lost 20kg. And then found it again."

"About five years ago, I lost 20kg. And then found it again."

Food is meant to be enjoyed. It has a social purpose and and a biological one. I had to remind myself of that as I was gulping down my seemingly healthy breakfast.

I broke two rules: To eat slowly and to eat mindfully. I rushed to get to the bottom of my bowl before packing up and driving to San Francisco. My mind was full of emails to respond to, bills to pay, the rental car, the traffic... I wasn't noticing the subtle taste differences in the many fruits and grains as I raced to get though my cereal.

Eating fast can make you gain weight. It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to send a message to your brain that you are full. If you are at a buffet, eating while watching TV or answering emails, you still feel hungry and a bit ripped off as you don't notice what you've eaten so you'll tend to plough into seconds and dessert, which will give you extra and unwanted calories. Add a sprinkle of cortisol (the stress hormone) and you are more likely to store the calories as fat – your body sees the stress as a famine coming, so it stores the energy in unwanted places.

Hunger is a battle of the hormones. The superhero is leptin and the villain is ghrelin. Although ghrelin  is not really a villain, as we do need to send a message that we are hungry. Leptin lets us know we are full and not to eat more. When we are overweight our bodies do not respond to high levels of leptin.

* Do you know how to judge portion sizes?
* How four Kiwis changed their diets to save their lives
* Why we need to question the NZ diet

That's one of the reasons why diets don't work long-term. About five years ago, I lost 20kg. I joined a gym, got a personal trainer, ate mindfully and avoided sugar like the plague. Unfortunately, as with most who try that method, many of the kilos returned. I moved jobs, one with crazy hours and no routine, and every day I felt exhausted so my hormones went crazy.

Studies have shown reality shows like The Biggest Loser and crash diets are harmful. After six years, Biggest Loser contestants regained weight. Most importantly, their metabolic rate after six years dropped nearly 30 per cent, meaning they had to eat 30 per cent less than they had to avoid gaining weight. Our bodies seem to set a weight, then fight to maintain it.

So crash diets don't work and are bad for you. Anyway, who wants to be on a diet for the rest of their life? The key is to eat healthily and mindfully and understand your body.

The heavier we get, the less our bodies want to move. Our bodies want to conserve energy not expend it. So the excuses get stronger – it's too cold, I don't want to get wet, I don't have time. Advertising and easy access to high-energy foods make it harder to lose weight.

If they are the problems, what are the solutions?

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 - Sunday Star Times


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