How our caveman instinct works for and against us in weight loss

Are you human? Do you have a brain stem?  If you answered “yes” to both of these questions, guess what? You still have your caveman brain. Our caveman brain controls the very basic survival instincts and functioning of our bodies. Our parasympathetic nervous system is run by this area of the brain, which keeps our hearts beating, our lungs breathing and our organs awake and functioning. This area of the brain also controls the basic survival instincts that have kept our species from becoming extinct over the years. Fight or Flight. What does this have to do with weight loss, you ask? A lot! Think of it. You are a caveman. You live in a group. Group means survival. We have basic instincts and urges, to eat, to breed, etc. But if you steal a group member's food or breed with their partner, there could be trouble. Trouble like a rock smashed to the head or ostracism from the group. Thus you die. So our brains had to install an “urge-stopper” or “self-control” to keep us from acting on those survival instincts all the time, and thus getting us put into situations where you cannot survive. On the other hand, we need to act on those instincts, sometimes FAST. Without thinking fast. Like a poisonous snake striking out for you in the brush. Or a lion taking off after you to make you their lunch. No time to weigh the pros and cons. You have to MOVE! This doesn’t require self-control. Your body takes over. It instantly increases your physiological arousal, heart starts pumping, adrenaline released, muscles tense, increased rate of breathing. Time to fight or run. We have those same mechanisms in our brains today. They still function in the same way, but fortunately, most of us don’t have daily occurrences of large mammals or poisonous reptiles attacking us.

So how does this all tie in to weight loss? Remember that “self-control” we have built in for survival. That is an important part of weight loss. When you smell that Cinnabon at the airport, don’t your primal instincts kick in? You start salivating. You suddenly feel hungry even though you just ate? That is your primal instinct. Our ancestors had to eat when food was available, because you never knew when food would be available again. It could be days, even weeks. Our primal brain says “Eat it now, I will store it as fat, so when we can’t find food for a while, I will just burn the fat from this meal later.” So when our bodies have anything extra (i.e. the extra 880 calories you get from consuming that cinnabon), our bodies say “Thank you very much, I am going to store this as fat to burn later when we are starving.” But of course, we never get to the point of starving do we? Modern society ensures that we have food available at all times. So most of us never in our lives get to the actual point of needing to burn that stored cinnabon. Thus 70% of American society is overweight and/or obese. I know what you're thinking, "Ok then, I will just starve myself. That will burn off the fat!" Not so fast! The lower your daily calorie intake, the less you burn! Again, that survival part of our brain kicks in. Once calories drop below the threshold of the energy needed to fuel basic bodily functions, the brain kicks the body into survival mode. It starts shutting down all unnecessary systems and processes that normally burn energy to work. That’s right. Our bodies actually conserves energy (i.e. fat). So all those unnecessary things like having enough energy to go out dancing tonight get shut down. Our bodies go into slow metabolic burn and only fuel the basics.  Sure, we are burning fat, but slower than we would if we were getting the necessary calories for basic functioning.  That is how our caveman brain works against us.

But our caveman brain also provides us willpower. The ability to assess the situation (when not in fight or flight mode) and override the instinct (i.e. eat the cinnabon) and make a better decision for our survival (i.e. if I eat that cinnabon, I will become obese, thus die of heart disease at an early age). I know you just rolled your eyes at how simplistic I just made this sound, but that is actually how simple it is. Our caveman brain allows for us to use that built-in will power, but most people decide against it. Why? Because that Cinnabon is not the immediate threat to our survival like it once was. The consequence is too long term. If we actually were cavemen, and a Cinnabon magically appeared, our instinct to eat it might be overridden by the fact that a very much larger caveman with a very large club in his hand said he is going to eat it. Immediate consequence realized, back away from the Cinnabon, let the big guy eat it, stew in your hatred in silence. So of course now, the immediate consequence of a heart attack upon finishing the last bite of the Cinnabon will not occur, so it’s easy to ignore that will power ready and available to kick in. We also get those warm fuzzy happy hormones that kick in when we eat high calorie foods. Again, the primal brain, reinforcing the need to store fat, rewards us with happy chemicals when you eat high fat, high calorie foods. It says “Thank you, here are some hormones flooding your brain that basically feel like a injection of heroin. Happy to do business with you. Come again!”.

So, willpower that is not very effective when put up against non-immediate consequences vs. happy hormones and survival instinct to store fat and survive is not a very fair fight huh? No, it’s not. That is why so many people trying to lose weight fail over and over and over again. Because they are only relying on this weak tool we were given called willpower. It doesn’t have much of a chance against that all-powerful store-fat survival instinct.

So how do we win this battle? #1 We don’t even presume to fight it. Don’t rely on willpower. It's not very effective. There are ways to bolster it, and working with a behavioral change expert (like myself) can help you make that part of your brain stronger. We basically have to work with those instincts and trick them into working FOR US and not against us. Lots of tricks like eating smaller more frequent meals, or meals with a high fiber and fat/protein content to “trick” our brains into thinking we ate a lot more than we did. We must eat enough calories to ensure basic functioning and activity, but not to excess where store fat mode is kicked on. Depleting the body of sugar and forcing it to burn much more efficient slow-burning fat for energy. We can use many tools to work with this primal area of the brain (or trick it) and stop fighting a fight we will lose every time (damn you, Cinnabon).


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